Saturday, May 18, 2019

Mystery of the Asylum Cemetery Continues

Apparently fake? No burials found in 1959 off-site
after the headstones had been moved
from the hospital grounds
(Salem Library Historic Photos)
In the City Manager's update this week, there's a note about new complications for the housing project at Yaquina Hall on the former North Campus of the State Hospital.
City and Salem Housing Authority staff have been working with DAS on acquiring Yaquina Hall and the park property. The Oregon Department of Administrative Services’ environmental review process for the North Campus required archeological and historic review. The consultation has resulted in information that the area to the north of the Yaquina property was once a cemetery. It has been requested that DAS perform ground penetrating radar testing to determine if there are any human remains in this area. DAS has retained a consultant and this work is expected to be completed by June 30. Given the historic and archaeological issues, the earliest the City can close on the Yaquina and park properties would be January 2020. We will have a much better understanding of the options, requirements, and timelines at the beginning of July after the ground penetrating radar work is completed.
The best available information has been that the Asylum Cemetery was fully decommmissioned. In 1991 the Willamette Valley Genealogical Society published a booklet, "The Asylum Cemetery, 1883-1913, Salem, Marion County, Oregon," and historians work off this end date of 1913. There were additional stories in 1959 about a trove of headstones off-site, seemingly disconnected from any burials (image at top), but at that time no new information suggested there were still burials in the ground.

Cremains in the new Columbarium
(OSH Memorial Pamphlet)
Subsequent rounds of research this decade for the Columbarium at the hospital did not turn up evidence that the 1913 date and decommissioning was in error, though there will still some gaps in the record for burials and people. (Update: The gap is very big: There are over 1500 burials unaccounted for. See comment with reference to Oregonian piece.)

The 1917 USGS map might be confused
on Jason Lee Cemetery,
or it might point to the Asylum Cemetery
(D Street at top, Center Street in middle;
the old Kirkbride in bottom right)
So there may yet be questions. The paper has several contemporary announcements about the intent to exhume, but interestingly there does not seem to be coverage of the actual exhumation and subsequent cremation in 1913 or shortly thereafter.

Plans to exhume and cremate;
and then to move headstones
(September 30th, 1912)
The fate of the Asylum Cemetery - and, I suppose, it is possible there might be more than one burial ground - has always seemed a little uncertain, limned by "best available information" rather than by some standard more definite. Probably there were elements of intending to forget inconvenient facts about people and their final disposition. It's a messy and dishonorable story sometimes.

This will be very interesting to follow, and if there are lost and forgotten burials, hopefully they can be reinterred or otherwise identified with dignity this time.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

According to "The Asylum Cemetery, 1883-1913," there were 1539 burials there, and it took Charles Claggett, working for W. T. Rigdon (who later built the IKE Box building!), a full year to exhume the bodies. But it should not surprise us if not all 1539 were in fact exhumed and cremated or reburied elsewhere. Equally, it should not surprise us if 1539 is not actually the exact count and there were burials whose records were missing or incomplete and not in that 1539 tally. Significantly, the booklet does not have a map of the cemetery. It's all like "here is the approximate location."

There are a lot of "known unknowns" here.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The SJ has a piece on the front page today, and in it is another important detail. It references a different piece from 2014 in the Oregonian, "Missing dead: 1,500 from old Oregon State Hospital cemetery in Salem can't be found."

From the Oregonian:

"For years, Oregon officials assumed that some of the thousands of unclaimed urns at the Oregon State Hospital belonged to patients who were buried in a hospital cemetery, exhumed in 1913 and 1914, then cremated.

Now, officials said this week, researchers don't think any of the urns are linked to the old Asylum Cemetery — and that the fate of the cemetery bodies, about 1,500 in all, is a mystery.

So yeah, more investigation is not merely prudent, but is necessary!

Anonymous said...

Salem Reporter wrote about delays on the Yaquina Hall project -

Sounds like DAS is going to sell it to the city for "free" and will throw in some additional money for the delay and cost escalation.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Over at Salem History Matters, they posted about the research and subsequent report to DAS on the cemetery. There wasn't much very conclusive. One interesting thing is that the cemetery appears to have been west of 23rd, more in the area of the old Maternity Ward for General Hospital, rather than between 23rd and 25th, near Yaquina Hall or north of it. So when Hospital sells that parcel the question may be active again. But it seems unlikely that on the lots east of 23rd, the former State Hospital property, there is any lingering problem with remains.

The research also did not turn up any conclusive evidence on the missing 1539. So that's still a big mystery.

It did turn up evidence that Claggett was not employed by Rigdon before 1929, so that detail is in question now.

Not a lot of answers, but it did further develop the evidence.