True Crime on the Oregon Trail: Oregon’s First Murderess

Before Charity Lamb was part of “one of the most cold-blooded and atrocious scenes ever enacted in Oregon,” she and her husband Nathaniel Lamb were pioneers on the Oregon Trail. They were headed to homestead in Clackamas County, Oregon, near modern-day Oregon City. Along the way, Charity gave birth to her fourth son. She read and wrote, which was uncommon for poor women Homesteaders in 1854. She was also a skilled seamstress, making beautiful dresses for fancy women in Portland.

But what truly set Charity apart was that she was first person to be convicted of murder, the first female prisoner, and later the first female asylum patient in the Oregon territory.

(As a side note, I tend to not write about murder or those sorts of things on this blog because I don’t want to perpetuate the stigma of people with mental illness being violent. But the reality is that the two are often conflated. I just wanted to mention that once again, I do not like to romanticize these things, but the intriguing nature of this case and what it said about society in the late 1800s was too fascinating to not write about).


No photos were available of Charity Lamb but here is a stock photo of a couple on the Oregon trail.

The Oregon Weekly Times, Oregon Spectator, and Oregonian newspapers all called her “a monster.” Certainly the irony of her name wasn’t lost on opinion columnists of the early 1900s who queried: “is it possible that some subtle or malign influences causes people to cultivate qualities opposite of what their verbal designation would seem to indicate them to be?”

sherlock-holmes2But the true question is who did Charity kill and what was her motive? There are several highly sensationalized and fictionalized versions of the murder.

The blog Off Beat Oregon wrote: “For many years, the case of Charity Lamb was looked at like a crime-fiction yarn from a pulp magazine like Spicy Detective. It seemed to have it all: illicit sex, a mother-daughter love triangle, conspiracy — and, of course, a brutal ax murder committed by a woman with the most ironically innocuous name imaginable.”

A pop-historian named Malcom Clark Jr. wrote a book called Eden Seekers, claiming that Charity and her 17-year-old daughter were both in love with the same man. In Eden Seekers, Clark wrote: “When (Nathaniel) Lamb, as outraged father and cuckolded husband, strongly protested, Charity cut off his objections with an ax.” Other journalists even called Charity a “faithless wretch.”

Charity’s son Abram testified, “He said that she had better not fun off, for if she went when he was away he would follow her and settle her when she didn’t know it. I heard her say that morning, before I went out with Pap hunting, that he was going to kill her and she didn’t’ know what to do.”

Here are the historically verified facts. Charity Lamb, Wife and Mother of Five Convicted of Murder for Killing Children’s Father.

Let’s try this again and see how even facts can be molded to influence and shape opinion. Victim of Domestic Violence Convicted of Murder by All-Male Jury for Defending Self and Children Against Abuser.

Unfortunately, self-defense wasn’t considered a legal defense yet. Hell, women weren’t even women allowed to serve on a jury in the 1850s. (Side note, women weren’t allowed to serve on juries in all 50 states until 1973). Charity’s lawyers argued that she had gone temporarily insane at the time of killing her husband. Two of their children Mary Ann (19) and Abram (13) testified that their father had often beaten, punched, and kicked her. Their father struck Charity with a hammer in front of the children, cutting a gash in her forehead. When she tried to leave, he held her at gunpoint.

After the children testified, some people’s attitudes towards Charity softened and the verdict was reached for second-degree murder, sentenced to life in prison. The prosecution had tried to convict her of first-degree murder, which would have sent her to the gallows, but her defense claimed that she only meant to maim her husband, not kill him. Meanwhile, her five children were sent to foster care.

Her legal defense also tried to plea for insanity. Although the jury denied the plea for insanity, she was probably considered insane by standards of that era for killing the father of her children, especially right at the dinner table with an ax. Later, she was transferred from jail to the Oregon State Insane and Idiotic Asylum in Portland.

There were possible political motives for this move too. With Charity moved to the asylum, Oregon would no longer have any female prisoners and face less scrutiny from other states.

Charity lived in the asylum for nearly twenty years, during which 1349 other patients were routinely received and treated. It is thought that Charity’s children visited her, as they testified in her support and supposedly empathized with her condition. Charity spent the rest of her life at the asylum.

