(Photo by Leah Nash) Grace Heckenberg stands in Lone Fir Cemetery. Nearby, more than 100 residents of Oregon’s landmark Hawthorne Asylum lie buried in unmarked graves.
“That portion of the cemetery set apart for the burial of Chinamen is the southwestern part and in that corner a great many celestials “sleep the sleep which knows no waking.” Near that part of the grounds the patients who died at the asylum were for many years buried. Rows upon rows of graves are to be found in close proximity, close to the south side, a short distance east of where the dead celestials are buried. Most of those graves are marked with the names of the departed, but there is a sense of stranger-like and friendless exclusion about these mounds and it strikes one as being an act of charity to place them so close together. Even in death the suggestion of association and companionship affords a gleam of consolation.”
— The Oregonian, 1887
(From the Nov. 14, edition)
Mental-health advocates memorialize asylum residents buried and forgotten in Lone Fir Cemetery (By Mara Grunbaum, Contributing Writer)
Charity Lamb, Oregon’s first ax murderess, was buried at Lone Fir Cemetery in 1879. Around 1930, her grave was layered over with asphalt. In 1955, a building was erected atop the pavement, and Charity Lamb – along with more than 100 other patients of the long-since demolished Oregon Insane Hospital – was nearly forgotten.
Researchers believe that up to 132 people who died in Portland’s first private mental hospital are buried at Lone Fir Cemetery’s southwest corner, where a Multnomah County office building stood until 2005. After persistent agitation by mental-health advocates, Metro regional government, which now controls the property, is planning an onsite memorial for the asylum patients – and trying to include people who have experienced mental illness in the design process.
Grace Heckenberg has worked for years to cast light on the patients of Dr. James Hawthorne, the pioneer psychiatrist who built the Oregon Insane Hospital in what was then the city of East Portland.
In 1969, when Heckenberg was 17, she spent a year as a psychiatric patient at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem. Now 56, Heckenberg visits Lone Fir often. She says she feels solidarity with those who lived in the Portland asylum.
Years ago, Heckenberg and others began to comb through historical documents and realized there could be patients buried under the cemetery parking lot. She asked the county about an official commemoration, but at the time, she says, no one was interested.
“At a certain point I just became extremely discouraged and decided that they were never going to be recognized,” Heckenberg said. “Maybe the memorial’s just in my own heart. I know they’re down there.”
Lone Fir, in Southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood, was a private burial site for pioneer families that became an official cemetery in 1855. Historical maps show that in the late 1800s, the corner property, or “Block 14,” was designated for the burial of Chinese immigrant railroad workers, who were not allowed elsewhere in the cemetery. Many of their bodies were disinterred and returned to China before Multnomah County began to build on the land in the 1930s.
Census records from 1870 show dozens of residents of the Hawthorne Asylum, listed as either “insane” or “idiotic.” The residents came from all over the world, including Scotland, Germany and Peru.