The Gruesome History of the State Hospital in Salem, OR

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Featured Haunted Places Horror Mystery and Lore

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

Can of Cremated Patient Remains
David Maisel, Library of Dust 103-566

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.

The Insatiable Hunger of the Wendigo

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Horror Mystery and Lore

Forever Wasting Away

Buck staring menacingly
Photography by Paul Johnston

Once during a brutally cold winter, there was a lost hunter whose intense hunger drove him to the unforgivable act of cannibalism; this taste of human flesh he was transformed into an insane bestial man, doomed to wander the forests awaiting his next meal. This is the story of the wendigo who is derived from the folklore of the Native Algonquian Tribes, but like any good story that came from an oral story tradition, the details vary based on who you ask and where you are—there are even those who say the Wendigo is related to Bigfoot, but most agree that the Wendigo is closer to a Werewolf. The Wendigo is said to be more of a cold-weather creature, having been sighted primarily in Canada and parts of the Northern United States, where many of the unsolved disappearances would be blamed on this beast’s cannibalistic tendencies.

This insatiable predator is certainly a sight to see—although you wouldn’t ever want to see him—despite being nearly fifteen feet tall, he appears as a hybrid between a buck and a human male, who is gaunt, emaciated, and rotting. Don’t let this fool you though, he’s incredibly dangerous with his sharp teeth and claws—nothing will save you from his obsession for finding his next meal. Forever wasting away, it’s an insatiable hunger that drives his need to kill and consume.

“The Wendigo” by Algernon Blackwood (audiobook)

More Than an Urban Legend

https://soundcloud.com/backstory/where-the-windigos-are

During the turn of the twentieth century, the Algonquian people say that numerous members of their tribe simply disappeared—they attributed these disappearances to the Wendigo. Unfortunately, this can also be associated with the legend that the Wendigo has the ability to curse humans as the Wendigo by possessing them, gradually imparting his own lust for human flesh that makes this monster so frighteningly compelling. The most famous case of this happening is that of Swift Runner; during the winter of 1879, this Native American man murdered and consumed his entire family. When questioned for his crimes, Swift Runner told the authorities that he had been possessed by a Wendigo’s spirit during the murder and cannibalism. Regardless of his claims, he was found guilty and he was sentenced to hang. Swift Runner’s case was not an abnormality amongst the tribal communities that inhabited the regions of Northern Quebec all the way to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado—so it makes us wonder whether or not the Wendigo is more than just an urban legend.

Does the Wendigo Still Exist?

There is always the potential for a Wendigo to come into existence—since the plague of this creature is that his form is a form of punishment for dishonorable or taboo activities—like chomping down on your fellow man if you’re starving to death. It makes a person wonder about the tragedy that befell the Donner party, did any Wendigos spawn from that horror story? According to the Author of Dangerous Spirits: The Windigo in Myth and History, “[the Wendigo] was a means of defining moral and social behavior, which could serve as a warning against greed and selfishness.” Other ways a Wendigo could come into being is if a medicine man or shaman cast a curse upon the man, or if the man had dreamt of the Wendigo—it was often an explanation used for mental illnesses and other afflictions before they were fully understood.

Antlers (2020)
Antlers (2020)

The real concern about the Wendigo is whether or not it actually exists in this day and age—since no one in their right mind would ever seek out such an unstoppable creature, it’s fair to say that it would be best to avoid an encounter entirely. Thankfully, a majority of sightings happened between the 1800s and the 1920s, with very few of them having had occurred since—those brave enough to seek this monster out would be more likely to catch a glimpse of the Wendigo if they look through the forests that Wendigos inhabit during the colder months of the year. Then again, tromping through the forest in the middle of winter in the harsh climate that the Wendigo is said to frequent isn’t the sanest thing a person could do.

So what do you think? Would you ever go into the blistering cold forest in search of a monster from whom there is no escape? Or would you leave his existence a mystery?