What I found disturbing in researching this case was the fact that some blogs and articles, like Offbeat Oregon said that Charity and Nathaniel had a “stormy relationship.”  And while I obviously wasn’t there and do not have ties to the family, actual historical accounts that I have read sicken me that somebody not call this exactly what it was: domestic violence. The blog goes on to say “It seems that Nathaniel didn’t intend to kill his wife, even if he wanted to.”

pioneer_womens_grave_87583In any event, Charity Lamb, Oregon’s first female mental patient, spent the rest of her life in the asylum. She never had any problems with violence or outbursts, required any restraints or intervention with staff. She lived a peaceful existence supposedly knitting and helping out with chores around the kitchen until she died in her 60s.

Charity is supposedly buried at the Lone Fir cemetery in Southeast Portland in an unmarked grave.

Sources cited:

Clark, Malcolm Jr. Eden Seekers: The Settlement of Oregon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981

Lansing, R. (2000). The Tragedy of Charity Lamb, Oregon’s First Convicted Murderess. Oregon Historical Quarterly, 101(1), 40-76. Retrieved from

Offbeat Oregon.


Mental Illness Isn’t a Costume

It’s 2017 and people are still wearing mental illnesses like they are costumes.

471343e068ea5943234e99cc864153a8--straight-jacket-insane-asylumThey are buying costumes called “Escaped Mental Patient,” and a “Sexy Psycho.” They are even buying their children “Straight Jacket Costumes” patterned after Victorian-era straight jackets, splattered with fake blood, wrapped with brown leather restraints printed with “WARD 1031” on it.

The costume description reads: “Go crazy, literally, show everyone what a psycho you really are!” There are even bright orange jumpsuits similar to the ones I wore when I was in detox  and a hospital that I wrote about in a previous post.


22467563_1469877706430502_5010312256434731278_o.jpgIt’s 2017 and a search for “escaped asylum patient costume” yields 946,000 hits including tutorials for “how to look crazy and DIY straightjackets on You Tube. There are inspiration boards on Pinterest with tips for making your home look like an asylum.

It’s 2017 and former asylums/ mental hospitals are transformed into haunted houses or theme parks have haunted house themes like “Asylum Island,” “Massacre Medical Center,” “House of Psychos.”


Visitors are led past actors getting shock therapy, lobotomies, trying to escape straight jackets. People’s pain and suffering is treated like entertainment, patients as circus freak sideshow attractions.

hqdefault-1Closer to home, a Minneapolis suburb called Anoka has been dubbed the most haunted place in Minnesota because it once housed one of the MN State Hospitals.  Last fall, City Pages wrote an article called: “Why Visiting Anoka State Hospital, Minnesota’s Most Haunted Spot is a Bad Idea,” that played up the stereotype that the most tortured, insane patients once stayed here and continue to haunt the area.

There was a haunted tour in the former MN hospital in Fergus Falls (where I did my writer’s residency) that featured nurses doing experimental testing on patients at the cottage, “encountering roaming insane patients” who wielded bloody cleaving knives, axes, and chainsaws.

It would be easier to write these things off as harmless fun, to justify, to rationalize. After all, straightjackets and asylums are a relic of the past, right?

No. These things perpetuate harmful myths about mental illness. We will get to that.

1397883_523267254424890_1440772096_o.jpgLest you think I’m a fun-killer or have any doubts, I L-O-V-E Halloween. I prided myself in winning elementary school costume contests, my favorite being Harriet the Spy. Carrying this tradition into adulthood, I made DIY costumes like being half Mad-Hatter, half Alice-in-Wonderland and a sexy robot. Helping my friends decorate for their Halloween parties is another must. I’ve done my share of weird creepy things like decapitated and dismembered dolls then stuffed their heads and limbs into jars with food coloring.

This is about more than people’s feelings. This is about people’s health. While I think comparing mental illness to a disease like diabetes or cancer can be simplistic and reductive, the fact is that mental illness is every bit as real, deadly, and insidious as other diseases. Would Amazon ever sell a costume for heart disease, cancer, diabetes? If they did people would be outraged. They wouldn’t want the source of pain to be made a mockery. The root of the difference here is that unlike these diseases, mental illnesses are still stigmatized. Stigma can create a culture of silence and fear where people are afraid to ask for help, take medications or openly talk about their struggles with mental illness for fear of judgment and discrimination.

a419b79101c8ab1d7b4e58040ee5348e--halloween-costume-ideas-halloween-Myth: People with mental illness are to be feared. They are dangerous violent, deranged serial killers who live(d) on the fringes of society.

