The Willard Patient Who Became the Gravedigger

The Willard Patient Who Became the Gravedigger

Patients were sent there… and never got to leave.

Lawrence Mocha: The Willard Grave Digger

This is a true story about a Seneca Lake cemetery where the bodies of more than 5,000 souls lie in graves with no names, just numbers. And about its famous gravedigger.
The former New York State mental hospital on Seneca Lake — now simply referred to as Willard — has gone by a few names in the past.  
Willard opened in 1869 as Willard Asylum for the Chronically Insane, a hospital for people with mental illness formerly housed at county poorhouses.
By 1877 Willard was the largest asylum in the United States.  In 1995, Willard Psychiatric Center closed its doors for treatment, but then a portion of opened as a prison for addicts. But that’s closed now too, and the place is a ghost town.
I made a video it’s history, so if you haven’t seen, I posted the link below.
For more than a century, patients were admitted — or should I say — sent or sentenced to — Willard as wards of the state for being “crazy.” And most lived out their lives there, never able to leave.

This is the story of one patient who wanted leave, but never did — the Willard gravedigger. He — along with more than 5,000 other people — lived, died, and are now buried there.

I checked out a book from the library called “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic,” by Darby Penny and Peter Strastny.

When Willard closed in 1995 as a psychiatric hospital, after 126 years in operation, it was home to more than 54,000 people. About that time some 400 suitcases were discovered in attics with patients’ belongings, which lead to a historical study, a museum exhibit and this book.

Chapter One is entitled, “He Took Them on Their Last Walk.” And I’m going to do my best summarize this chapter for you in the video. I encourage you to get and read the whole book, as this is just one tiny piece to a very big puzzle of Willard history.

This is the story of the man who became the gravedigger.

In the book, he is referred to as Lawrence Marek, but I found out later, that wasn’t even his real name. New York State privacy laws required that the book authors use a pseudonym because they didn’t have permission from the family to use his real name. More about that later.

Discovered in his deteriorating brown leather suitcase were two pairs of shoes, two shaving mug, shaving brush, suspenders.

From this and hospital records, the authors discovered this about Lawrence.

Lawrence was born in 1878 in an area of Austria near Poland. His father died when he was young, his mother had five children to raise and the family was dirt poor. He became a tinker and repaired metal objects throughout Austria and Germany as a young man.

Around the year 1900 he received a serious head injury from a stone throw, he began drinking heavily, and he was admitted to an asylum near Germany for “singing whistling and being generally noisy. Apparently alcohol made him loud and he accused himself of sinning and prostrated himself and attitudes of prayer. He stayed there about a year before enlisting in the German Army.

In 1907 at the age of 29, he immigrated to the United States and somehow ended up working as a window washer at Bellevue Hospital on the psychiatric unit, where he was employed. Then he became a patient for “singing and shouting and whistling in a boisterous manner. He did have a drinking problem and entries at Bellevue stated that he was “confused and depressed, had self accusatory ideas and continually assumed attitudes of prayer.”

He had guilt and depression, and talked about hearing God and seeing angels and demons.
He was struggling with a head injury, religious guilt, and spiritual turmoil. But the doctors didn’t take him seriously and they decided he was crazy and confined him to Bellvue as a patient.

After some time out, he was eventually transferred to Willard in May 1918. He was known as patient #14956. He tended to be volatile and occasionally attacked other patients when they bothered him, but he was otherwise reclusive.

Throughout his 50 years at Weller, his broken English and heavy accent often made it hard for him to be understood. But he adjusted. Records report that he enjoyed physical labor and worked best when left alone. Early on, he was a cleaner in the superintendent’s house and was “observed to be talking to imaginary voices which he calls devils.”

He’s shown in this photo from an old scrapbook as Patient #92262.

In 1945, after 27 years of year-round labor at the state hospital,  at the age of 67, he wrote a letter to the hospital superintendent of Willard, requesting his release. Remember, English was his second language:

October 19, 1945
Dr. Keill,
I hereby Lawrence Mocha stop work. Yesterday afternoon, I ask you Dr. to discharged me from Willard Institution. I am capable to do my living independently I want also to get money for my work here, I make over eight years more than five hundred graves myself another heavy work all year around.  I asked Dr. to prepare my trunk, which I brought here from Central Islip it is my own I bought it in Düsseldorf.
I am Respectfully yours,

Up until his death at age 90, he took full responsibility for the patient graveyard. He apparently liked the work and was very meticulous. He had wader boots like a fisherman because when he dug the graves they often started to fill with water. He was often seen walking around in those muddy wader boots, smoking a pipe by himself on the hospital grounds.

Lawrence worked nearly every day, in any kind of weather, in the patients cemetery, digging graves by hand with a pick axe and shovel.

He built a simple shack at the cemetery for his tools and stayed there by himself during warmer months. One doctor noted that he was happy and he’d found a home there. Apparently he found his purpose and he took pride in his work, and this helped him build an identity of dignity where he was treated with respect among patients and staff. He was actually treated with a level of prestige.

When Lawrence dug those hundreds of graves by hand, each hole was precisely six-feet deep and nearly perfectly rectangular. He also was paid a small salary for transporting and preparing the bodies for funerals. It was a grim task and no one else wanted to do, but he did it and he did it well.

As he grew older, he showed fewer and fewer signs of psychiatric problems. He seemed like a staff member than a patient, for example he used to go to the main kitchen during off hours and the kitchen staff would feed him a good meal because he had special privileges.

Yet the policy was you don’t leave. You’re a ward of the state, and he didn’t have any other family to go to.

Apparently he adjusted.

In 1963 a medical note from a Dr Hug said

“This 85-year-old patient is an excellent worker in the cemetery. He has just grown old in this hospital. He has a heavy accent and therefore may be hard to understand at times. He is fully oriented, has no delusional trends and denies sense deceptions. He shows no psychopathology whatsoever, but after 47 years of hospitalization, seems to have no other chance but to remain in the hospital and he actually does it like it. His general health is good. His medication is none.”

So Dr Hug’s note made it obvious that there really was no valid reason for him to be kept there. And it’s ironic that the main reason he remained was because of his important work as the meticulous gravedigger of Willard.

So now about his last name. When the Suitcases book was written, authors reported his last name as Marek. But his real name was Lawrence Mocha.

A group of volunteers, led by retired school teacher Colleen Spellecy from Waterloo, the driving force behind the Willard Cemetery Memorial Committee, helped contact living relatives who agreed to allow his real name to be released to the public, and a memorial was made in his honor, even though it’s unknown exactly where his body was buried. He’s laid to rest there somewhere, assigned to yet another number.

But his name was Lawrence Mocha. He lived there from 1918 until he was 90 years old, dying peacefully in his sleep in October 1968.

When he was laid to rest at the Willard Cemetery, there was no marker bearing his name, he was assigned yet another number, and no one knows that number or which grave is actually his.

He dug until he died.
And in 1968, at the age of 90 Mr. Mocha was laid to rest in a numbered grave in the same grounds he took care of for years.
Under a majestic tree, on the site where Mocha’s shed once stood, a large boulder now sits surrounded by white stones and is ringed by flowers. Next to the boulder a shovel is secured in the ground. A plaque affixed to the boulder lists Mocha’s name and birth and death dates (June 23, 1878 to Oct. 26, 1969) and reads:
The Grave Digger
“In his half century as a Willard patient, Lawrence dug over 1,500 graves of his fellow patients, who are buried in this cemetery, that they might have a final resting place long after the world had forgotten them.”

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