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Mourning Morningside Hospital

In territorial days, Alaskans could be one of three places…Inside (in Alaska), Outside (anywhere else), or Morningside (Morningside Hospital).

Bennett Blackjack lived a remarkable life.  He was the son of the first Eskimo heroine of arctic exploration, Ada Blackjack, and brother of respected native leader Billy Blackjack Johnson.

As a child, Bennett suffered from spinal meningitis and tuberculosis.  Between 1927-37 he lived at the Jesse Lee Home in Seward while his mother was recovering from TB.  There Bennett became an accomplished pianist who was often featured at recitals, despite the fact that he was completely deaf and only had the use of one eye according to Jackie Pels book, Family After All, Alaska’s Jesse Lee Home, Volume II.

Ada collected her sons, brought them back to Nome, and that is when Bennett’s difficult journey turned into what many would find to be an impossible one.

The recently uncovered records of Morningside Hospital offer a glimpse into what surely were the worst years of his challenging life.  Bennett’s patient notes shine a bit of light on the dark corners of one of Alaska’s dirtiest secrets:

Patient Number 1775. Blackjack, Bennett- admitted November 7, 1938. Nome, Male, Eskimo, White. Age 21, Alaskan born, Woodcutter. Single. Committed because of persecutory ideas. Shot at imaginary persecutors. Grandiose ideas. Reacts to auditory hallucinations. Adjusts well in hospital. Suffers from pulmonary tuberculosis. Diagnosis: Dementia Preacox. Paranoid type. Prognosis Unfavorable. 

Facts about Bennett’s story, and the story of many Alaskans who were involuntarily committed to what was billed as a mental hospital, but in reality was for some more like a concentration work camp, are just now being brought to light.

Former Alaskan Commissioner of Health and Social Services Karen Perdue and CEO of the public policy research company Information Insights Ellen Ganley were contracted to create the Alaska Mental Health Trust History Jukebox.  Started in 2007 by the Oral History Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, with funding from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, the project offers remarkable insight into the long struggle to provide quality mental health services in Alaska from the perspective of the people who participated.

A three-day trip to the National Archives resulted in the discovery of 42 boxes of Morningside Hospital records.  Perdue and Ganley brought what they could back to Alaska, uncovering a story that reads like a Hollywood script as it brings to light the tales of the unfortunate patients there. 

According to a chapter on Morningside Hospital and the Passage of the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act in Bob Bartlett of Alaska…a Life in Politics by Claus Naske, prior to Statehood, ‘mentally ill or retarded people would be declared “an insane person at Large” in a court hearing before a jury of six laymen who would be impaneled to “to inquire, try and determine whether the person so complained of is really insane.”’

Naske contends that contrary to the American concept of justice, these court trials for insanity laid the burden of proof upon the accused person.  A friendless soul in the throws of a hangover might prove so unresponsive to questioning, so ignorant of the importance of the hearing, or simply so inept with the English language, that the lay jury might in good conscience adjudge them “insane as charged.”

Senator Bob Bartlett, Alaska’s Territorial Delegate to Congress, heard testimony from Alaskan Edward Cannon, who fought for an Alaskan institution, suggesting it “will stop a lot of railroading [of patients] on frame-ups by crooked territorial appointees who wanted to settle their revenges in this way.”  According to Naske, no transcripts of Alaskan commitment hearings have been found. 

In their blog, MorningsideHospital.com, Ganley writes, “It was never clear to me when Morningside started admitting children.  The patient lists during the early years seemed to be populated by miners, gamblers and others who came North to seek their fortunes.  By the time Alaska assumed responsibility for providing mental health services to its citizens in 1956, a significant percentage of patients at Morningside were children with developmental disabilities.  Some admitted soon after birth.”

“A Survey of the First Admissions to the Alaska Hospital for the Insane,” a thesis presented by Doris Freeburger to the Division of Philosophy, Psychology, and Education at Reed College in May 1941, found the average patient was a single male in his 30-40s.

 At that time, 58.4 % of the population was not diagnosed. Dementia, panic depressive, epileptic, senile, mental defective,  general nerosis, paranoid, trama, drug addiction, and a high rate of alcoholic psychoses rounded out the population’s reported aliments.  About half of those deemed as “mentally defective” were Alaska natives who spoke poor English.

Over the decades, federal inspections of Morningside by doctors representing the Congressional Government Operations Committee painted a grim picture of life in the facility.   Admissions procedures were characterized as “comparable to the apprehension and commitment of a criminal” with the words “archaic, cruel, inhumane and essentially barbaric” underlined in the report.

The Morningside Hospital Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, House of Representatives 1957 provided a comprehensive narrative of the practices of Morningside Hospital from 1905-1957.

