Author charts Oregon State Hospital’s history back to 1843

From the Salem Statesman Journal, June 7, 2013

Roseburg-area author Diane L. Goeres-Gardner has figured out her niche: “I write about things no one has written about.”

Hangings in Oregon history? Check. Women criminals? Check. And now, “Inside Oregon State Hospital: A History of Tragedy and Triumph.”

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Inside Oregon State Hospital

Inside Oregon State Hospital

The 334-page book, just out from The History Press, charts the hospital’s heritage back to 1843, when the pre-statehood provisional government appropriated $500 “for the purposes of defraying expenses of keeping lunatic or insane persons in Oregon.”

READ – Inside Oregon State Hospital with Diane Goeres-Gardner

The Oregon State Insane and Idiotic Asylum opened in East Portland in 1862, and it eventually was replaced by the Salem asylum in 1883.

Goeres-Gardner pieced together the hospital’s first book-length history from newspaper files, state archives and other sources. It also charts changing approaches to mental-illness treatment from the days of forced sterilization of inmates and lobotomies (considered state-of-the-art treatment in the late 1940s and early 1950s).

The author worked for years teaching remedial reading and math in Portland schools. Her earlier books are “Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905” and “Murder, Morality, and Madness: Women Criminals in Early Oregon.”

She also has written books on Roseburg and the Oregon Asylum for Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series.

Goeres-Gardner said she chose to write about the hospital after noticing a theme in her earlier books: Female lawbreakers often were sent to the hospital because the state lacked separate prisons for them.

She was most surprised to learn of the acceptance and even enthusiasm for forced sterilization of those considered criminals, mentally unfit or morally deficient. The practice peaked during the 1920s and 1930s but continued as late as 1978.

“They sterilized so many people for terrible reasons,” she said. “Oregon was particularly violent toward the gay population….They didn’t just perform vasectomies, they castrated them; they didn’t just tie women’s tubes, they took everything out.”

The book ends on a more hopeful note, with more humane treatment approaches and the massive renovation of the hospital campus.

The biggest challenge, said Goeres-Gardner, was the spotty nature of state hospital records. For example, she had to piece together information from several sources to learn the names of all 17 hospital superintendents.

Patricia Feeny, communications manager for the Oregon State Hospital Replacement Project, agreed with that assessment. When she started her own job in 2007, she struggled to get oriented, she said.

“Nobody bothered to write anything down,” Feeny said. “While the hospital gradually went into demise, no one recorded it. … We have photos of people roller skating, playing baseball, and medical procedures, but it drops off (from the 1960s to 1980s).”

Feeny praised the research involved in Goeres-Gardner’s new book.

“She manages to merge history as well as the new construction and the change in the treatment model…so (patients) can lead full and productive lives.”