Fact: People with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims than perpetrators. One in five people in the US have met criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year (this statistic includes anxiety, which is the most common mental health condition).

Myth: Mental hospitals are like haunted houses. Asylums were torturous places where nurses and doctors tortured patients.

Fact:  Mental hospitals are places where people go for stabilization and support during/ after a mental health crisis. People are hospitalized for many different reasons: suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, detox, overdoses, hearing voices, etc. Certainly they are imperfect places.

Sadly there were atrocities at the asylums and horrific human rights violations and treatments like electroshock therapy, straight jackets/ restraints, hydrotherapy, and forced tranquilization. But there was also immense healing that happened in those places. to write off all of the healing and positive things that happened there, some of which I’ve documented on this blog.

Myth: Anoka is the most haunted place in Minnesota where patients of the state hospital were tortured and killed themselves in “catacombs” that connected buildings.

Fact: While the hospital did do ECT, hydrotherapy, and retrained patients, they also stopped using restraints and straight jackets in 1949, which was a decade earlier than most state hospitals. (more about that next post). One former nurse commented, “ I witnessed excellent care being provided to persons with severe illnesses that no one else would or could provide. Most staff were compassionate and did all in their power to demonstrate this to all. We used the tunnel during inclement weather to move from one building to another.”

Other fact: You know what is truly terrifying? The prison industrial complex. The fact that we are locking up and imprisoning nonviolent people with first-time or petty drug offences instead of providing them with rehabilitation.

Myth: People with mental illnesses are fascinating and entertaining.

Fact:  Our suffering and pain are not vessels for your entertainment. We are not a circus attraction.

We have made progress in shattering these myths by stopping some of these harmful Halloween traditions, especially thanks to advocacy efforts by the National Association of Mental Illness. Cedar Fair removed Asylum Island from its list of attractions at the Kansas City park in 2014.  Writer Pete Earley called attention to a costume makeup kit being sold   that depicted someone cutting a “suicide scar wound.” Was Mart later removed the item from its website.

We can all have fun, dress up in costumes, reslish in horror movies, spook each other out, go to haunted houses. Why does it have to be at the expense of others, who were already wounded and hurting the way it is?



(Un)sustainability Part II

Before we get to Part II of Unsustainability, I suggest that you to this blog’s home page and check out Part I of this series. I promise its worth your time.

Here’s a quick recap: We all know the healing powers of nutrition, fresh air, sunlight. Despite this knowledge, treatment centers continue to serve highly processed foods with high fat content.


A model for the healing power of nutrition and farming, the former Fergus Falls State Hospital (FFSH/ MN Asylum) operated a self-sustaining farm from 1891 to 1969.  But in the 1950s, the treatment philosophy began to shift from moral treatment’s focus on rehabilitation to medication.


Despite the many benefits of the farm, it closed in 1969. According to the Otter Tail Record, closing the farm “evoked only gloomy nostalgia and little opposition from the community,” because of cataclysmic shifts in both treatment philosophy and economic trends in the 1960s. Fewer patients were staying at the hospital full time, in part due to the increasing use of shock therapy and tranquilizer medications.

Hm74AgF7Rnl55ytcKbjT4zSBo1_500        This ad for a tranquilizer captures the power of tranquilizers: “Patients hospitalized for many years…are now at home.”  They made successful recovery and treatment a reality for people who may have otherwise been lifelong patients. People with mental illnesses could lead could live fuller, more independent lives  in the community than in the hospital (although this is a post for another day).

The hospital had around 2000 patients in the 1930s, then dipped down to less than 1000 patients in the 1960s. This was the first time that the hospital had seen a decline in its entire history.   Existing patients were strained with a higher work load so the hospital had to hire people just to help keep up with the farm.


Postcard-1914-Photograph-Collection-MNHS.org_    Another reason the farm closed was because of urbanization, the communal, aggregate lifestyle was becoming a whimsical relic of the past. Farms were no longer a way of life for families, they were now growing to competitive factory operations.

Gone was the “off the vine” mentality. Instead of plucking vegetables from the family’s sunny garden, people picked packaged foods off grocery store shelves under the blinding of fluorescent lights.

People were seeking more than just food and shelter; they wanted opportunities, education, and leisure. Many saw felt that farm work was drudgery and hospital staff agreed farm work  no longer therapy.

