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.
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.
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.