Sunday, July 10, 2011

Good Doctor Hawthorne

Becky Oswald, our informative tour guide, standing at the Hawthorne Monument
On Saturday, I joined a tour, put on by an organization known as Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery.  The tour is an interesting walk through Portland's very first official burial ground, established in 1855.  Scanning headstones in this serene place, Portland folk are very likely to recognize a few names.  Bybee, Lovejoy, or Tryon, for example.

One of the more interesting stories I heard was about Dr. James Hawthorne, the namesake of my region of Portland.  Dr. Hawthorne, of course, established the Oregon Hospital for the Insane in 1858.  Back then, people were committed for all kinds of reasons.  Any behavior that made society uncomfortable might provide the justification.  Everything from dementia to epilepsy to retardation to palsy fell under the all-embracing rubric of "insanity."  

Close up of Hawthorne Memorial
Thankfully, Dr. Hawthorne was a progressive thinker.  The good doctor understood that many of the people who found their ways into his institution needed only a little compassion.  He treated his patients with dignity and gave them a sense of purpose by having them tend gardens or perform tasks for wages.  He arranged for musical performances for his patients, as well, believing that music was key to their recovery.  His practices were revolutionary at the time, and he received national recognition for them.

Nor was Dr. Hawthorne's hospital some grim and final destination.  People were admitted and released. Commitment was not a life sentence.

Of course, not all of the 500 patients that went into Dr. Hawthorne's hospital came out.  Some died without family or means to provide for their interment.  In those cases, Dr. Hawthorne, who promised his patients a decent burial, himself arranged to have them laid to rest... in Lone Fir Cemetery.

Headstone of the Good Doctor, himself
The tour was chock-full of interesting facts and stories that provide historical perspective for this city I've called home for over two decades now.  There were probably three dozen people on the tour and our guide, Becky Oswald, was knowledgeable and funny.

If you're interested, the tour occurs at 10AM on the second Saturday of every month.  Suggested donation is $10.  All funds raised thusly go to maintaining the Lone Fir Cemetery.  You can learn more by contacting Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery:  503-224-9200.  Email:

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