But the shift towards urbanization and preference for packaged foods, for convenience and ease also parallels people’s desire for a quick fix for mental health, for taking shortcuts and losing some humanity in the process.



A few years after I graduated from my residential treatment program, I ran into the cook Jamie at a gas station at 4 am. As I looked at the glossy hot dogs spinning in the glass case and the basket of rubbery apples, Jamie joked, “The food we serve here is more real than at that hospital.”

I didn’t remember the counselor’s names, group member’s names, other worker’s names. I remembered Jamie’s name. With a short bleach-blond hair, Jamie barely saw over the counter. She bought all of her clothes in the little boy’s section and dressed her three Chihuahuas in doll clothes and changed their diapers and cooked them gourmet dog food. I had been warned to get on her good side.

Before I left, I went to go say goodbye to Jamie. She was perched atop a tower of frozen foods, using them like a barstool, eating a salad over the counter. “Minnie, you scared the shit out of me,” she said.”I’m not supposed to bring my own lunch but I sure as hell won’t eat their food. I have to eat real food.”

      All of us searching and clinging to what’s real, doing the best we can.


IMG_6285 Fires also led to the demise of the FFSH farms, another suiting metaphors woven right into history.  The horse barn was totally burned to the ground in 1915.  Two patients committed arson in 1968. But the most striking fire to me was in 1936, when Faulty wiring destroyed a large cow barn. The barn was “so badly gutted it is worthless and will have to be torn down.”

Our current food system in mental health facilities and rehabs are faulty and flawed.  We need nutrition groups and registered dieticians to educate patients about eating in recovery. We need to synchronize the food that we serve at these facilities with these recommendations rather than perpetuating toxic food environments. The current farm-to-table movement and increasing accessibility of organic foods gives me hope, that perhaps somewhere a state-run facility is harvesting their own food.

Up next: A special Halloween edition of Off-Her-Rocker about asylums as haunted houses.


Some folks requested that I post my resources, so here we go! I obtained many of these resources from Ottertail County Historical Society archives and sincerely thank the wonderful archivests who helped me begin this process. I arranged the resources here from the ones that I used the most to the least and it’s probably not proper APA but oh well, I will delve into this further as I do my thesis and meh, it’s a blog eh?

Leonard, Benjamin A. “The State Hospital Farm: A Model for the Future, Discontinued in the Past,” Otter Tail Record. 1998.

Borgen, Alvi. “Farm Tasks Provide Patient Therapy,” from The Fergus Falls Daily Journal, 1966.

Borgin, Alvi. “Institutional Farm Taking on New Role,” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, 1966.

Editorial. “Fire Distroys Large Cow Barn on State Hospital Farm.” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, 1940.

Photo credits: Top 3- MN Historical Society

Pill photo- Artist Unknown, Tumblr.

Last photo of area near former farm at FFSH: By me.

(Un) Sustainability

The Fergus Falls State Hospital (FFSH) ran a glorified commune. They were committed to sustainability long before the hippies of yore and the farm-to-table free-range folks of today.

Far out, man! At its surface, this may seem to be a tale of food and farms, but it transcends simple definition. By exposing how farming and commitment to nutiritious food revolutionized care for people with mental health issues and addictions, sadly I am also exposing how far we have regressed through research and my own experience choking back over cooked chicken patties and brown lettuce in rehab/ detox/ hospital.

The hippies took the word or people’s notions of commune, stripped it naked, dunked it in tye-dye instead of a bath tub, put a joint in its mouth, and sent it off to an orgy.  But at its core, a commune is the simple embodiment of cooperation, cohesion, environmentalism.


Slaughter house

FFSH Farm Circa 1900 Courtesy Ottertail Co. Historical Society

The hospital was self-sustaining, as both patients and staff raised food and livestock on the grounds for nearly a century from 1891 to 1961.

At the FFSH, nearly every able-bodied and willing patient at the hospital was involved with some part of agricultural production as it was part of their therapy and recovery process. Farming was familiar to many patients and allowed them a chance to utilize their skills, build confidence, and break-up the monotony of daily life. Healthy living, nutrition, plenty of sunlight and outdoor activity, and work were considered an essential part of mental health treatment de jour of the era, moral treatment.

Things usually change for the better, right? I wish. It might be hard to explain the appeal of a hard day of farm labor..


