My Day at the Oregon Insane Asylum

Child At The Asylum

Child Visiting The Asylum

Sometime this winter I will get my fifteen minutes of fame—well, after editing, probably three minutes of fame leaving me 12 minutes for some later date. Last month I got a call from Mark Kachelries, a producer with the Travel Channel’s TV series, Mysteries at the Museum. In each show Don Wildman, putting on his best Indiana Jones persona, tells stories and interspersed throughout are historic reenactments and comments from experts. Mark wondered if they could interview me.

Mysteries at The Museum

I’m an expert on something? I know what you’re thinking. “She’s obviously lost it. Do they still send out men in white to cart people to the insane asylum?”

Mysteries at the Museum will be doing a segment about Edmund Creffield this season and since I wrote about him in Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon’s Love Cult, I seemed like a logical person to interview. The logical museum to do the story from was the Oregon State Hospital Museum, better known as the Oregon State Insane Asylum. It was where several of the Holy Rollers were committed in 1904.

Holy Rollers

They filmed the interview yesterday and the whole experience was surreal. For one thing, Jack Nicholson was lurking behind a window during the whole interview.

Spencer, T-, Mark and Branden

Spencer (sound guy), T- (expert), Mark (producer) and Branden (camera guy)

I know what you’re thinking. “See. She really has gone mad. It’s good that she drove herself to the asylum and didn’t  wait for the men in white.”

The asylum’s biggest claim to fame is that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed there, its most famous lobotomy being a fictional one. My interview took place in front of a display about the movie and behind the camera and sound guys a picture of Nicholson was pasted inside a door’s window.

 Jack Nicholso lurking behind a door.

Jack Nicholson lurking.

I know what you’re thinking. “It doesn’t matter. She’s still quite mad.”

Another thing that made the interview surreal was that during it patients were trying to break out of the asylum. The museum occupies a small part of the hospital. It’s still a functioning asylum with about 600 patients, about 80% of them “forensic patients” (criminals “found guilty except for insanity”).

Warning Sign at the Asylum

A sign outside the Oregon State Hospital: “Contraband includes but is not limited to controlled substances, drug paraphernalia, weapons, explosives, escape devices.”

Every few minutes—or when I was really on a roll—loud scraping noises came from the floor above us and they had to stop filming

“Sounds like the patients are trying to escape,” I said.

“The administrative offices are up there,” the museum’s director said.

“Oh,” I replied. “So the administrators are trying to escape.”

I know what you’re thinking. “See. She really is quite mad. They didn’t let her just walk out of there after the interview, did they?”

They did.

Besides, they couldn’t have held me long even if they had wanted to. I know how to escape from there. I’d have thrown a hydrotherapy machine out the window like Chief did at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m buff, don’t you know?

Yeah, you’re right. I am crazy.

hydrotherapy machine

hydrotherapy machine top

Hydrotherapy Machine

The show will air sometime this winter. I’ll let you know more when I know more.


Ronelle, production assistant

Buy an eBook version of Holy Rollers: Murder and Madness in Oregon’s Love Cult at Amazon or iTunes for $3.99, or email me and get and autographed paperback for $16.95.

Sample Chapter: Sane People Don’t Go Bareheaded

Some of the Holy Rollers’ Commitment Papers to the Oregon Insane Asylum

The Oregon Insane Asylum in 1907

Frank & Molly at the Asylum

Imagine my delight at finding a photo of Frank and Molly Hurt, two of the Holy Rollers, on display in the first room of the Museum.

Asylum Hallway

A huge blow-up of a photo of an asylum hallway, the backdrop for my interview.

Patient's Room at the Asylum

A recreation of a patient’s room.

Bible in the Patient's Room at the Asylum

Inside a chest of drawers in the patient’s room were some books, including a Bible. I doubt there were any Bibles allowed in the Holy Roller’s rooms since one of the reasons they were committed to the asylum was because they were deemed to be religious fanatics.

Why women were committed to the asylum

“Women’s Specific Causes of Insanity as Listed in Oregon State Hospital Biennial Reports.” In 1905 they included “childbirth, female trouble, menstrual trouble, menopause, ovarian trouble, puerperal fever (infection of the female reproductive tract following childbirth or miscarriage) and uterine trouble.”

Asylum Operating Table

An asylum operating table.

Cuckoo's Nest Broom

“Broom or ‘Drag’: This broom is similar to the one used by Chief Bromden in the movie. They were called drags, and used to polish ward floors. These drags were used from the early 1900s.”

Phlebotomy Box

My dyslexia kicked in and I thought this was labeled “O.D. Lobotomy Box” and wondered what sorts of ice-pick-like implements were locked inside. The museum director said, “No. Phlebotomy Box, not lobotomy.” Dang. That’s not nearly as titillating as Lobotomy Box … unless you’re a vampire.

Electroshock Equipment

Electroshock paraphernalia.

electroencephalography book

“Clinical Electro-encephalography.”

Tunnels at the Asylum

Tunnels Under the Asylum

Tunnel Therapy at the Asylum

“In the 1960s when a scandal broke out that the hospital was encouraging ‘tunnel therapy’ by allowing patients to have sex in the underground passages beneath the hospital, Brooks (the hospital’s superintendent) rounded up the media and herded them into the dank depths. ‘There,” he said, pointing at the cold cement floor as the cameras clicked away. ‘Do you imagine anyone wants to make love here?’” Statesman Journal

Asylum Incubator

A sign near this incubator said “Cigarettes, 1955: At the present time, all types of patients are quartered in the admissions wards, including a mentally ill boy in the men’s ward and an 8-year-old girl in the woman’s ward. Attendants report the girl appears with cigarettes almost as if by magic despite close watch over her.”

Asylum Cremains

Some of the unclaimed 3,500 cremains at the hospital.

Sewing at the Asylum

Many patients at the hospital used to work in the sewing shop. I wonder if any of the Holy Rollers did.

Sewing and Crafts at the Asylum

Basket and Rug Weavers at the Asylum

Basket and rug weaving at the asylum.

Asylum Dining Room

The asylum’s dining room circa 1905.

Asylum Laundry Room

The asylum laundry room circa 1905.

Asylum Baseball team in 1901

The asylum’s 1901 baseball team.

Economy Torniquet

Economy Tourniquet


Bausch and Lomb Otoscope

Oregon State Hospital Museum Director

Oregon State Hospital Museum Director