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Morningside patient database reveals clues to 'Lost Alaskans'

Dermot Cole
Morningside Hospital

FAIRBANKS -- A five-year effort to unlock the secrets of Morningside Hospital has reached an important milestone -- completion of a database that will help thousands of Alaskans trace relatives, many of whom vanished into institutional care, cut off from their families.

In territorial days, it was said that Alaskans could be found “Inside, Outside and Morningside.”

Inside meant in Alaska. Outside means what it does today. Morningside was the name of the psychiatric hospital in Portland, Ore., where Alaskans deemed to be mentally incompetent were sent.

From 1904 to the 1960s, as many as 4,500 Alaskans afflicted with conditions ranging from dementia and Down syndrome to late-stage alcoholism and syphilis were judged to be incapable of caring for themselves and were shipped off to Portland by the federal government.

The historical record of Morningside is incomplete, mainly because the administration building was destroyed by fire in 1968 and patient records have never been found. There is archival information in other places about most of the patients, but the bits and pieces have never before been collected or organized.

Over the past five years, volunteer researchers have gathered 45,000 court and other government records that will allow descendants of patients to learn more about what happened to missing aunts, uncles and great-grandparents.

Information from thousands of documents gathered at archival collections in Alaska, Oregon and on the East Coast is now accessible for the first time. The database is available at www.morningsidehospital.com.

There are monthly and quarterly reports to the Department of Interior with patient information, as well as death certificates and records of court proceedings, searchable by name. The hospital provided a brief description of every living patient in its quarterly reports, billing the Interior Department on a per-person basis.

The reports mention the patients who died, and what local cemetery they were buried in, as well as patients who were paroled or discharged to their relatives and patients who "eloped," the term used to describe those who ran off.

"The modern methods of handling mental cases, giving them more or less open air treatment, and the proper amount of exercise, make it impossible at times to avoid this," the medical director told the Interior Department in 1908, reporting on two patients who eloped.

He said of one of them, "If a person were not familiar with these cases, it would have been difficult to detect that there was anything very wrong with him."

In 1909, the hospital said William Ripstein of Valdez was ordered to Oregon, but the doctors found nothing wrong with him. "I have been unable to discover any disturbance with his mentality," medical director R.L. Gillespie said. The man was bedridden and a paraplegic, but nothing else was wrong. "This man should be in a government hospital, instead of in an asylum for the insane," said Gillespie.

The “Lost Alaskans” blog and database began as an outgrowth of work Ellen Ganley did with former Health and Social Services Commissioner Karen Perdue to piece together the history of mental health services in Alaska. Numerous other people spent thousands of hours on the laborious task for assembling what they could uncover in archival collections.

“It appears that the early patients were primarily miners and ordinary adults who were determined ‘insane’ by the territorial legal system and probably deemed a threat to public safety. Later, the census shows many more Alaska Natives and children sent to the facility -- probably under the guise that they needed the care offered,” wrote Ganley, CEO of Information Insights in Fairbanks and a key volunteer on the project.

She said there were also many stories about people returning home after a short stay at the hospital and being fine, “so they likely had no clinical diagnosis at all."

The word “insane” was used to refer to a wide variety of mental and physical conditions in those days and mental illness was considered a crime.

Until the 1950s, the practice was to bring a person before a jury of six adult men who would be asked to enter a judgment that the person was sane or insane.

To some extent, it's hard to tell if the conditions described by officials from Morningside would today be regarded as examples of eccentric behavior instead of an illness requiring incarceration. For instance, in 1909 a man named Boisvert was given a 60-day parole from the hospital and went to Seattle, but was returned 30 days later.

"Since he has been with us, he has manifested simple mental disturbance relative to women, believing that he is an object of admiration and being quite annoying to the female sex in general," Gillespie said. "His condition is rather peculiar, he will not talk upon general subjects, but in conversation with him, he will promptly ask you, 'how are the ladies?' He is with us at the present time, locked up, and his parole taken away from him."

Medical examinations were not required and the people placed on trial were held as prisoners before being sent to Morningside. Many of the people who ended up in the hospital had little or no contact with their families in Alaska.

“Alaskans welcomed legislation that would provide care and treatment of the insane, but they resented the fact that patients were maintained in an institution located outside the territory,” historian Claus-M. Naske wrote in his biography of the late Sen. E.L. “Bob” Bartlett.

He said no one could request care without going through the court system, which meant a trial and treatment such as that given to criminals.

In a report listing patients from 1904-1918, Morningside President Dr. Henry Coe wrote to the Interior Secretary of the “remarkable recovery record” of the hospital. He said that patients should not be “removed to far-away Alaska, where recoveries would be 40 percent less, expenses 35 percent more and the joys of living immeasurably reduced.”

The situation began to change with the approval of the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act in 1956, followed by the construction of new facilities in Alaska.

The hospital, which was run by the Coe family for three generations, occupied a 47-acre site in southeast Portland that became the home of a mall in 1970. Allegations of financial improprieties led to a General Accounting Office investigation in 1956, but no charges were filed and the hospital continued to operate.

“By 1964, Morningside’s reputation had recovered to the degree that it was featured in an Oregonian article about its success as an ‘open hospital.’ Under the open hospital model, patients were controlled through sedatives rather than lock and key,” a Portland historical study says. The last patients left and the hospital closed its doors in 1968. The property was sold and the developed as Mall 205.

Visit the new Morningside database, here.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole.