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.


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 to 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.







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.