Built in the 1800s, the Oregon State Hospital has a reportedly insidious past that went on for years. Once an insane asylum, it is said that terrible malpractice occurred within its walls and that it had a secret tunnel that connected the buildings which shrouded these terrible experiments that were rumored to have been conducted on its patients. Today, part of the hospital has been preserved as a museum, and even now visitors to the hospital claim to have experienced paranormal activity, where they feel as if they are being watched, while on the premises.
The History of the Oregon State Hospital
Located in Salem, Oregon many of the original parts of the State Hospital still remain in use, while other parts are closed off due to severe disrepair. A new wing was constructed in 2011 where most of the patient care takes place now—the grounds look fairly inviting from the outside, there is unfortunately very little indication of the kind of horrors that took place within. When the facility was originally built, it was intended to serve all patients, but it soon became overcrowded and due to this, it became a more specialized facility that served the criminally insane and the mentally handicapped. Visitors are free to tour the campus as well as the interior of the hospital, where they learn that an estimated two-thirds of the population was found to be both mentally insane and found guilty of a crime.
Although these days, the original hospital and asylum are no longer taking patients, the Oregon State Hospital is still in business—but now mostly as a museum, perhaps as a monument to the way we used to treat those who had mental turmoil or abnormal conditions. Taking a tour of the hospital provides those interested with a fairly accurate perspective at the people who were once housed there, as well as the insanity that they actually endured at the hands of doctors who did not have their patients’ best interests at heart. The hospital was built in 1883 and for only having existed for almost a century and a half, the building has a lot of stories to tell. Like any old-fashioned asylum, patients fell victim to things that would never be acceptable by today’s medical practice standards. Over the years that these terrible experiments, abuse, and torture felt at the hands of both staff and fellow patients, it’s estimated that hundreds if not thousands of patients died within the asylum—it’s not incredibly surprising that it has the reputation of housing so many tortured souls.
If you take a tour of the facilities, you’ll find the museum is certain to educate people on the terrifying experiences that patients lived through in their time within the hospital. Exhibits fill the halls that were once filled with patients and the location was made popular when it was used as the filming location for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Surprisingly it functions still as the state’s sole psychiatric hospital. Within the exhibits, visitors can see the entire overview of how procedures for treating mentally ill patients has changed over the years, from its opening in the late 1800s to the present day. Even though the rooms were all remodeled, there lingers an intensely creepy presence throughout the museum.
The Unfortunate Incident of 1942
One of the more ghastly stories that haunt the walls of this old facility happened in 1942, when forty-seven people were killed and hundreds more were struck incredibly ill after they were served their daily breakfast.
The Real Story…
Nearly eighty years ago now, on November 18, 1942, a terrifying scene unfolded at the Oregon State Hospital; what began like any other day ended in tragedy and confusion. After being served an enticing breakfast of scrambled eggs, patients began to die left and right—they presented with illness by vomiting blood and writhing on the floor in agony. Some patients died in minutes, others succumbed to this mysterious terror hours later, the death toll ended at forty-seven lives having been lost. In the official report, 263 patients fell ill, but the newspapers that ran the story reported that over four hundred patients had contracted this unknown illness.
At first, there was a fear of sabotage—Governor Charles A. Sprague called it a mass murder, where today it would be called a terrorist attack during a time where the country was already in the midst of World War II. With the fear of sabotage on the West Coast, there was a suspicion that the food supply had been compromised, as it was considered a vulnerable target. The eggs that had been served at the state hospital came from the federal surplus commodities that were distributed by the U.S. government and were part of a shipment that had been divided between the state institutions, schools, as well as other programs in Oregon. Governor Sprague immediately ordered that all institutions stop using the eggs which had come packed frozen in 30 lb. tin cans—the federal government followed suit and issued a similar order.
An investigation was immediately launched and officials from the Army, American Medical Association, and Food and Drug Administration were quickly dispatched to the state hospital campus in Salem. Considering the patient occupancy of the hospital was estimated to have been around 2,700 at the time—which is more than five times the amount that it treats today—it was exactly the reaction that we would hope to see. First-hand accounts remain what can be found in newspaper archives and a report submitted to the Journal of the American Medical Association from two of the doctors who worked at the state hospital, and one who worked at the Oregon State Police crime lab in Portland.
