Researchers dig to find what became of Morningside Hospital patients, Alaska’s mentally ill

From The Oregonian, August 5, 2012

Morningside Hospital patient ward, about 1935

Morningside Hospital patient ward, about 1935

Among the more than 11,000 dearly departed inhabitants of Southeast Portland’s Multnomah Park Cemetery, friends Eric Cordingley and David Anderson have their favorites: a reputed French madam, a young Norwegian institutionalized for being gay, and Louis Napoleon Lepley — or, as they call him, “Louis the cannibal.”

Intriguing as their individual stories may be, together they help tell a bigger, darker tale. It spans two centuries and two states, and it illustrates the evolution in mental-health care since the early 20th century, when Morningside Hospital, kitty-corner from the cemetery, brimmed with every Alaskan deemed insane.

READ – More about Morningside Hospital

At least 3,500 and perhaps as many as 5,000 patients landed there from 1904 through the 1960s, when the federal government paid the now-defunct asylum to house the mentally ill from Alaska, where such care didn’t exist.

In an archaic system — mental illness was considered criminal — patients were arrested and escorted out of their northerly cities, towns and villages by federal marshals. Their so-called crimes included everything from suffering schizophrenia or depression to having tuberculosis, epilepsy, Down Syndrome, syphilis, alcoholism — even, as the Norwegian, Hans Eive, discovered, being homosexual. Often, their families never learned where their loved ones were taken or what became of them.

Now, some are discovering.

Thousands rest in Portland’s historic cemeteries, some in unmarked plots, others with stones obscured or neglected.

Thanks to Cordingley, Anderson and the rest of their band of volunteer researchers digging not only through cemeteries for grave markers but also through court, hospital and death records, Morningside’s story and that of the patients known as the Lost Alaskans is emerging at last.

Henry Waldo Coe

Henry Waldo Coe

Their narrative begins with a couple of big names, frontier physician Henry Waldo Coe and his old friend, President Theodore Roosevelt. The two met when Coe was doctoring in the Dakota Territory, where Roosevelt went to restore his health.

Coe — also a bank president, state senator and the fellow who commissioned a handful of Portland statues, including downtown’s Roosevelt and Laurelhurst’s Joan of Arc — moved to Portland in 1890. Nine years later, he founded a psychiatric hospital located, for most of its existence, on a 47-acre compound between Southeast Stark and Main streets and Southeast 96th and 102nd avenues, where Mall 205 stands today.

In those decades before Alaska’s statehood, the U.S. Department of Interior was charged with caring for the territory’s mentally ill and impaired. It first sent patients to the state asylum at Steilacoom, Wash., then, from 1900 to 1903, to the Oregon State Insane Asylum in Salem. In 1904, the care contract shifted to Coe’s Sanitarium Co., which operated Morningside. The government paid $30 a month per patient.

They didn’t check in voluntarily — far from it.

In Alaska, juries of six men tried and frequently convicted men, women and children, committing them to Morningside, typically without the luxury of physical or psychiatric exams. Patients ranged from fishermen and railroad workers, to housewives, prostitutes and prospectors who’d traveled to Alaska from all over the globe seeking gold. Others were indigenous Alaskans whose “crime” might have been deafness, dementia or simply the inability to speak English.

They often were jailed until the spring thaw, then transported by dogsled, train, ship or plane, landing more than 1,000 miles away in a climate and culture vastly different from what they knew.

Yet, Morningside apparently was comfortable enough — at least as Coe described it in “The Insane of Alaska,” a booklet he published in 1917. His hospital, he wrote, was in a fine location “free from exposure, irritating noises, noxious odors and public curiosity.”

Coe noted that the “beds are clean and sweet with white sheets. … Not one person in ten now with us,” he added, “had as good a bed in Alaska.”

Plus, he explained of Portland: “In no city in the world are the people more noted for their kindliness to the unfortunate. …”

Morningside Hospital cared for Alaskan children with tuberculosis.

Morningside Hospital cared for Alaskan children with tuberculosis.

Old friends Cordingley, 53, and Anderson, 60, didn’t set out to delve into the hospital’s history. They’d never heard of Morningside.

They were fascinated, though, by their neighborhood pioneer cemetery, Multnomah Park — a peaceful respite from the roar of traffic blasting through the intersection of S.E. 82nd Avenue and Holgate Street. Behind its wrought-iron fence, trees shade everything from lichen-encrusted stone tablets remembering Civil War veterans to gold-trimmed monoliths bearing laser-etched images of the recently departed.

The men decided about 2 1/2 years ago to contribute photos of every Multnomah Park headstone to, an online database of cemetery records from around the world.

They sought permission from Rachel Fox, who manages the 14 pioneer cemeteries for Metro, the regional government. She told them they weren’t the only ones interested in Multnomah Park. A group asked for Fox’s help in locating graves belonging to former Alaska mental patients. They call their effort The Lost Alaskans: The Morningside Hospital History Project.

Cordingley’s studying anthropology at Portland Community College. Anderson’s working toward being a certified genealogist. Each had relatives who spent time in asylums. The project fit them to a T.

Online, they learned more about the effort, aided by a grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust. From Alaska to Washington, D.C., volunteers mine territorial court records, national and state archives, vital statistics, genealogical and burial records for details on everything from former Morningside patients’ conditions and convictions to their deaths.

Ellen Ganley of Fairbanks, chief project volunteer, says the group aims not only to help families discover what happened to former Morningside patients, but also to “have this accepted as an important part of Alaska history.