Movies Referencing the Wendigo

The Real Annabelle and Other Truly Haunted Dolls

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore
Close up view of a creepy dirty porcelain doll
Photography by Patrick Hendry

Any object can be haunted, but perhaps due to the fact that dolls are physically modeled to bear a resemblance to human beings, they have more of a proclivity to be vessels of spirit possession. According to Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend, “haunted dolls are either possessed by malign, nonhuman entities or earthbound spirits—who are usually female—either children who died as a result of a horrific accident or women who are the victims of domestic violence. In both instances, prospective buyers are cautioned to treat the dolls with respect and to rehome them with another buyer if the object becomes too much to handle; destruction would free the spirit and either cause it distress or make it more dangerous.”

The Real Annabelle doll locked up in the Warren Occult Museum
Artwork by Mary Farnstrom

An exception to the gender stereotype that plagues the haunted doll theory, is Robert the Enchanted Doll. This particular doll has been located in Key West, Florida since 1904 and is still on display in the Fort East Martello Museum. The original owner of Robert was a four-year-old boy named Robert Eugene Otto—Gene to his family—the doll was given to him by the family’s maid and activity started immediately after Gene came into possession of the doll. While the doll’s name is Robert, little is known about the spirit that haunts the doll, all is known are the stories that are told about its activity. During Gene’s childhood, Robert was frequently blamed for items being scattered across the home, as well as upturned furniture. As an adult, Gene maintained ownership of the doll, but knowing what it was capable of, he locked it in the turret of his home, where neighborhood children said they saw it staring at them from the windows, often changing places on its own.

It’s unclear as to why people still insist upon wanting to own spirit-possessed dolls, but what is clear is that it’s sure to be a trend that continues on for quite a while. One possible reason why these things continue to be items that are sought after is that there are a lot of would-be paranormal investigators who have little to no experience dealing with spirits in the first place. They get the idea that they can collect evidence and make it big if they come into ownership of a doll, simultaneously proving the existence of ghosts and the dolls they haunt, as well as making a name for themselves. Whatever their motivation, it feels like they lack the guidance to understand what they are getting themselves into and therefore are making decisions without knowing the full risks of their endeavors.

Annabelle the Doll: The Origins Documentary

The True Horror Story Behind Annabelle

Annabelle (2014) Trailer

Haunted dolls are considered a commodity in today’s culture, due to popular horror culture making them popular with horror films like The Conjuring (2013), Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017), and the most recent horror movie Annabelle Comes Home (2019). People enjoy the fictional horror stories so intensely that they feel a connection to haunted objects without realizing the perils that can be attached to them. The story behind The Conjuring and Annabelle franchise though is actually more real than many people realize—sure the movies are amped up to create the thrills and adrenaline rush that people so desire, but these movies were based on true accounts of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Annabelle: Creation (2017) Trailer

The Warren’s Museum of the Occult contains more haunted and cursed objects than any other museum presently known, which serves as evidence of the paranormal and supernatural forces that are at work within this world. Although I have never been to the museum myself, it is said that the collection is dominated by dolls that are haunted or inhabited by evil spirits—the most well-known of which is actually the real Annabelle doll. There is a rather long and convoluted history about the doll and its origin, which is further convoluted by the fictional embellishments added to the movies.

Annabelle Comes Home (2019) Trailer

What has been alleged is that the doll’s original owner consulted a medium who said the doll was actually inhabited by an evil spirit and not a ghost at all—which is when the Warrens took possession of it, had it exorcised, then locked it in a blessed cabinet to ward off any potential activity from starting at their own house. The whole story is spoken of in-depth in the book The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren. The real Annabelle is quite a bit different from her presence in the films, where she is portrayed as a fragile, yet incredibly creepy porcelain doll with exaggerated features. In reality, she is what seems to be a run of the mill Raggedy Ann doll, the same type that many of us girls owned as children, something that would seem soft, safe, and cuddly.

Dolls like Robert and Annabelle remain objects of scary stories and fascination for a lot of people across the world and while the idea of them definitely belongs to the public, the dolls belong in a place where they can be properly warded and kept away from unsuspecting bystanders.