One of the doctors to first respond was Dr. William L. Lidbeck, a pathologist who lived in one of the cottages on-site. What he found was a horror show—patients were experiencing abdominal cramping, and severe nausea, which turned into them vomiting blood, having seizures, struggling to breathe, and even some experiencing paralysis. Lidbeck had deduced that they had ingested a virulent poison and believed those who died the quickest had eaten the most of the poisoned eggs, whereas others would have had their death prolonged for hours. The night ended with a full morgue, chapel, and a hallway lined with bodies.
It is said that the death toll would have been worse if not for one heroic staff member, Nurse Allie Wassel, who took one bite of the eggs after the trays were brought to her ward. She immediately noticed the taste wasn’t right, so she refused to serve them to any of her patients. She became ill, but survived and was credited with saving many lives. Those who weren’t lucky enough to be in her ward put their spoons down after complaining that the eggs tasted too salty, or soapy and they began to immediately experience symptoms.
The investigation into the incident was of the utmost importance was conducted swiftly—autopsies were done on six patients, and samples of the poisoned eggs were taken from their stomach contents as well as the patients’ plates. These samples were fed to rats who succumbed within minutes and within twenty-two hours it the poison was identified as sodium fluoride, but it was also only found in the eggs cooked at the Oregon State Hospital. Commonly used as an insecticide for rats and cockroaches, it is a white substance that acts quickly, but could be easily mistaken for flour, baking powder, or powdered milk—even ingesting a small amount could be fatal. The thing they didn’t know, was whether it was intentionally fed to the patients, or if it had been a horrible accident.
According to the reports, the hospital’s assistant cook confessed and told the officials that he had sent a patient to the basement storeroom for powdered milk and the patient mistakenly brought back roach poison and it had been mixed in with the scrambled eggs. Patients in asylums were regularly used to help in the kitchen and around the hospital, as a part of a work-experience opportunity to help them with self-esteem, feeling productive, as well as earning a small wage. Procedures now have changed so vastly that an incident like the one that occurred at the Oregon State Hospital could no longer happen.
The patient who had retrieved the poison instead of the powdered milk? Twenty-seven-year-old George Nosen, who had admitted himself to the hospital as a paranoid schizophrenic. Nosen had been assigned to kitchen detail—washing dishes, cleaning floors, preparing for lines of other patients—and the kitchen was seriously understaffed. That mealtime had been incredibly busy, so Abraham McKillop the assistant cook had sent Nosen to fetch the powdered milk—a violation of the rules established at the hospital in 1908—and Nosen apparently wandered into the wrong storeroom, which tragically opened with the same key he had been given for the food storeroom. The storeroom with the poisons and the storeroom with the food were only eleven feet apart—and it was ruled to have been a tragic accident. While terrible, it did bring about some necessary changes to the way the hospital conducted its safety practices, as well as the labeling, is done by the Food and Drug Administration.
The Tortured Souls That Haunt the Ground
What remains within the walls of the Oregon State Hospital, including the intimidating and creepy underground tunnels, has created an environment where those who have investigated have felt an overwhelming sense of evil. The brave souls who willingly explore the tunnels and other areas of this haunted asylum are undeterred by the stories about patients allegedly being transported in the tunnels below the facility, or the evidence that suggests they were used for immoral, unethical, and barbaric medical experiments; this all took place so deep underground that their screams could not be heard. Phantom footsteps, doors opening and closing on their own, screams, and cries from former patients can all be experienced at the Oregon State Hospital.
A lot of the unrest that can be found here can also probably be attributed to the controversy of the hospital staff having lost over 1,500 cans of patients’ cremated remains.
Author. Artist. A little bit Alaskan. Mary lives with her dog in a rural cabin outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. They explore the bounty of the Alaskan wilderness during the summer and cozy up in their log cabin during the winter.