There is a mysterious story about woman who was once treated at the Buffalo State Asylum, the original psychiatric center at the Richardson Olmsted Campus, in the late 1800s. In our ongoing Mental Health reporting initiative, WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley met with a descendant who remains committed to finding out the truth about what happened to his relative.
“When people find out that I volunteer at the Richardson Campus, [they say] ‘How can you go into that place? How can you be in those buildings? It’s creepy. It’s scary, probably haunted, all of those stereotypes,” remarked Mark Saglian of Clarence.
Saglian is a volunteer docent at the Richardson Olmsted Campus in Buffalo. He has also studied and worked in the mental health field.
Twenty years ago Saglian began to research his family’s history. He spoke to a cousin who told him his second great aunt, Sarah Ann McMullen, also known as Sadie from Akron, was accused of committing murder on Halloween night in 1890.
“She had taken two young girls out onto the middle of the Akron Cement Works Trestle, which ran, at that time, right through the heart of Akron Falls Park. She brought them out into the middle of the trestle and one-by-one she pushed them off the bridge. The older of the two girls, Nellie May Connors died from a fall. The trestle was 52 feet high. The younger girl actually survived and testified against her in court. Nellie May Connors was 8-years-old, Della Brown was age six,” Saglian explained.
Saglian has conducted extensive researched, intrigued about the crime and mental health hospitalization of his great aunt. He learned after a short, three-day trial, McMullen was sent to the Buffalo State Asylum and was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy.
“She was committed to the Buffalo State Hospital under the care of Judson Andrews, the superintendent of the hospital, and remained there for a period of three years. William Krause, who was a Buffalo neurologist, who had trained in Paris under Jean-Martin Charcot, came back to Buffalo in 1898. He examined Sadie McMullen in the Erie County Jail and determined very quickly that she was suffering from a form of epilepsy, that she had actually been diagnosed with in Chicago at the age of five called Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or TLE,” Saglian described.
Saglian said his great aunt disappeared after being released from the psych center in August of 1893.
“I have a newspaper article from 1898 where the neurologist, who testified in her case and treated her while she was in the hospital, mentions that she married immediately after her discharge. He had issues because he didn’t feel it was a good thing for her to get married and have children of her own, given the family history,” Saglian remarked.
“In many respects, my Aunt Sara Ann McMullen, remains an inmate of the asylum. The State Office of Mental Health has a policy that they do not allow relatives, direct descendants access to mental health records. You know my ability to determine where she went after her discharge - her discharge plan would tell me what the plan was. They weren’t going to just open up the door and let her walk about.”
Due privacy restrictions and state policy, records are difficult to access. Longtime human rights activist Darby Penney co-authored the book “The Lives They Left Behind,” which involves the Willard State Hospital suitcase exhibit. The state hospital closed back in 1995 in the New York’s Finger Lakes. That’s when staff discovered more than 400 suitcases from former patients.
Penney has been working for years with the State Office of Mental Health asking that ancestors be allowed access to mental health records of interest. Penney would like to see a bill sponsor to change the restrictions for releasing old records would allow families to “memorialize” the lost and end stigma surrounding mental health stories. Saglian agrees.
“I’ve been struggling for 20 years to find my Aunt Sadie and I can’t find her,” replied Saglian.