Woman Declared Insane on Scant Evidence in Oregon, a State Renowned for Horrible Mental Health System

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The state of Oregon is notorious for having one of the worst mental health systems in the country, highly criticized for mistreating patients in the asylum and cited several years ago by the federal government covered for countless violations. In recent years, 5,000 cans of human remains were found in the basement of the state’s asylum. They were the remains of bodies, which the state decided to exhume from a cemetery on the hospital grounds. The state wanted to use the land for other purposes. This was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize winning series in The Oregonian newspaper. In 1975, the insane asylum became the backdrop for the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”


It wasn’t difficult especially in the 1800s to commit a person. Mary Banzer was declared insane at the age of 33 in Portland on February 21st, 1833, at the request of her husband, Joseph, and his friend George Sears. Offered here are her commitment papers, 4 pp, 8 ½” x 14”, which state that she was “unfit to be at large.” The cause of her disease was “overwork after confinement.” No major details are provided, which further challenges the screening process of the state, and the ease with which people could be committed.

Banzer’s commitment papers were signed by Judge Loyal B. Stearns. Stearns was a member of one of the colonial families of America and an Oregon pioneer who has witnessed much of the actual "winning of the west." He was a member of the state legislature. He was a direct descendant of Charles Stearns, who sailed from England to America in 1630, settling in Salem, Massachusetts. The great-grandmother of Loyal B. Stearns was Esther Warren Stearns, a daughter of Captain Samuel Warren of Revolutionary war fame, and a niece of General Joseph Warren, who was killed in the battle of Bunker Hill.

Banzer’s papers are also signed by “two competent physicians” J.A. Chapman (possibly also the mayor of Portland) and E.J. Watkins. Many patients didn’t live long in the cruel and horrible conditions of the asylum. Banzer died at 41 in 1891, eight years after she was committed to the asylum. She is buried in St. Barbara’s Catholic Cemetery in Salem, Oregon (internet scan of her tombstone included).

Small fold tears at folds, else very good condition.

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