“Nobody,” she says, “really knows about it.”

Using a steel rod to probe the earth, Cordingley and Anderson started hunting for Morningside patients’ graves, which also rest in Portland’s Lone Fir, Rose City, Riverview and Greenwood Hills cemeteries.

Many of the brick-sized grave markers rest beneath inches of dirt and grass, obscured by time, nature and neglect. When they find them, they catalog locations, names and dates and email photos of the markers to Ganley, who is building a database expected to go online within a few months.

About twice a month they head to Salem, where they mine the State Archives for Multnomah County death certificates. Carrying their own scanner, they copy 300 to 350 Morningside patients’ death certificates a day and figure it will take them about three more years to gather them all. The documents will be included in the Lost Alaskans database.

While it may sound tedious, the men say they feel like they’re fitting together pieces of a great, mysterious puzzle important to Alaska’s and Oregon’s history, and to the thousands of families left wondering.

“Everyone,” Cordingley says, “deserves to be remembered.”

A story in The Oregonian, published March 7, 1912, documented allegations of poor care and an inspection that followed; no trouble was found.

Days were regimented, with breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and lights-out at 8 p.m.

Male inmates, as patients were known, farmed the hospital’s acreage, milked its cows and tended its pigs. Women wove baskets and did needlework. Recreation included pingpong and horseshoes.

Those who smoked were provided tobacco and during Prohibition Coe went to great lengths to secure whiskey for patients. As he explained in a letter to the U.S. attorney, “a few ounces of spirits for some of these old Alaskans at times is really a life-saving substance.”

Morningside employed doctors and nurses, but records indicate its emphasis was on housing patients more than treating illnesses. Records and oral histories indicate that hydrotherapy, hypnosis, insulin therapy and electric shock therapy may have been used.

Sometimes patients were declared healthy and discharged. Others, such as James Ebana, lived out their years hospitalized.

He and his siblings were sent to a mission children’s home in Anvik, Alaska, after their mother died. But when he was around 17, Ebana was committed to Morningside, apparently because he had epilepsy. His family, including his last remaining sister, who died in 2005, never knew what became of him.

He died March 21, 1942. His death certificate listed cause of death as “Tuberculosis of the Lungs” and “Psychosis due to Epileptic Deterioration.” Ebana was 27.

He was Robin Renfroe’s husband’s uncle, and she’s been looking for information about him for years. She visited Portland a couple years ago, hoping to find his grave and erect a headstone. Metro put her in touch with Cordingley and Anderson.

Though they continue to search, they haven’t found him.

As respectful as they are of Morningside’s history, its patients, their grave markers, death records and the effort to accurately reflect the past, Cordingley and Anderson are happy to tell visitors about some of the patients whose colorful stories grab them most.

Blanche Marnell, for instance, made her way from France to Alaska during the Gold rush to, as Anderson puts it, “mine the miners.” Records show the reputed madam died of tertiary syphilis, and though Cordingley and Anderson have found the spot records say holds her gravesite, they haven’t found a stone with her name.

A stepping-stone sized marker remembers Eive, the young Norwegian. He worked in a Nome restaurant when he was arrested on indecency charges and committed to Morningside for being, as records call it, “homeosexual.” Eive died there about five years later, in 1935, from tuberculosis.

As they head off across the cemetery, Cordingley and Anderson stop, too, at the grave of Lepley, a gold miner who traveled to Nome in 1902 and worked a claim until 1910, the year a ferocious winter snowbound him and two mining partners in a cabin. Cordingley and Anderson say that according to family and oral history, when the partners died of starvation that winter, Lepley ate their flesh to survive.

When he emerged in the spring of 1911, he’d lost his mind. He was convicted of being an “insane person at large,” records show, and was committed to Morningside, where he died in 1919.

“We love learning their stories,” Cordingley says. “Until we learn their stories, they’re just names in the dirt.”

An aerial photo of Morningside Hospital and its grounds, shot in 1948.

An aerial photo of Morningside Hospital and its grounds, shot in 1948.

Coe died in 1927 and his son, Wayne, who was not a physician, took over Morningside.

Since the government paid the bills, the hospital was subject to routine inspections. Complaints about treatment of patients popped up periodically.

According to “The East Portland Historical Overview and Historic Preservation Study” published in 2009 by the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the hospital was under fire in 1955, for instance, after U.S. Rep. Edith Green, D-OR, introduced a bill to transfer Alaskan patients’ care to the territory.

The U.S. General Accounting office investigated questions of financial impropriety the following year, after the Coe family was accused of using hospital funds for personal expenses, including trips to South Africa and Mexico, and on a beach property in Gearhart and a ranch in Stanfield. The Coes were also accused of using patient labor for home and hospital maintenance, while calling the work occupational therapy.

The historic preservation study noted that the family denied the charges, defended the hospital practices and called the investigation “rude, uncivil and insulting.”

They never were charged and Morningside was reaccredited in 1957. Yet, its days were numbered.

Congress passed the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956, transferring responsibility for the mentally ill to the territory and eventually the state by creating the Alaska Mental Health Trust.

Morningside, which had about 350 beds, discharged its last three patients in 1968 and the property was sold to Mall 205’s developers.

Along with it, went thousands of stories of the men, women and children warehoused there for the better part of the 20th century — stories surfacing now, with every vital record and grave marker unearthed.

“We won’t connect all the dots,” Cordingley says, “but we’ll connect some.”

From The Oregonian, March 7, 1912

From The Oregonian, March 7, 1912