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Shelves of forgotten souls

In Building 60 at Oregon State Hospital, thousands of copper canisters of cremated remains sat unclaimed, identified only by a number. In recent years, measures have been taken to reunite relatives with their lost loved ones.

May 13, 2011|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Thousands of copper canisters holding the remains of mental patients and others in a shed-like building at Oregon State Hospital were brought to the attention of the state Legislature in 2004.
Thousands of copper canisters holding the remains of mental patients and… (Greg Wahl-Stephens, Associated…)

Reporting from Salem, Ore. — The two copper canisters once shared the darkness of a decaying and abandoned room at Oregon State Hospital with about 3,500 others. Each etched with a distinct number, the containers held the unclaimed ashes of mental patients and others who had lived and died at the hospital and other state institutions.

No. 1864 held the remains of an 11-year-old boy committed as a "feeble-minded epileptic." He died in 1935.

No. 2664 contained the ashes of a grandfather committed for "senility." He died in 1941.

The dead remained together for decades in a forgotten isolation perhaps not uncommon to them in life. Then in 2004, state lawmakers and the public learned of the grim cache at the deteriorating hospital, now 128 years old.

Today, No. 1864 and No. 2664 are no longer with the group, the result of one man's efforts and a push by the hospital and lawmakers to reunite the remains with their families. As the man discovered, recovering these remains can unearth long-hidden memories and guilt, but also bring a measure of closure.

Officials now hope that the launch this year of an online database detailing the 3,476 canisters yet to be claimed will help other relatives reunite, or unite for the first time.

::

Don Whetsell remembers little of his older brother, Kenneth.

The brothers would sit at the foot of the bay windows in their Warrenton home in northwest Oregon in the 1930s. Painted by moonlight and with their gazes fixed beyond the windowpane, they would point at the light source and call out its name. Only a toddler, Whetsell would yelp "mook," as his brother, who was seven years older, cackled with laughter.

There were also dark nights when, through the walls, Whetsell could hear Kenneth's epilepsy taking hold, the disorder quaking him violently.

"Dad would carry Kenny. He'd cry and carry him," Whetsell said. "There was nothing you could do for him. Just comfort him and carry him."

Kenneth was sent to Oregon State Hospital in 1934, when he was 10. About a year later, he died there, and was cremated and labeled No. 1864.

Whetsell also remembers little of his grandfather Nathan McComber.

He was a "gruff old man" who would give his grandson a nickel to help sharpen the axe from his days as a railroad worker. When in a good mood, the old man let Whetsell sit in his truck and pretend to drive.

McComber's mind eventually degenerated to the point that he could not remember his own wife, Zella. One night, a frightened Zella called authorities, who arrested him.

In 1939, a judge committed the 70-year-old to Oregon State Hospital. About two years later, he too died there. He became No. 2664.

"They were there one day and gone the next," said Whetsell, too young at the time to comprehend where his brother and grandfather had gone.

As Whetsell got older and began asking family members questions, he was often rebuked. "My mom just didn't like to talk about Kenny, so I just accepted the fact that it was a hurt point for her," he said.

Whetsell went on with his life.

He left home at age 19 to fight in the Korean War and later sold construction equipment. He married, had three children and eventually retired in the Portland suburb of Tigard as a great-grandfather.

His brother and grandfather were a distant thought in his mind.

::

To get inside Building 60 at Oregon State Hospital, the tour guide had to search for the key.

It was 2004, and Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney and others were touring the Salem facility after news reports of abuse, neglect and deplorable conditions. They saw dilapidated buildings, leaking roofs, fingernail scratches on walls and pigeon feces littering the campus. Courtney spotted Building 60 — it looked like a shed — and asked to go inside.

"They open this room and it is loaded with dust and dirt, an old rickety table and shelves and shelves of these cans," Courtney said. "So I asked what they were, and he said, 'Cremains.' "

"I kept looking at can after can. Nothing in my life had prepared me for that. I didn't believe it," he said.

Many of the canisters were corroded, some tinted green from oxidation, some fused together from water damage. Though the majority contained the remains of mental patients from Oregon State Hospital, others held the ashes of prison inmates and of patients from four medical facilities, including Oregon State Tuberculosis Hospital.

Oregon State Hospital opened as the Oregon State Insane Asylum in 1883. At its peak in the 1950s, it housed more than 3,000 patients. The 1975 film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was filmed there.

But in the 1970s, with a push for more community-based care across the country, patient levels dropped and the hospital began falling into disrepair.

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