Category Archives: Research Project News

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 Media Coverage, Oral Histories | Comments closed

It’s HERE! The Morningside Hospital Patient Database

Carlson, Gustave-1When the Lost Alaskans blog went online five years ago, we began to hear from people who were searching for friends and relatives who were committed to Morningside Hospital, some as long as one hundred years ago. We hope the Morningside Hospital Patient Database will make their search easier and answer their questions.

There are three types of records available. The Quarterly Reports have diagnoses and other information on patients, the Death Certificates are those who died while at Morningside, and the court records document the commitment process. There are gaps in all of the record sets so the search continues.

The database will be formally announced in January. In the meantime, give it a try and send comments and recommendations. Click on Search Patient Records and then enter at least three consecutive letters of the patient’s last name and, optionally, any part of the patient’s first name. The database searches both the name as entered as well as alternate spellings found in the records.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority for their long-term support, especially over the past six months. The Trust made it possible for our volunteer researchers to get to record archives in Maryland, Alaska and Oregon. The entry of 45,000 records would not have been possible without Trust support.

And thanks to the volunteers who collected the information in the database. Volunteers by type of record are Meg Greene and Niesje Steinkruger (Court Records), Eric Cordingley, David Anderson and Sally Mead (Death Certificates) and Marylou Elton, Karen Perdue, Ellen Ganley and Robin Renfro (Quarterly Reports), and Deborah Smith (Alaska State Archives).

Many thanks to Doug Toelle, our project manager at Access Alaska And last, but not least, thanks to database programmer Don Kiely, web designer Jana Peirce, and data entry queen Nancy Lowe, all of whom are hugely talented and extremely patient.

Also posted in Court Records, Morningside Hospital, Patient Burials, Patient List | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Portland Volunteers Featured in the Oregonian

The Oregonian published a wonderful story about Eric Cordingley and David Anderson’s work locating Morningside Hospital patient graves in Portland. The story, Researchers dig to find what became of Morningside Hospital patients, Alaska’s mentally ill, provides a great description of their research methods and includes a video where they talk about why they’re so committed to locating graves. Congratulations, guys! You’re the best.

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AK Historical Society 2011 Pathfinder Award


[image title=”Image_001″ size=”full” id=”789″ align=”left” ]

Over the weekend, the Alaska Historical Society (AHS) recognized the Lost Alaskans project with their Pathfinder Award. We didn’t know we were being considered so this was a wonderful surprise for a chilly Monday morning. The annual AHS meeting was held in Valdez. Here’s information on the award from the society’s website.

The Pathfinder Award is given to an individual or several individuals who have indexed or prepared guides to Alaska historical material that has not been accessible.  The 2011 Pathfinder award goes to the Lost Alaskans: Morningside Hospital History Project, and its primary researchers Ellen Ganley, Meg Greene, Karen Perdue, Robin Renfroe, Niejse Steinkruger, Sally Mead, Deborah Smith, Marylou Elton, and Vivian Hamilton.  This group has worked to uncover the documentary record of mental health care during the years in which Alaskans were institutionalized out of state at Morningside Hospital.  Their work not only helps reveal the past, but has had an impact on the lives of living family members seeking to understand what happened to their relatives.

Wow, what a great start to the week!

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Lost Alaskans Project Update

Happy Holidays!

2010 was an exciting year! Among the milestones this year:

  • The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority granted us funding to support research and travel. The grant is being administered by Access Alaska.
  • We did well received presentations at the Alaska Historical Society Conference and the First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference
  • Work on the patient database has begun.
  • Progress was made in identifying Morningside Hospital patient burial sites (cemeteries), including locating a few patient graves.
  • New territorial court records were located, providing insights into the commitment process. The documents included commitment orders, jury records and medical assessments.
  • Research continued at the National Archives II. Most of the documents referring to individual patients are now scanned. Current research is focused on hospital inspections and investigations.

The first few months of 2011 promise to be nearly as exciting as 2010. Niejse Steinkruger, Meg Greene, and Robin Renfroe are going to Juneau in January to dive into the Alaska State Archives with our Juneau-based researcher, Deborah Smith. Read More »

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Elders and Youth Conference

[image title=”DSC06146″ size=”large” id=”523″ align=”left” linkto=”” ]Two great days at the Elders and Youth Conference. We had a booth (thanks to the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority) and did a presentation yesterday afternoon. Forty (40) elders and youth were in the audience. We focused the presentation on telling the stories of some of the people who were sent to Morningside. A number of adults had heard of Morningside, and some had family members who were sent there. The best part was telling the story to young people, none of whom had heard of Morningside Hospital, but they all understood the tragedy of being sent so far from home.

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Alaska Mental Health History Research Guide

[image title=”UAF logo” size=”full” id=”510″ align=”left” linkto=”viewer” ]Lisa Morris of the UAF Archives has produced the “Research Guide to Alaska Mental Health History Sources“, an invaluable guide to information resources in Alaska and elsewhere.  The guide covers the history of mental health services from 1900 to the present, including the Morningside Hospital years (1904-1960s).

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Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority Funding

[image title=”Access Logo with tag line” size=”full” id=”456″ align=”left” linkto=”” ]The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority recently approved a grant of nearly $60,000 to support our research. Because we are all volunteers and not a part of any organization, Access Alaska graciously agreed to manage the funds. This grant will support the development of the patient database, archival support, and research related travel. Thanks to all who made this possible, and especially Doug Toelle, our Access Alaska project manager and friend.

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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, Media Coverage | Leave a comment

We’re a Top 50 Hospital Blog!

This is old news, but the Morningside Hospital Blog was rated among the 50 best hospital blogs by healthcare blog, “Nurseblogger.”  This happened last September but I wasn’t aware of it until I stumbled on it while doing Morningside research.  I think we’re probably the only blog about a hospital that no longer exists among the top 50.

Some of the other “Top 50” hospital blogs included:

  • “Beyond Vermont State Hospital (VSH) Blog” in Vermont
  • “Porter Adventist Hospital” in Colorado
  • “Save Charity Hospital” in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • “Knoxville Hospital and Clinics Blog” in Iowa
  • “Lexington Medical Center” in South Carolina
  • “OSF St. Joseph Medical Center: This is Health Care” in Bloomington, Illinois
  • “Sutter Medical Center Castro Valley” in California
  • “Virginia Hospital Center” in Arlington, Virginia
  • “Children’s Hospital and Health System” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
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