Expedition: Tracking Down the Insane Asylum Cemetery in Oshkosh
Winnebago State Mental Institute cemetery, 1873-1972
This hot Memorial Day weekend seemed like a good opportunity to head to Oshkosh and tackle an expedition I’ve had on my list for a while now – find and photograph the 145-year-old cemetery where residents of the Winnebago Mental Health Institute were buried. The Northern State Hospital for the Insane, as it was originally called, opened on the shore of Lake Winnebago in 1873. The area soon came to be known as Asylum Point. Today it seems to be a popular destination for fishing and hiking, but if you head out on the trail, it soon winds right past a large clearing where the remains of the hospital’s unclaimed dead were interred.
I had an idea which direction to go once I got to Asylum Point Park, but my priorities changed after catching a glimpse of the historic lighthouse. I decided to brave the leaning bridge to see the Asylum Light up close before wandering off into the woods in search of graves.
Bridge to the Asylum Light
The trail leading in the direction I knew the cemetery to be wasn’t difficult to find. It branched out a couple times, but I kept to the main path, and it eventually lead to the back corner of a large fenced-in field of overgrown grass and dandelions. I could see the entrance on the far side of the field, marked by a wooden sign and two white stone pillars. Turning back on the trail, I followed one of its branches to a paved road. The tree-lined entranced to the cemetery was a few hundred feet down the road.
Entrance to the asylum cemetery
The cemetery was founded the same year the hospital opened. Of the hundreds of patients who were buried there before it was eventually closed in 1972, the Winnebagoland Genealogical Society has identified 244. Most graves are unmarked. Some just have a small stone with a number set into the ground.
A grave marked by a numbered stone
Displaced grave markers scattered along the edge of the cemetery
I’m not sure if there are any significant historical figures from Wisconsin’s dark past buried here, but the Winnebago State Mental Institution has had a few. One of the hospital’s more notorious residents was John Flammang Schrank, who attempted to assassinate Theodore Roosevelt on October 14, 1912 in Milwaukee. His efforts were famously thwarted, however, by Roosevelt’s glasses case and a copy of his 50-page speech in his jacket pocket.
Schrank was later moved to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, the same hospital where Ed Gein would begin his treatment years later after his 1957 arrest in Plainfield. After Schrank’s death in 1943 his body was donated for anatomical dissection at the Medical School of Marquette University.
More recently, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser were sentenced to treatment in Winnebago after they lured a friend into a wooded area in Waukesha, where they stabbed her 19 times and left her for dead in hopes of gaining the favor of a fictional internet boogeyman called Slenderman. The girls were only 12 years old at the time.
Fox River Valley Death Trip
While in the area, I decided to head a few miles north to Appleton to locate three other graves. Most importantly, I hoped to find the final resting place of real-life exorcist Theophilus Riesinger, whose most significant case inspired the rite of exorcism as depicted in William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist.
Riesinger is buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, but I wasn’t able to find him before the sun went down.
The other two destinations were more successful.
Senator Joseph McCarthy
During the Cold War era, Sen. Joe McCarthy was known for his claims that communists had infiltrated the United States Government. When he died in 1957, McCarthy was buried in Appleton’s St. Mary’s Cemetery along the Fox River.
11 years later in 1968, the politically charged beatnik band The Fugs were in town on tour. A few months earlier they had attempted to levitate the Pentagon and exorcise it of its evil during the March on the Pentagon anti-Vietnam demonstration. It seems they were unsuccessful, but that didn’t stop them from attempting a similar exorcism of McCarthy’s grave while they were in town.
The Grave of Kate Blood
According to Wisconsin lore, Kate Blood was a witch who murdered her husband and children with an axe, and now haunts Riverside Cemetery where her grave is isolated down a path in the woods. The legend claims that if you touch Kate’s gravestone, you’ll find it much warmer than others nearby. Also, on a full moon, a red liquid is said to seep from the granite monument.
In reality, Kate’s husband lived another 42 years after her death. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 23, leaving behind a 2-year-old daughter.