Category Archives: Media Coverage

History searches an asylum for ‘The Lost Alaskans’

By Julie Stricker ( Jun 10, 2015

FAIRBANKS — Back in Alaska’s territorial days, it wasn’t uncommon for a gold miner to go berserk in a lonely, remote cabin. A woman on an isolated homestead might fall into severe, debilitating depression, becoming catatonic. The territory also had its share of violent, sometimes mentally ill residents. At the time, mental illness was considered a crime.

Alaska lacked mental health facilities, so people who were mentally ill or incapacitated were shuttled into the justice system. If deemed insane by a jury, they were sent on a 2,000-mile journey by dog sled, horse-drawn sleigh, barge or boat to Morningside Hospital in Portland, Oregon. Few returned.

“People just disappeared,” said retired Alaska Superior Court Judge Niesje Steinkruger. “And many families had no idea what happened.”

Steinkruger and a group of researchers have been searching through territorial court records to find out the stories behind those sent to Morningside. She calls them the “Lost Alaskans” and will talk about her hunt through Alaska’s territorial court records for their stories in a University of Alaska Fairbanks Discover Alaska lecture on June 17.

Steinkruger is uncertain how many people were sent to Morningside during territorial days. The term “insane” covered a broad range of conditions, including mental illness, birth defects, drug abuse and alcoholism.

Families were torn apart.

“The youngest person we found was 6 weeks old, and the oldest was 96,” she said. The youngest were most likely severely developmentally handicapped. Many had Down syndrome or birth defects.

“It was a family trying to cope with a child that had special needs, and you knew that the only way families could care for a child with severe special needs was this horrible option,” she said.

Sometimes people, such as chronic inebriates, were sent to Morningside as a way to keep them from freezing to death on the streets.

“You have to consider the times. This was before psychiatry,” she said. “There were people there (at Morningside) with epilepsy and substance abuse and everything, including mental illness. Most of the treatment was about safety and a place to live. It was before pharmacological treatment.”

Steinkruger said her goal has been to gather a list of names of those sent to Morningside, many of whom never left Oregon and are buried in the Portland area. The hospital closed in the 1960s and all the records were lost. The lists may be able to help families looking for lost relatives find more information on what happened to them.

As she reads through the territorial records, Steinkruger said she’s struck by parallels to today’s criminal justice system.

“There’s just this huge cross-section of exactly the same problems we’re struggling with today,” said Steinkruger, who served as a judge for 19 years and also worked with the district attorney and public defenders offices. “The thing that really gets me is to look at how little has changed. We are still grappling with exactly the same role between safety, care, treatment and protection.”

Also posted in Oral Histories, Research Project News | Comments closed

Citizens Hired as Guards for Patients and Prisoners

I got an interesting email yesterday from John Drews, who relayed a part of the Morningside story I’d never heard before.

“Many years ago I interviewed a gentleman in Fairbanks who had worked as a Deputy Marshall in Alaska during the territorial days. He told me about criminals and “others” that would be held in the jail until court hearings could be held. This could take up to a year at times because of the traveling justice.

When they had folks that were to be transported out of Alaska, they would advertise that any honest civilian wanting to go to Seattle could hire on as a temporary deputy to assist on the trip. They would transport criminals and the “insane” together and many times had to keep them all in restraints. He told of one man who had to be strapped to a cot for the entire trip because of his insanity and violence. The trips were made from Fairbanks by stage or later by train and then onto a steamer bound for Seattle. He never mentioned Morningside by name but it is pretty clear now.

The fellow I interviewed was a Deputy Marshall there in the 30’s & early 40’s, he later joined the Fairbanks Police Department. I was employed at FPD from 1975-95 and was interested in the early history of the department and did the interview for that reason.”

After doing a little research on, it was apparent that this practice started very early on. The following article is from December 17, 1908 edition of the Fairbanks Daily News.

