1878 - 1968
Place of birth: Austria
Date of Willard Admission: 1918
Length of stay: 50 years
Seeing the Angels
Born into poverty in Galicia, the easternmost part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Mr. Lawrence #14956 served in the Royal Austrian army as a young man. After his discharge, he became a licensed tinker, an itinerant trade collecting scrap metal and repairing metal objects. About 1900, three events changed his life: a head injury from a stone throw; binges of heavy drinking; and his first admission to a mental hospital in Dusseldorf, Germany, where he was noted to be "singing, whistling, and generally noisy." There he remained for less than a year.
In 1907, Lawrence moved to New York City. He found work as a cleaner and window washer at Bellevue Hospital, and lived onsite in a workers' dormitory. In 1916, he was taken across the street to the hospital for being "loud, boisterous, singing, shouting, also praying, claiming to hear the voice of god and seeing the angels, then again accusing himself of having sinned too much." Alcohol was again mentioned as a serious precipitant. Later that year, Lawrence was transferred to Central Islip State Hospital, where he was reported to be "extremely restless and noisy, singing and shouting and whistling in a boisterous manner." In 1918, he was sent to Willard.
For several years after his admission, Lawrence was reported to be volatile and difficult, and sometimes reclusive. By the early 1930s, it became clear that he was a good worker if left to himself. He served as a cleaner in the superintendent's house, and, in 1937, he became the hospital's unpaid gravedigger. In this role, Lawrence was given some relief from the stifling routine of life on the wards. During the warm weather, he was permitted to live in a shack on the cemetery grounds, returning to the hospital only for meals. In a 1945 letter to the superintendent requesting his release, he noted that he had dug over 600 graves by hand in eight years. Mr. Lawrence #14956 continued that work until a few days before he died, at age 90, in 1968. He was buried anonymously in the very cemetery that he tended.