WESTLAND, Mich. – At its peak in the 1920s, the Eloise complex was a small city with a hospital and mental asylum housing 10,000 patients and a staff of 2,000.
Locals have long heard about the hidden graveyard from that time. Now, those graves have been found and those who found them have a new mission: getting Wayne County to recognize the site as a cemetery.
The history of Eloise in Wayne County is more like Michigan folklore. It originally housed the mentally ill and is nearly as old as the state, dating back to 1839. It closed in 1984.
What appears to be a lonely field alongside Henry Ruff Road in Westland is a graveyard that three months ago was unmarked. It sits several hundred yards from the old Eloise mental hospital.
"I grew up around Eloise. I knew there was a cemetery with markers because you hear the stories, you know, when you're growing up. So I decided one day to come out here and look, and here it is," said John Byrnes, who found the hidden Eloise graves.
Byrnes's first discovery was a stone marker with the number 18. Soon, he and some friends were uncovering stones with numbers in the 3,000s.
Now, with 12 volunteers, they're researching the past and trying to identify the people buried at the site so they can connect them with distant relatives.
"We come in with all of our tools, our shovels, our screwdrivers," said Felicia Sills. "And then we dig, we shovel, we clean it off."
One grave has a name on it of "Ed Thomas." They're getting more inquiries from people on social media. One woman asked if they have come across her great grandmother with a number in the 6,000s.
"It's a lot of people that were poor. They were sick, no family to claim them, and this is the place where they just started putting bodies," said Byrnes.
Byrnes and his group believe the bodies were buried mostly between 1910 and 1948. Many of them died of tuberculosis while others were committed by families who never came back for them.
Stacey Morgan cried the first time she uncovered one of the graves.
"It was like letting someone breathe, kind of. Saying, 'You're not forgotten,'" she said. "Think about if it was your family. Would you want them to be here and not be recognized or looked after?"
So far they have marked more than 400 graves. Byrnes has been told there could be more than 7,000.
"Let these people have dignity. They didn't have anything in life. I mean, in death, they're just going to left like this? What if it was your family?" said Byrnes.
Byrnes and his friends found the entire field has grave markers yet to be uncovered. Wayne County has given them permission to uncover the graves and is thanking them for their civil service.