FDN 12171908


Also posted in 1900-1929, 1930-1949 | Leave a comment

“Insanity Raging”

Thursday, October 25, 1906
Fairbanks Evening News

Man Being Brought From Richardson Is the Third Case Which Has Developed Within Past Three Weeks

Marshal Perry is in receipt of a telegram from Richardson, stating that two men, Maher and Espy by name, left the Tenderfoot town yesterday with an Insane person in charge, who will be kept here until there is some improvement in his condition or otherwise, until he can be sent outside to Mount Tabor (the early name for Morningside Hospital).

This is the third case of insanity which has developed in the Tanana during the past three weeks. Jack Spencer was brought up from Gibbon and tried before Commissioner Erwln, and, although he was discharged, the general opinion appeared to be that he was a fit subject for the wheelhouse, unless he could be kept away from the Influence of hootch. Jack was Interdicted by the Jury which tried his case, or a recommendation was made to that effect.

The case of Mrs. Black is hardly a week old. Mrs. Black, the mother of a family at Gibbon, went violently Insane at that place, and the commissioner there having no jurisdiction to try the case, the afflicted woman is now on her way to Rampart, where she will be held awaiting some improvement in her condition or until her case is dispensed of by Commissioner Green.

Commissioner Hedger has already dispensed of the case of the patient at Richardson, but there being no place at that point where such cases can be properly handled, It was thought best to send the Insane person to Fairbanks. The name of the man is not known here, the Richardson commissioner having failed to mention it in his various dispatches.

Also posted in 1900-1929, Patient Stories | Leave a comment

Fighting for the 49th Star: C.W. Snedden and the Crusade for Alaska Statehood

Terrence M. Cole’s book “Fighting for the Forty-Ninth Star: C.W. Snedden and the Crusade for Alaska Statehood” tells the story of how C.W. “Bill” Snedden, the long-time publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, used a small town newspaper to champion the fight for statehood.

[image title=”49Star” size=”full” id=”800″ align=”left” ]One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the role played by the late Sen. Ted Stevens in convincing Congress that the federal commitment process used in Alaska was barbaric. Stevens, a protégé of Snedden, was a young lawyer working for the U.S. Department of Justice. Stevens related his experience with the criminal proceedings (jury trials) that were used to commit adults and children to Morningside. He told the Congressional sub-committee that the insanity jury system was “archaic” and that he had “a very great respect for juries, but not insanity.”

Dr. Cole directs the UAF Office of Public History and is a Professor of History at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Dr. Cole kindly granted us permission to reproduce the section of the book dealing with Morningside and the Alaska Mental Health Act. [Download not found]

If you’d like to read more of “Fighting for the Forty-Ninth Star: C.W. Snedden and the Crusade for Alaska Statehood” you can purchase it here.

Also posted in 1950-1960s | Leave a comment

Oregonian Historical Archive

[image title=”logo_oregonlive” size=”full” id=”428″ align=”left” linkto=”viewer” ]The Oregonian Historical Archive is online! This is wonderful news. We found a limited number of articles on Morningside at the Oregon Historical Society, most of which had to do with the 1950s. The new online archive lists 345 articles on Morningside Hospital, many providing insights into the day-to-day activities there. You can get a one-day pass, which includes up to 50 downloaded articles, for $9.99. Monthly subscriptions are $19.50/month with which you can view up to 200 articles a month. Here’s where you can find the archive.

Also posted in 1900-1929, 1930-1949, 1950-1960s, Research Project News | Leave a comment

Questions about Quality of Care – 1915

Over the years, there were numerous occasions when concerns were raised about the quality of care provided by Morningside Hospital. The earliest we’ve found was in 1915. The Sunday, March 28, 1915 issue of the Atlanta Constitution included the following story:

Syndicate Enriched from Insane Asylum
Juneau, Alaska. March 27 – A report criticising the Morningside sanitarium at Portland Ore., where Alaska insane are cared for under contract with the government, was returned yesterday by the judicial committee of the territorial legislature. The report demanded “that conditions there, by which the syndicate is enriched $30,000 annually, be improved.” Read More »

Also posted in 1900-1929, Morningside Hospital, Quality of Care | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment