A Mineral Hot Springs Insane Asylum

This week I am writing about some mental health history for work. It is the story of two competing mental hospitals; one in Alaska, the other in Portland, Oregon. I thought I would write a shorter article about it here on my blog, and provide a link to the longer, sourced story on the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association blog later!

During the late 1800s and into the mid 1900s, Alaska had no hospital for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Dr. Frederick Leland Goddard of Buckland, Massachusetts and his family started building what they hoped would be Alaska’s first asylum for the mentally ill on the island of Sitka. It would be a healing, therapeutic center built on an ancient mineral hot springs considered sacred by local native Alaskans for thousands of years. This of course raises the issue of whether he had any right to that land in the first place.  Sitka, Alaska was the home of the first Native Alaska Brotherhood, founded in 1912 to address racism and discrimination against Native Alaskans. Native Alaskans would be included in the treatment at an Alaska asylum, should one be created.

Dr. Frederick Goddard was hoping that the territory’s mentally ill would find a different type of relief at his asylum: more humane treatment that centered on the mineral hot springs instead of chains and the type of mistreatment he had seen during his days as Superintendent of the Western Washington Hospital for the Insane, where he worked to reform the institution,a place that had been long neglectful towards its patients. His Sitka asylum was built of wood and did not look like a typical hospital. It was surrounded by lush forests and serene pools of water. Dr. Goddard was fueled also by the memory of his great Uncle Josiah Spaulding (1786-1867), who was mentally ill and kept in a cage for 57 years. ( I also write extensively about Josiah and his life on the APHGA blog). He knew that if there was no place for those in need of care to go in Alaska, families would often resort to handling their mentally ill or developmentally disabled relatives in the way Josiah was. During Josiah’s era, there was no asylum he could be sent to, and no psychiatric treatment he could have received. Individual families often do not have the means to care for a disabled person on their own. In Josiah’s case, they resorted to keeping him in a cage, common in the 19th century.


Sitka, Alaska                                                                          A cage or “crib”.

Dr. Goddard’s Hot Springs Asylum needed government support and a contract from the Department of the Interior to operate and be allowed to receive Alaska’s mentally ill and developmentally disabled for treatment. In 1904, Dr. Henry Waldo Coe of Portland, Oregon, had received the coveted government contract for his hospital, Morningside. Dr. Coe was friends with then-president Theodore Roosevelt, whom he had met as a young man in the Dakota Territory, and this political connection, among others he had, most likely helped him secure the contract. Alaska’s patients were shipped to Portland as a result. Morningside was a typical mental hospital of the era, and Dr. Coe profited famously from it. Thousands of Alaskans, including Natives, were sent to this hospital, two states away from their home. Many of them never returned to Alaska, and died at Morningside.

Doctors visit with patients who are kept in restraints.

Doctors visit with patients who are kept in restraints.


In order to be sent to Morningside, a person went before a judge and jury in Alaska. It was this process that would decide if they were insane or an “idiot” (a person incapable of self-care). They would be put in chains like a criminal and handled by law enforcement if the judgement was that they were indeed disabled in some way, and sent against their will to Portland, after first being sent to prison. Dr. Goddard was not in favor of handling the mentally ill and disabled like hardened criminals, and


spoke out against it, writing in a state report that it was unnecessary. Today, almost 500,000 mentally ill people are housed in United States prisons. Often they are kept in solitary confinement. Prisons are not equipped to deal with such a large population of mentally ill persons. Like  Dr. Frederick’s Uncle Josiah Spaulding, they are kept behind bars and away from the outside world, and given minimal to no treatment. Photographs of mentally ill prisoners show them in cages during a therapy session at one prison, a cage not far removed from Josiah’s. (Visit  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/asylums/view/ to see it). While the mentally ill in this situation have committed crimes, treatment for their illness that was needed in the first place could have been a deterrent. And like the inmates of Morningside, these convicted mentally ill prisoners were sent before a judge and jury- only their placement was not at a hospital, but incarceration. Morningside itself was also a form of incarceration, like many mental hospitals were until they started closing in the 1960s and 70s.Patients would spend upwards of 30 or 40 years in these institutions, living out their entire lives there with no say in the matter. Often nothing was really wrong with them. Morningside came under scrutiny in about 1916 for never releasing any of its patients, and again in the 1940s for a lack of psychiatric treatment given to patients who had no diagnosis. Archival records from the hospital often give “dementia”  or “paranoia” as a diagnosis, which are too vague.  The hospital served to enrich Dr. Coe and later, his son who took over the business. Not releasing patients meant more money for the hospital.


