There is a room in the basement of Oregon State Hospital, nicknamed “The Room of Forgotten Souls.” This state-run hospital opened as the Oregon Hospital for the Insane in 1861 and later changed its name to the Oregon State Hospital in 1913.
In 2004, several copper cans were discovered in the basement of this hospital. It would be appropriate to call them copper urns, as they contained the remains of 3600 psychiatric patients, who were cremated on-site between 1917 and 1973. That’s one person dying every 5 days or so. This hospital actively performed lobotomies, eugenics and other questionable treatments on its inmates which would be deemed inhumane today.
The institution’s stark white walls can be seen in the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which used the hospital as its set. The hospital still operates to this day and has since created a memorial in front of it with a columbarium recognizing the many people whose lives came and went. They have been working on identifying the cremains and notifying families, but there is also a plaque there noting that many names are lost to time.
Unfortunately, this was not uncommon for sanitariums from the turn of the last century. In fact, if such facilities had space on site, they just made scores of indigent cemeteries with small simple headstones that just had a 3 to 4-digit number on them.
One such cemetery can be found on New York’s Hart Island. About one million people have been buried there since 1869, most of whom are children and stillborn babies. Very few people have even been allowed to visit this island, and taking pictures or videos is illegal there.
Every state in the USA has one similar story. Northern State Mental Hospital in Washington State closed down in 1973, but the building still stands there. The total number of patients who died in this facility is rumoured to be in the thousands. Behind this facility’s gymnasium is a graveyard full of unmarked graves, which has become overgrown over time.
Another such place was the Dunning Mental Asylum in Chicago, which in 1889 was described by a judge as “a tomb for the living.” He criticized the asylum for squeezing 1,000 patients into a space better suited for 500. More than 1000 people died there each year, and most were interned on site. Every now and then when people dig in the area they find remains. Asylum records only list 15,000 burials, but there could be up to 38,000 people buried there. After the state sold the land in 1989, they found many unmarked graves as they started to build on it.
Such cruel facilities though weren’t just limited to the USA. The word, Bedlam, which means an uproar or chaos, comes from the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Established in 1247, it was originally a shelter for the poor and an accommodation for visiting clergy, before becoming a mental asylum. It was notorious for its brutal treatment of the mentally ill, and until 1791, this institution welcomed paying visitors to watch the patients and sometimes taunt and abuse them with sticks. It is still a functioning NHS psychiatric hospital.
Though we can all agree that these state hospitals were all bad, we can’t really call it an improvement to allow people with mental illnesses to live miserable lives as the homeless on our streets, parks and underpasses. We still haven’t really figured out how to “thread the needle” between torture-as-care and feral cats when it comes to the severely mentally ill in our country.