FFSH Today. Photo Credit, Tessa

for someone in captivity like a prisoner or psych patient, the outdoors and adding purposeful work to an otherwise monotonous day is currency of its own. It’s the closest thing to freedom you have. Listening to the crunch as you walk over a pile of leaves or sink your teeth into the flesh of an apple. The suns rays like an embrace.

When I was in different treatment settings, our time outdoors was often limited and heavily restricted. In one place, we only got to go outside for a half an hour walk once per day. Imagine that for four weeks. We ate highly-processed foods with high fat and sugar contents because it is cheap and easily purchased in bulk. Insurance companies claim there is a lack of data about “efficacy of nutrition interventions in addiction recovery.”



Always wear your bonnet when milking a cow folks. Photo credit-BBC

Over 100 years ago, the FFSH had grew over 20 varieties of vegetables and traditional grains, had apple and plum orchards, and canned 5,000 gallons of tomatoes and 60 gallons of catsup per year. Greenhouses and root cellars helped residents keep fresh produce for even the harsh Midwest winters. The first FFSH superintendent Dr. Alonso Williamson believed milk to be a great cure-all and prescribed it in large quantities so they had 300 cows who produced over 3,300 pounds of milk per day. Residents were involved in meal preparation and fresh pies were made daily.

Typing this and I can taste the sweet tang of homemade apple pie with its flaky melt-in-your mouth crust and decadent filling. Where I went to treatment, I befriended a cook named Jamie who hid round tins of chocolate silk pie in the industrial deep freezer so she could sneak me extra pieces and also gave me the pieces of pizza with the most pepperoni. “I know it’s not the best, but clearly its better than what you were eating out there, Minnie.” The cook called me Minnie Mouse, she never knew my name, but she always made sure I was fed and wanted me to put on at least 15 pounds.


Typical rehab food. Like Orange is the New Black.

Standard detox/rehab menu: coffee, pizza, taco-in-a bag of chips, fried chicken, ham sandwiches, casserole, bagles, coffee, wilted lettuce, tasteless apples, pie.




Meanwhile fancy pants rehabs offer menus with nutritious locally-


Rich people rehab, Think Celeb Rehab.  Photo credit: Cliffsides. 

sourced foods that are recommended by registered dieticians and physicians. Fresh vegetables, fish, and whole grains. “No expenses are spared when it comes to food service: all meals are organic, locally sourced and prepared by a team of expert chefs,” boasts a review of the luxury rehab center Cliffside with rooms offering ocean views to boot.

All rehabs and hospitals should be focusing on nutrition, not just the ones that are for the rich and famous. Typically, patients’  bodies are often malnourished and ravaged by years of drug/ alcohol use, lack of appetite or overeating due to depression or side effects from psych meds, anorexia, bulimia. Quality food helps heal the brain.  Specifically nutrition rich foods and regular meals and snacks keep blood sugar levels regulated, which is vital for stable mood, concentration, and energy levels.

My doctor told me sugar was just like another drug, which was an anology that always bothered me as seemed to minimize the severity of addiction. I know that sugar affects the same neurotransmitter dopamine (which controls the brain’s pleasure and reward center) as drugs and alcohol, I never heard of somebody losing a job, a family, friends, all their money and life for sugar.

When I scoffed, my doctor said, “Ask yourself why do you want it so bad, note your mood before, directly after you eat it, and 30 minutes later.” My hands were shaking with anticipation and salivating, I went to the gas station after the appointment and immediately devoured a bag of Red Vines.

Ah sugar. I felt a rush then the predictable crash I had come to know so well. It didn’t offer the oblivion of substances, but I still found myself shortly craving my next (sugar) fix.


Part II details the demise of the FFSH farm and nationwide decline of focus on nutrition and wellness in mental health treatment, medications and corporate/ factory farm impact on mental health, and the recent revival of the nutrition and food as medicine movement.  Preliminary sources were cited here, extensive list to come.

Off Their Nut: Reflecting on the Third MN Hospital for the Insane

Preface: Thank you for your patience in waiting for this new blog! I have been swamped with moving, starting grad school, and an unexpected trip back to Bismarck for a funeral.I plan to typically update more often. 

I am split open like the tree outside my window. Poor miss tree was struck by lightening in a recent storm. She looks so vulnerable, cut open like that without her bark to protect her. Raw. The tree equivalent of scars, bruises. I feel for her. And yet- she also looks so beautiful, so unique.

cropped-20525331_1406876776063929_2198710542886899372_n.jpgSurely that tree knew the storm was coming, but there wasn’t a damn thing that she could do about it. I ran into the proverbial storm asking the lightening to strike me.This is where this metaphor ends.

 The storm was the asylum, its dark history, and madness itself.  I knew that I needed to chase this storm so that I might understand our past, the past of us mad ones. So that I might draw my version of the map and a compass. So I stepped dead center in the swirling eye of this storm when I decided to do this artist residency at the former MN insane asylum. When I arrived, the hairs on my arm stood at attention.

It is 85 degrees, but I feel a surge of cold. I feel spirits move through me. Not ghosts but the electricity and energy of all the people who were here before me.

In 1886, The Moorhead News wrote that Fergus Falls was preparing for “a big immigration of people who are ‘off their nut.'”  “Minnesota’s Third State Hospital for the Insane” in Fergus Falls.  Back in those days, the hospitals were usually referred to as asylums and patients were called inmates. Addiction was called intemperance; depression was called melancholia; Alzheimer’s Disease was senility.

The hospital was designed in “The Kirkbride Architectural Style” by a Minneapolis architect named Warren Dunnell.  Dr. Kirkbride was the founder of the American Psychiatric Association known as a pioneer and visionary for creating more humane mental healthcare. Kirkbride architecture was based upon the doctor’s vision and prescription for healing patients. Large windows and towers to provide patients with abundant natural light. Giant day rooms in each wing for socialization. Plenty of green outdoor space and gazebos so patients could get fresh air.

In addition to revolutionizing construction of asylums, Kirkbride also was one of the first to classify insanity as a disease and wanted it to be treated as such, discouraging restraints like straight jackets.

Original cost in 1890: One million. Upon completion, the hospital would be the length of five football fields on 65 acres. They originally were self-sustaining, with gardens and a farm. At it’s peak, the cows produced 3,000 pounds of milk per day (more to come on that later).

tumblr_lncop9R4BC1qd4993o1_400.jpgFirst documented reasons for hospitalization to FF Hospital: “epilepsy, intemperance, injury to head, disappointment in love, and overwork.” One patient speculated in 1910 that he was committed because of his “long hair” and “the way he pondered.”

As I wander the grounds, I wonder what it would have been like to be a patient here. There are signs of decay, rubble and ruin.  I cannot go inside the buildings because of mold and other old stuff.  I feel the old spirits moving through me as I unpack in my apartment for the week which was most recently a residential drug and alcohol treatment branch of the hospital.

Deja vu? It feels eerily like other centers where I have stayed. I keep expecting a staff person to bust in the door to shine a flashlight on my face at night for a bed check, to rifle through the drawers and search under the mattress to search for contraband, to IMG_6400flick the lights up at 7 and tell me it’s time to stand in line to get my meds or blow in a tube for a breathalyzer or pee into a cup. Every time I walk around the grounds, I notice something different. A door spray painted: “HELP ME.”

But it would be insulting ot immediately associate this with a place of ruin and collapse because we have to remember too that this is a place where people came to heal.  Many amazing doctors, nurses, groundskeepers, social workers, and other staff devoted their lives to making patients feel safe, accepted, cared for, to help them get better. My friend speaks proudly of her mom who helped people in the acute unit and transition to the community. Another friend says that residential drug and alcohol treatment here “changed her life” when she was a teenager.

The grounds are green and lush. Several of the former nurse’s quarters/ treatment buildings have been remodeled into residential apartments that preserve the historic nature of the grounds while adding modern touches. Wild flowers grow out of cracks in the cement. Fergus Falls community members are devoted to preserving the hospital and Hinge Arts has been an amazing use of the historic space.

Signs of healing and holding on are there when we look hard enough, when we are willing to redefine what those terms mean, and to see beauty in rubble.

Works Cited:

  • Historical Research thanks to Ottertail County Historical Society and Fergus Falls Daily Journal
  • Header image of Postcard:
  • Anonymous Portrait of a female psychiatric patient, “Melancholia” 1875-1885 (ca) via
  • “HELP ME” Image courtesy Tessa.







Fergus Falls Daily Journal Profile

Fergus Falls Daily Journal features a profile today about me and another Hinge Artist Sharon Mansur.

It was interesting being interviewed for a newspaper since I am usually the one asking the questions! The writer did a nice job. “Torgeson had an open suitcase set up in the corner of Springboard for the Arts. It included various items from her times spent in treatment. From pill bottles to cards written by family and friends, the suitcase contained insights into her life and also her writing… This residency is Torgeson’s first and she came about it in a special way.”

What Not to Wear: Asylum Edition

“You’re gonna have to put these on now, sorry this is the smallest size we have for now. When you get upstairs, we’ll check if they have any smaller sizes.”

I had surrendered. It was time to trade my street clothing and along with it my freedom and dignity for the obligatory bright yellow uniform.


No, I was not in jail. I was voluntarily checking into a psychiatric hospital/ detox center. Yet the obligatory psych patient uniform bore a striking resemblance to inmate’s jumpsuits.

“You know, yellow really isn’t a flattering shade for my pale skin tone, I look better in blues and pastels, don’t you think? This color sorta washes me out,” I said.

I know this because my friend who sat with me through the whole excruciating process, verified it, along with the erratic notes that I kept on the hospital’s stationary.  Yes. The hospital has stationary. And yes, I am the kind of person who writes shit down. This was the first time that this happened, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The nurse wasn’t amused by the jokes of a mental patient. She shoved my street clothes into a sturdy white bag that said, “PATIENT BELONGINGS.”

It was curious as to why I had to wear an outfit that resembled a prison jumpsuit for voluntarily checking into get help. I was just told it was “policy.”

Although it may seem vain or vapid to begin the series of Off Her Rocker blogs with fashion, I thought it would be an interesting way to examine the ways in which mental health care has in some ways, not evolved and even regressed.

In 1895, The Fergus Falls Daily Journal reported that the administration at the MN Asylum, “discouraged patients from dressing alike, thereby distinguishing them from prison convicts.”  (Via archives obtained at Ottertail County Historical Society).


Photo via CBS rare photos from mental hospitals late 1890s.

Let that sink in for a minute. 125 years ago, “mental patients” were distinctly being encouraged to wear their own unique clothing because it would help them feel more like themselves and not be stereotyped.

After all, clothing is a valuable way of self-expression and identification. Plus, my mom is after all a fashion consultant so it seemed fitting. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I wanted to make lots of bad puns to ease or way into the topic of mental illness.

Although they were as tattered and worn as I felt, I remember feeling shiny and relieved when I got to change into my skinny jeans and band t-shirt. They were mine and I didn’t need a rubber band to hold them up like I did with the yellow ensemble. I was happy too to trade the slipper socks with my converse all stars even though they too were sans shoelaces which were considered contraband.

What not to wear: psych ward edition courtesy hospital pamphlet: drawstrings, belts, shoelaces, jewelry.

Being that I was away from home and going through an effing breakdown, I thought I could be at least comfortable and dare I say fashionable, while doing it.

But for real, even back in the late 1890s and early 1900s, visionaries realized that taking care of one’s appearance, self-expression, and learning to sew one’s own clothes could be a valuable way for improving mental health. 

A hospital administrator’s wife even started a sewing circle and a sewing room was opened in the early 1900s. Although they were allowed and encouraged to wear their own clothing from home, many of the patients even sewed their own clothing and helped sew for patients who had  brought little clothing from home. Patients who tore or ripped their clothing on purpose had to wear clothing of heavy denim, only for practical reasons.

I’d rock a Canadian Tuxedo any day over yellow scrubs.


Beauty parlor in Fergus Falls State Hospital for the Insane, circa 1926. Photo courtesy Ottertail Historical Society Archives

In fact, they even opened a beauty parlor at the Fergus Falls State Hospital for the Insane in 1926 that offered hair styling, manicures, and facials. Mrs. Blanche L. La Du who was the only woman member of the State Board of Control for Insane Asylums, said, “Next to occupational therapy we believe this experiment in which personal hygiene is our most successful means of restoring mental health to our women patients at Fergus Falls.. .Any normal woman experiences a pleasant mental reaction from a visit to the beauty shop: in this monotonous life on an institution, the reaction is all the stronger.”

In an article about “Beauty Culture at the Hospital,” the Fergus Falls Daily Journal reports that the beauty salon took a while to catch on because patients had not been used to such luxuries and had their “vanity destroyed through misfortune.” A trained “beauty culturist” was in charge of the parlor and even trained patients in how to be beauty assistants.

I realize the language and stereotypes for women are antiquated. Mrs. La Du’s evaluation of women’s mental health based on adherence to certain beauty ideals seem very outdated and kitschy now, but I think considering this was over 100 years ago she had her compass pointed the right direction.

