PHOENIX – For 76 years the remains of Cpl. Isaiah Mays, like those of 2,400 others buried in the Arizona State Hospital cemetery, lay under a numbered stone slab covering a weed-choked grave.
With Memorial Day approaching, Mays was finally honored Wednesday with a headstone commemorating him as a winner of the Medal of Honor for bravery as a Buffalo Soldier in the 19th century Indian Wars.
Mays was born a slave in Virginia in 1858. As a young man, he joined the all-black 10th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers, and was stationed in Tucson.
In 1889, bandits attacked a payroll wagon he was guarding. Most of the other soldiers fled, including the commanding officer. But Mays stayed and fought. Shot in both legs, he dragged himself two miles to a farm to sound an alarm.
For his heroism, he received the Medal of Honor in 1890. But, denied a pension by the government in 1922, Mays died destitute at the Arizona State Hospital in 1925.
In those days, dead patients unclaimed by family were buried at the cemetery with only a number to identify them. When a 1935 fire destroyed hospital records connecting names to cemetery plot numbers, the location of Mays grave, as with all those buried there before 1929, was lost.
Hospital therapist Mary Towne has been trying to put names on the cemetery's numbered stones. She spends much of her free time searching the state archive's death records for clues.
She said that since she discovered Mays' probable grave, the patients in her therapy group have been fascinated with him.
"My patients are really pleased with the honor that is being bestowed on Cpl. Mays," said Towne. "They see Isaiah Mays as one of their own. And many of them have said to me that this honor is long overdue."
Mays' new Medal of Honor headstone, a four-foot tall, 340-pound Arlington cemetery-style marble marker, will be conspicuous in the six-acre cemetery. Of the 2,420 other people buried there, only nine are identified, their names carved on worn gravestones. Everyone else lies beneath flat numbered stones.