Morningside Hospital

Dr. Frederick Goddard’s Hot Springs Asylum never did manifest due to the wealthy, politically connected Dr. Coe’s continued government contract. The Hot Springs Asylum became Goddard Hotel, which still exists today. Morningside Hospital remained in operation to 1968. In the 1950s, the hospital was audited, and the IRS discovered that the hospital had been inflating expenses, allowing it to profit almost 70,000 extra dollars a year. In 1956, the Alaskan Mental Health Enabling Act was passed which ended the transferal of patients to Portland.

A project is currently in the  works to identify and find out what happened to thousands of inhabitants that went to Morningside Hospital and were not heard from again.  More can be learned at : http://www.morningsidehospital.com/.

Dr. Frederick Leland Goddard’s mineral hot springs asylum would likely have been a humane, caring place, where a pristine and beautiful backdrop would set patients at ease. If his reforms at the Western Washington Hospital for the Insane are any indication, Dr. Goddard was interested in a peaceful asylum, surrounded by  fruit trees and vegetable gardens, with terraced walkways and the use of fresh, natural water sources to perform a variety of functions at the site. The soothing, healing mineral waters would calm and refresh patients.  Treatment was not something to fall by the wayside, and drugging patients into stupors was likely not his intention, either. His asylum was very treatment-focused, with the hot springs as a central theme. The idea was not to house patients and collect federal money, padding his pockets as patients languished for years, hundreds of miles away from their homes and family.In Washington, Dr. Goddard had released 200 patients who had been kept committed to that hospital for things like a broken heart or “menstrual disorders”. That asylum had previously been run by a businessman like Dr. Coe until Dr. Goddard took over.


The Western Washington Hospital for the Insane

Dr. Goddard also sought to reform the manner in which the mentally ill were transported to asylums in Alaska, writing to the government that patients should not be chained and treated like criminals. Dr. Goddard’s asylum was not one just for the wealthy, either. It would be a free, federally-funded hospital. He believed that all people, regardless of means, should have access to humane, therapeutic treatment. This type of thinking was as radical in 1905 as it unfortunately still is today. The mentally ill continue to be brought to treatment (prisons) in chains and kept in solitary confinement. The most unfortunate thing about it is that today tremendous strides have been made in the quality of mental health care. Mentally ill people can and do live normal lives thanks to therapy and medication. Medical technology has become very advanced since Dr. Goddard’s era. However, it is access to this care that is lacking for far too many people. This is a reason that so many end up in prison. It is simply too expensive, and out of their reach. There also continues to be a very real stigma about mental illness that can make access to treatment difficult for people to obtain. The idea of the disabled as burdens on their families and society has not changed very much since the 1800s and is a continued thought that many have, which make them reluctant to seek treatment. When they do seek it, they are presented with a labyrinthine system that can be very difficult to figure out, especially if you are one of 50 million uninsured Americans.

The legacy of Dr. Frederick L. Goddard can serve to remind us that access to mental health care does not have to be lacking for so much of the population. Over 100 years after Dr. Goddard began working on his dream of a humane resort-style asylum, we are still facing the same problems and challenges in mental health care. Prison continues to be the largest handler of the mentally ill, and access to health care is  far out of reach for too many who need it. Recent shooting rampages by mentally ill Americans have also been a recurrent problem. Access to weapons is evidently easier  for those in need of mental health treatment. Mental illness has always been a health problem that humans have. Today we have the technology to improve quality of life for those who suffer from it. downtownSitka1929(lg)SitkaHotSprings

Downtown Sitka in the early 20th century.              Site of the mineral hot springs.


Here is a link the the more in-depth, sourced story on the American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association blog:




James McNeill Whistler had a studio in the 1880s in this Venetian mansion with lesser known English artist William Henry Jobbins. One of the many things you discover researching genealogy. Here is a link to a story I wrote about it: