Welcome back, spooky friends. I take it that if you are continuing to read into this series about paranormal Oregon that you are also a Romantic/gothic-era literary fan. If you are not, I highly recommend picking up a few books. When I think of Victorian and Edwardian estates, an image out of a Brontë sisters or Shirley Jackson novel pops up in my mind. Maybe, for some of you you might think about ‘Salem’s Lot or The Picture of Dorian Gray or a whole host of other literary classics. It is this Victorian era that brings me to the topic of this article.
Oregon State Hospital cannot be neatly written into a single article, so this will be set one of two. Set one will be a talk about the historic backdrop of Oregon State Hospital and mental health. Set two will be a look at the paranormal side of the hospital. But, when you read the second article, please remember that real people lived and died here. For me, this article will be quite personal because I am someone on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (AS) scale. Within the last few decades, the terminology of neurodivergence has grown acceptance in academic literature. To one degree or another, everyone faces a mental health trauma within their lifetime; however, there are those, including myself, who are neurodivergent. Personally, I accept that I am different, and that kookiness makes me who I am.
The State Insane Asylum in Salem, Oregon was opened in 1883 as an enormous Victorian property that was built under the Kirbride Plan that was common across sanatoriums of the day. Contrary to the image of Renfield in the stereotypical dingy asylum, Kirkbride facilities were designed to let in as much sunlight as possible and create a more open care plan. That was, as long as the facilities were well staffed, well trained, and were not overcrowded. People, including immigrants, who suffered from alcoholism, dementia, syphilis, and a wide range of clinical or perceived disabilities were housed here. People with tuberculosis (consumption) were also regular patients here. Many would never leave. In the meantime, for designated patients they worked different tasks around the hospital and this provided a resemblance of routine in such a facility.
Thomas Hobbes once penned “life is brutish and short,” and for thousands of patients at Oregon State Hospital this was very true. In one brutal instance of upending the work routine of patients, in November 1942, a patient-cook named George Nosen poisoned the breakfast of 467 people, 47 would die. He would continue to reside at the hospital until his death in 1983.
Sadly, for thousands of patients, no matter how much care they were provided by staff, many died alone and even in death they were not claimed by the families that disposed of them. Asylums were places of forgetting embarrassments within the family, out of sight out of mind. The hospital cremated at least 3,500 persons between 1913-1971 and contained their bodies, memories, love, and histories into little copper urns. Still worse, it wasn’t until 2004 that the copper cremains were discovered.
One person who particularly stood out to me in my research for this article was a veteran – Private Jewett Williams, originally from Maine and served in the Civil War for the Union from 1864-1865 in the 20th Maine. Williams was at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865 when General Lee surrendered. At some point, Williams found himself at Oregon State Hospital with no loved ones. He died alone as when he entered the hospital and was cremated in 1922.
Take a pause.
If you have been wondering where the mention of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, well look no further. Based on the book by Ken Kesey, this movie is a classic that is still quoted to this day. And, Jack Nicholson is one of my favorite actors and he absolutely made this the titular movie cult classic that it is. Filmed in Depoe Bay and Salem, the movie explored one of the cruelest methods of the asylum care of its day – the lobotomy. I won’t go into the specifics of how the lobotomy works, you can do that yourself, but a wide range of mental disorders could be subjected to a lobotomy. Once completed, and if you survived it initially, it would turn a patient into a shell of themselves. This “cure” was the feature and not the bug.
Today, Oregon State Hospital has a museum dedicated to teaching the public about the past. People from all different backgrounds entered its doors, some remain nameless to this day, and others you can hear their stories. On a rainy November day in 2018, I had the opportunity to visit the museum. When I looked up at the red brick and white ornate structure, I felt like it was an imposing force on me. I shuttered at first and when I went into the museum, I was able to ask my questions and learn about this facility, one that I had only read about or seen on the television since my youth. The most profound and hardest part of the visit was the columbarium wall that houses thousands of cremains. I couldn’t help but to think that we are only removed from their time by a blink of an eye. The museum is reopening this year after being shut due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. If you have not been to Oregon State Hospital, take some time on one of your Pacific Northwest journeys to walk through and learn about mental health in the United States. Stay tuned for set two.
Please, if you are experiencing mental health issues, reach out to licensed therapists and medical providers. Mental health is not visible, but it is just as important as a physical health. Remember, you are loved and you do matter. Health comes first.
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