Oregon mental hospital honors 'forgotten souls'

By JONATHAN J. COOPER Associated Press Published:

SALEM, Ore. -- They were dubbed the "forgotten souls" -- the cremated remains of thousands of people who came through the doors of Oregon's state mental hospital, died there and whose ashes were abandoned inside 3,500 copper urns.

Discovered a decade ago at the decrepit Oregon State Hospital, where "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was filmed, the remains became a symbol of the state's -- and the nation's -- dark history of treating the mentally ill.

A research effort to unearth the stories of those who moved through the hospital's halls, and to reunite the remains with surviving relatives, takes center stage today as officials dedicate a memorial to those once-forgotten patients.

"No one wants to be laid to rest without some kind of acknowledgement that they were here, that they contributed, that they lived," said state Senate President Peter Courtney, who led a successful effort to replace the hospital and build the memorial.

Between 1913 and 1971, more than 5,300 people were cremated at the hospital.

Most were patients at the mental institution, but some died at local hospitals, the state tuberculosis hospital, a state penitentiary or the Fairview Training Center, where people with developmental disabilities were institutionalized.

Hospital officials have been working for years to reunite the remains of their former patients with surviving relatives. Since the urns were found by lawmakers on a tour of the hospital in 2005, 183 have been claimed.

The 3,409 that remain and have been identified are listed in a searchable online database.

Records are sparse, even for people who lived for decades inside the walls. But what does survive is a window not only into who they were, but the time in which they lived.

Wencel Devorak, a saddler born in Bohemia, was 33 when he was committed on Jan. 31, 1890 struggling with delusions that others on the road to Portland were following him and teasing him about his wife. The handful of notes in his file show his delusions continued throughout his 40-year stay at the hospital.

Susanna Weber arrived at Dammasch State Hospital, a now-closed mental institution, on July 26, 1962 at age 82. A widower, she was committed by her sister and a friend, who had cared for her for three years, but couldn't keep going. She'd been sent to a nursing home, but administrators kicked her out because she wouldn't stop wandering and rifling through other patients' possessions, according to a social worker's report written shortly after Weber arrived.

The remains of Devorak, Weber and thousands of others have been transferred from the copper canisters to ceramic urns that will better protect them. The old canisters will be preserved to give visitors to the memorial a sense for how they once were housed.

"I think it will be very difficult to forget them now," said Jodie Jones, the state administrator leading the hospital replacement project.

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