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The paddock that became a grave for the people New Zealand branded ‘defective’ – and chose to forget
Nearly 500 patients consigned to the Tokanui psychiatric hospital died there, their only legacy a memorial wall in a field
Tess McClure in Waikato Fri 29 Jul 2022 20.00 BST
It was, remembers Caroline Arrell, just another paddock. Grazed by sheep under the wide Waikato sky, it gave no hint of its past – except perhaps that her labrador, Lucy, had an odd aversion to it. The dog would veer away from it, skirting the fence line.
But out riding her horse, Alice, on a quiet Sunday in early 1991, Arrell was about to discover a grave on the 200-hectare farm she called home. Beneath the feet of the sheep, under the grass and soil, nearly 500 people lay buried.
“I jumped Alice over the fence into this paddock and she tripped and fell, her rear foreleg disappeared down a hole,” she says. “I tumbled off. We were both OK, except I tumbled against a hard piece of rock – or so I thought. It was a metal plaque.”
Arrell pulled the plaque from the overgrown grass. It identified the resting place of a single woman – the only marker in the paddock. In reality, hundreds of others lay beneath the grass, their graves unmarked.
‘They were human beings, for God’s sake’
The graves were dug to receive patients who died at Tokanui hospital, a state-run institution that housed New Zealanders with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.
While the last burials at the graveyard were recorded in the mid-60s, the institution remained open until the late 1990s, with much of its surrounding grounds – including the gravesite – converted into farmland. Like its graveyard, the institution slipped mostly out of public memory after it was shut down in 1998. Now, New Zealand is in the midst of a royal commission of inquiry into claims of abuse and neglect of those cared for by the state.
Arrell, who worked at Tokanui as well as living at the farm, was one of those who shared their memories.
Today, Tokanui’s dead lie at the centre of a dairy farm run by Agresearch, a crown research institute. To find the graveyard, you trudge up the chewed-up mud of a track, past the gaze of a cluster of bobby calves. The graves have been fenced off, to stop stock wandering in. A wreath of purple flowers has blown into the next paddock, and lies half concealed by grass. At the field’s centre is a small wooden cross, crusted with lichen, leaning a little crookedly in the wind.
Maurice Zinsli came across the graveyard while researching his family tree. His great-aunt, Maria, had been committed to Tokanui at age 23, while grieving the sudden death of her fiance. She remained there until her death almost 40 years later. Zinsli had looked up where she was buried, and discovered it was nearby – in a cemetery he hadn’t heard of before. “I said oh – that’s just down the bloody road from me, I’ll go down and have a look.”
He was appalled by what he found. “It was a farm paddock – that’s all it was, that’s all you could say. The cattle were in there, the sheep were in there … It was an absolute disgrace,” he says. He began a decade-long campaign for recognition and a proper memorial for the people buried there. On the hill there now stands a memorial wall, etched with the 467 names of those Zinsli and genealogist Anna Purgar have spent almost a decade tracking down.
Purgar also has an extended family member buried there, and says she’s saddened that no one took responsibility after the institution closed.
“It’s quite sad really, if you see it, it’s quite emotional. You sort of stand there, and turn around and see all these people’s names. And you turn back again and think well, they’re in this paddock.”
Zinsli says: “I couldn’t see why all these people that were buried there never got any recognition. I mean, they were human beings for God’s sake.”
The forgotten graveyard strikes him as symbolic of a wider societal forgetting. “If you went into a mental home, no matter what you went in for, a stigma got attached – and then nobody wants to know about it.”
‘Tokanui ruined my life’
New Zealand is in the process of excavating the experiences and memories of those who lived through its institutions, in an effort to understand how the country allowed abuse or neglect to occur, and to ensure it is not repeated.
The royal commission, which will deliver its final report in June next year, was established in 2018 and has been taking evidence since 2019. Over the past month, it conducted hearings on abuse in state psychiatric and disability care facilities, adding to thousands of hours of testimony from ex-staff, patients and family members.
An ex-resident of Tokanui, Peter Keoghan, was sent to the hospital when he was five years old, and remained there for 20 years. Keoghan told the tribunal he experienced physical abuse from staff members and sexual abuse from other patients.
“Tokanui ruined my life and it has affected me every day. It was not a nice place. The memories made me feel angry,” he said. “When I got out, I said ‘I’m free I’m free! I’m free!’ No one would kick me in the stomach or grab me around the neck.”
One witness to the tribunal – identified as Mr EY – testified about the loss of his 12-year-old brother, Jimmy, who was sent to Tokanui after being diagnosed with “imbecility” and difficulty walking. The family visited Jimmy just once after his admission. In a little over a year, EY alleged he had transformed – he was severely overweight, heavily medicated, non-verbal and confined to a wheelchair. Attempting to lift him up, EY discovered he was bleeding from severe bed sores.
“He couldn’t acknowledge us. He couldn’t even say anything. He was sitting there in a state of obvious anguish, in physical and mental pain,” EY testified. Jimmy died shortly afterwards, and was buried in an unmarked grave.
“I believe Jimmy died unnecessarily. His mana [pride and dignity] needs to be restored but I feel that this cannot happen until his resting place is marked,” EY said. “My brother died in care. Jimmy didn’t have a voice to express his pain and suffering. So, I must carry his voice from beyond the grave to ensure justice.”
‘What was going on for that to be able to happen?’
Tokanui was built in 1912, when eugenics ideas were mainstream in New Zealand. A year earlier, the country had signed its “Mental Defectives Act”, allowing for the detention and segregation of people considered “mentally deficient”. The New Zealand Nurse’s journal celebrated the bill’s passing, saying it would help with “stemming the tide of race deterioration”.
The idea developed “that it would be better to corral people with so-called ‘mental defects’ and take them away from wider society,” says University of Newcastle Prof Catharine Coleborne, who studied the history of Tokanui and other institutions like it. “A sense of protecting people from wider society, but also protecting wider society from them.”
“These kinds of institutions may become worlds unto their own,” says Coleborne – and their legacy is not black and white. “Institutions are complex places. They could be places where people found respite and asylum in the real sense of the word, and purpose. But they needed to have support from the outside world.”
She says that beyond the institutions themselves, there is a wider question for New Zealand, around how it chose to care for those with disability, mental health, and others who needed assistance.
“I would hate for institutions to receive all of the blame, because I think what was going on more broadly was a culture of silence around people who didn’t fit into a productive economy,” she says. “There’s a bigger question we have here … what was going on in wider society for that to be able to happen?”