Category Archives: Oral Histories

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.”

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Memories of Morningside Hospital from a Staff Psychiatrist

 Published: Sunday, August 26, 2012, 6:00 AM


I read with interest The Oregonian’s Aug. 5 article about Morningside Hospital. The article focused primarily on the deaths and inadequate care of the “inmates.”

The researchers said they’d never heard of the hospital before, so they obviously had no firsthand knowledge of its standards and practices.

I worked as a psychiatrist at Morningside from 1962 to 1966. I was not aware at any time while there of patient abuse or foul play. I compare the care given to patients there as better than most state hospitals of the time and even now, and I have known several first-hand. Patients were treated with respect and kept as active as possible. Those capable were expected to work, a practice widely used in institutions of the time, and a good idea at that.

Commitment in the early days followed now-outdated state laws. However, I did not see many who did not have a good reason to be there. Return of “inmates” to Alaska was held up primarily because authorities did not want them returned. It was common practice in those days to “institutionalize” patients, to keep them away from general society. Thus, the hospitals were really asylums for the mentally handicapped. Read More »

Also posted in 1950-1960s, Quality of Care | 2 Comments

A Patient’s Perspective on Morningside in the 1960’s

Steve B. was a patient at Morningside Hospital in the mid-1960s. He is the first former patient to contact us and provides a look at life at Morningside from the patient’s perspective. If you have a question for Steve, please leave a comment and we’ll pass them along to him.

By Steve B.

During my stay, both drugs and EST were used. I was not treated with EST, only drugs, among which I am sure there were anti-depressants and tranquilizers. There were perhaps six or seven teens in my ward and one or two of them were administered EST. Memory tells me that most EST-treated patients were in the older population. On my ward, meds were kept in a locked chest located on the wall near the aides’ station. These were carefully measured and administered by the aides themselves. Mine were in powder format, mixed with orange juice for tolerable palatability.

Dr. Roy Moss, in “talk therapy” individual sessions, addressed my problems, but I was never given a diagnosis or nomenclature for those problems. Perhaps my parents were given a technical-medical name for what was ailing me, but they never mentioned it and I never inquired.

Hindsight tells me there were probably well over a hundred patients during the period of my stay, but these were scattered among different wards/dorms, and I never witnessed a mass-gathering of patients, so this is only my best guess.

There were many native Alaskans at Morningside during my stay. Again, since I have no real grasp on the total population, I can’t accurately say how many their numbers were. But I would run across them “all the time”, especially in larger gatherings such as daily cafeteria meals, so I would guess that they were still constituting a substantial portion of the general population. Most of these were older males (didn’t notice many, if any, females), and other than the normal courtesies, unfortunately, I didn’t converse with them – so I can’t relate anything regarding the frequency and/or process of returning them to Alaska. One exception was the only teen Alaskan I knew, who was an affable sort except when his anger management issues would trigger outbursts. However, I didn’t learn anything from him pertaining to native American life in Alaska. On my ward there was also a Native American named Reggie Hunt, but if I’m not mistaken, he was from Central (Warm Springs Reservation?) or Eastern Oregon, not Alaska. My first experience of Alaskan culture came in the hospital’s main office, where my parents brought me to be admitted. The walls were hung with all kinds of native crafts, a lot of masks and suchlike.

The aides were exceptional – reasonable, responsible, and approachable, some with wild senses of humor, which of course, immensely helped patients during their (in many cases) involuntary “incarceration”. The aides never abused anyone and were extremely helpful in all ways. Discipline was maintained, but I believe always in tandem with communication with the doctors – i.e., no unilateral, “fascistic” decisions were made by the aides. One punitive measure I recall was being “put on restriction”, which meant isolation from the rest of the community in the ward. Such patients would be permitted to attend the school, but were not allowed to return to the ward except at night for head-count and sleep. I recall one incident in which I was the only “innocent party” – and all the rest of the teens were put on restriction. It was a strange but exciting feeling for me to have my freedom, limited though it was, while all my peers were on off-ward restriction.
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Also posted in 1950-1960s, Morningside Hospital, Patient Stories, Treatment/Outcomes | 2 Comments

“Eddie the Pig”

Last week, research team member Niesje Steinkruger visited Denali Center, pursuing a lead from the Elders and Youth Conference. She provided the following report on her visit:

[image title=”BFMH_Denali_Exterior_homepage_web” size=”full” id=”543″ align=”left” alt=”Denali Center, Fairbanks, AK” linkto=”viewer” ]Eddie R., patient #1524, admitted 9/26/33 to Morningside from Ruby, Alaska, also known as “Eddie the Pig” was the reason for my visit to Denali Center today.  The name “Eddie the Pig” was related to us when someone from Ruby recognized his name at the AFN conference and said they remembered calling him that as a child.  When asked why the elder said it was because his mother used to always watch the pigs and then she had a baby that looked like a pig!  The same person said that Eddie’s brother was living in the Denali Center (a nursing home in Fairbanks).

Don Thibideau, a saint, is the social worker there and he helped me.  He talked to L.R. and arranged a visit for me today.  L.R. is 89 years old.  He has been in Denali Center for 37 years!  His speech is difficult to understand but he is very alert when he listens and talks. Read More »

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UAF Project Jukebox

The University of Alaska Oral History Program is doing interviews with people involved in the closure of Morningside Hospital, the court battles that lead to the establishment of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, and the development of  mental health, substance abuse, developmental disability and Alzheimer’s Disease services. The interviews, plus a lot more, can be found on their website. The following is from the UAF Jukebox site.

“The Mental Health Trust History Project Jukebox offers insight into the long struggle to provide quality mental health services in Alaska from the perspective of people who participated. There is discussion about how the mentally ill were treated prior to Statehood when they were sent to Morningside Hospital in Portland, Oregon; how in 1956 Alaska Read More »

Also posted in 1950-1960s, 1970-1980s, Morningside Hospital, Patient Stories | Tagged , | Leave a comment