The Majority Opinion suggested that “The greatest shortcoming lies in the fact that practically no psychiatric treatment is afforded the many patients who urgently need such treatment.  The professional staff is inadequate numerically and professionally to provide the required treatment.” One clinical psychiatrist, with a minimum of training, was available for the psychiatric care of 344 patients at the time.

Under the open hospital model, the Opinion noted that Morningside patients were controlled through sedatives rather than lock and key.  New patients received a regular psychiatric interview, after which electric shock and/or insulin shock was often prescribed. 

The Opinion further stated that, a “violent and hazardous” treatment, insulin-coma therapy was found to be used “dangerously” at the “grossly understaffed” hospital “without sufficient professional personnel.” Some of the patients selected for insulin shock therapy were poor risks as they were over 65 years old, or suffering from serious physical ailments,

It explained that insulin shock therapy involves injection of insulin for the purpose of inducing a temporary coma, which is terminated after some 15 – 30 minutes by administering glucose, sometimes intravenously but usually by means of a tube inserted into the stomach either through the nose or mouth while the patient is in a coma.   Because of the danger of introducing the tube into the lungs and drowning the patient with the glucose, a gavage should be done only by medically trained doctors and registered nurses. 

But when the insulin shock therapy treatment was inaugurated by Dr. Thompson at Morningside Hospital, there was only one registered nurse at Morningside.  Her duty hours were from 6 am to 2:30 pm, and after she left the attendants would terminate the secondary insulin coma, which often developed several hours after the initial treatment.  Many gavages were performed without records being made of the procedures.

The Opinion determined that a number of patients died either as a direct result of the insulin therapy treatment or within 24 hours after undergoing the shock, with substantial evidence indicating that some of the deaths may have occurred from drowning of patients while being gavaged by attendants without benefit of proper oversight.

In a number of cases the Congressional Committee found “shocking instances of neglect of patients”.  They noted that it was a common practice for elderly patients who lacked control of their eliminative functions to be “strapped to stools in the lavatory” for many hours.  In one instance, in 1950, a patient who was “usually” kept strapped to the pot chair “all day”, was found dead of exhaustion.

Another example citied was in 1953, when a patient who vomited during an epileptic fit was placed into a bathtub and doused with buckets of water instead of being cleaned with a sponge or cloth.  The patient, whose head was under water at times during the epileptic seizure, died a few minutes later.

“The evidence before the committee indicated that when medical examiner Dr. Keller was first assigned to Morningside Hospital in April 1947, he found conditions at Morningside deplorable, with inadequate staff, and improper care and treatment verging upon outright abuse,” suggested the Opinion.

The detailed government report told the story of how Morningside Hospital’s owners made millions off the forced labor of their heavily tranquilized patients, and fed them food that was ‘lacking in variety, unappetizing, “full of grease.” And that included old and moldy bread, pork with bristles. And that the food served to employees was superior to that served to patients.’

Those who died were “buried without regard for common standards of decency” including interment of more than one individual in a single grave.  Government reports noted graves of Morningside patients were near a ravine, overgrown by tall grass, and unmarked.  Outer caskets were not used.  It was determined that because of confusion in records as well as absence of markers, it would “be difficult or impossible to locate and identify some of the bodies if a relative should wish to disinter a deceased patient.”

Karen Perdue and Ellen Ganley are spending their free time sifting through dusty boxes, compiling information, and posting it up on MorningsideHospital.com.  The Wall of Names of Morningside Patients found at   http://www.morningsidehospital.com/morningside-patient-lists/ sees constant additions. 

In the National Archives are nearly all of the Morningside patient lists from 1904-1950s, contracts, investigation reports, personnel records, medical officer reports, and administrative correspondence.  There are also telegrams, vouchers, and letters.  Some of the letters concern the custody and care of mental patients, discharge of cured individuals, as well as a few heartbreaking missives from family members to patients that were retained by Morningside Hospital.

Perdue and Gangley have set up a website, MorningsideHospital.com, to disseminate information on committed Alaskans.  Efforts to assemble a database of patient names and information has begun, but is missing the estimated $15,000 needed to complete the task.  In a recent interview, Purdue suggested that they weren’t anticipating the extreme emotional toll their efforts would exact.

‘One day at a meeting, while on break, I called a friend over to my laptop and pulled up the list, pointed my finger at a name and said “this guy has your last name—ever hear of him?”   What was I thinking!  The reaction of my colleague was immediate and profound.  “That is my brother—and we have been looking for him for decades, said my friend tears streaming down his face.”’  Purdue writes in their blog.

For now these two volunteers are working their way through the copies they brought home from the National Archives; posting the information on their website.  There are thousands of stories at Morningside Hospital, none of them have happy endings.  For some, at least, now at last the story has an ending.

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