It is far different from when a male psychiatrist asked me why my nail polish was chipped in a psych eval or when another (who luckily I never had the pleasure of having) asked some of my fellow female patients, “You’re a pretty girl- why do you drink?”

It is of my professional opinion that if this doctor was so damned concerned with our appearances, he should have opened a damned beauty salon on the psych ward just like Mrs. La Du. After all- Missy Elliot said,  “If you a fly gal, get your nails done. Get a pedicure. Get your hair did.”  And you can bet we’re fly gals who’d rather have our nails done and sew our own clothes than wear yellow scrubs and not be allowed make-up.

Coming up next: Burning straight jackets, how the MN hospital for the insane was like a commune, how accurate are movie’s depictions of insane asylums & MORE.




Welcome to Off Her Rocker


Greetings! Thank you for visiting my new blog OFF HER ROCKER- Misadventures in Madness!!
This is inspired by my artist residency at the former Minnesota State Hospital in Fergus Falls, also known as The Kirkbride Building, thanks to Springboard for the Arts. It’s been an amazing experience so please let me know if you’d like to apply.  This place is fascinating and I can’t wait to post more about it! Yet this blog transcends the Kirkbride Building itself.

On this blog,  I plan exploration of what society calls “mental illness,” asylums and institutionalization, the evolution of mental health, medications, addiction and the spaces in between.

This is not self-help, nor is it entirely objective history, nor is it all about me. I will offer a glimpse inside what life was really like in asylums. I write from my research of history and pop culture; and also from my experiences working in treatment centers and with people who have struggled with mental illness. I have been one of them. I often identify more with patients than staff (side note- I have a story coming out in a British literary journal called Doll Hospital soon.
With the recent deaths of musicians Chris Cornell and Chester from Linkin Park who both struggled with mental illness and addiction, it seems more people than ever are discussing these issues. And yet at the same time, we have only just begun. So often we skim the surface or else we get trapped in a rut of discussing these illnesses from the well-worn perspectives.

We speak of them from black and white dichotomies- “mental illness/ addiction are diseases stemming from our DNA and broken brains that need to be treated with medications” or the other extreme the these things are choices, moral failings, weaknesses. Or alternatively some blame society and claim mental illness is a cultural construction and form of cultural coercion. I want to talk about the shades in between.

From where I sit, sadly silence, shame, and stigma prevail. But as we have seen~ these are insidious things that kill and make the pain of living with them even worse. We’ve come a long way, but but we still have a long way to go.

I want to write about resilience and the power and beauty of darkness and rebirth, what we can learn when we see self-destruction as a lesson instead of demonizing, vilifying, or criminalizing it. We need to move beyond defining ourselves beyond our illnesses, beyond the stigma and shame, and reach instead toward a place of healing.

I’ve now spent hours pouring over the archives about the Kirkbride/ MN State Hospital and trajectory of mental health & asylums at Ottertail County Historical Society. It is fascinating and stirred many contradictory emotions but overall a deep sense of empathy for the patients- since I’ve been hospitalized just like them. The patients, these are my people.

I relate to Jack Keruoac’s famous wrote: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

That is not to totally romanticize or glorify suffering but instead to appreciate and embrace what we have been through, what we grapple with, what we overcome. To embrace what a mental health group calls “dangerous gifts.”

In these explorations, I may at times offer more questions than answers. I neither condemn nor condone psychiatric medications, this is an individual and high personal choice that I respect. Medications have changed health care in complicated ways that people often don’t discuss- both good and bad- life giving and life taking.

Dear readers, my aim here is not to tell you what to think and how to feel. I hope to inform and inspire, to educate and empower.

I am going to talk about some things that are difficult, heavy, and intense; but I will also balance that with levity, dark humor, and some of my stupid jokes. I won’t just talk about straight jackets, but also reveal things like beauty shops on asylums back in the day- because yes that was a thing. I hope that I can at least encourage or challenge people to start thinking of mental health in a new way, to feel more comfortable talking about taboo issues, to own your own story or your family’s story.

It’s time to start dusting off those skeletons in the closet, bringing them to the light where they belong.

If you have a story you’d like to share with me, please feel free to talk to me in person, comment, or fill out the “contact’ form on this site. I will of course always listen and respect your privacy. A big hope for this is to also assure you that you are never alone.

Won’t you join me?

Much love,