More Links in Health Programs

Long Lost Face Found in State's Dark Corner

13 Mar 2005

By Michelle Roberts

Summary: Shining a light into his family's past leads a man to his grandmother's ashes at Oregon State Hospital

She was the grandmother no one ever talked about.

Ben Tabler knew nothing about her -- or the rest of his father's relatives, for that matter. It was as though a cataclysmic event had erased the Tabler family history.

He remembers as a child hearing his father speak only six words about her: "She died when I was 12."

Eight years ago, Tabler decided he had to know what happened and why her name, Rebecca Jane Tabler, had been a forbidden topic of conversation among her descendants a century after her death.

The retired naval officer, in his 70s, began to follow a paper trail that led him to a dark family secret and, eventually, his grandmother's final resting place: inside a battered copper can -- one of 3,490 that line a dusty storage room at Oregon State Hospital in Salem.

The story of how the cremated remains of thousands of people came to rest next to discarded hospital equipment and asbestos-abatement manuals has become a metaphor for the way people with mental illnesses today and throughout history have been forced into the shadows.

The cans sat in darkness for decades until The Oregonian published photos of them last fall. Since then, legislators have deemed them a powerful symbol of all that is wrong with Oregon's public mental health system, and a catalyst for change. The cans have caught the attention of news media across the country for their macabre existence inside a hospital known best as the setting for the 1975 movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." They also have become a rallying cry for current and former hospital patients, who want to control what happens to them.

Lost amid the cacophony are people such as Tabler, who simply want to bring a loved one home.

A call, a reunion, a discovery

Tabler, one of five children, grew up in Portland. His father, Stephen, was a World War I veteran who worked at a city landfill.

Tabler spent most of his adult life on the East Coast, retiring as a Navy commander in 1976. He worked for several more years for a laboratory in Maryland that held defense contracts for the government.

In 1993, Tabler's wife of 36 years died, and the following year, he moved back to Portland. Now 75, he lives in Clackamas with his 44-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy.

Three years after his return, he got a call from a woman who'd found his name in the phone book.

"Are you related to Stephen Tabler?" he remembers her saying.

He felt the hair rise on his arms. He told her Stephen had been his father, but that he had died in 1950. She told Tabler she was his cousin and invited him to a family reunion at Champoeg park near Salem.

Tabler and two of his four sisters went to the reunion, anxious to learn about their father's family.

Over hotdogs and punch, a distant relative told him she'd done some genealogy work. She'd learned that their paternal grandfather had been buried in Washington state in 1891 and their grandmother, Rebecca Jane, had died in 1903 and was buried in Salem.

They both thought it odd: Why hadn't they been buried together?

The question haunted him. Soon after, he drove to Salem and visited the Oregon State Archives.

There, he found his grandmother's death certificate, which showed she had died Nov. 7, 1903, at the Oregon State Insane Asylum, later renamed Oregon State Hospital.

It was then he realized what his father had meant. She hadn't died when he was 12. She had been committed.

"To him," Tabler said, "that's when she died."

Piecing together the trail

In the years that followed, Tabler gathered as much information as he could.

Was his grandmother really insane? What had happened to his father and his nine siblings after she'd been committed? How did she spend her days in the hospital? Was she lonely? Afraid? Unaware?

Tabler said he drove from one end of the state to the next, poring over county records, squinting at microfilm for any mention of Rebecca Jane Tabler. He surfed genealogy sites on the Web.

Meticulously, he reconstructed her life through documents -- birth certificate, marriage license, death record. He placed them all in plastic sheet protectors and organized them chronologically in a large black binder.

In 1998, a cousin came up with the best find of all. She located the grandmother's court commitment papers and hospital records.

Tabler remembers his heart pounding when he read the documents.

Rebecca Jane Tabler was committed to the Oregon State Insane Asylum on Jan. 28, 1901. "She says she is a queen to be crowned on the 24th of June," a physician's report notes in longhand. "She thinks she is a medium. She threatens to kill her daughter and others." The hospital records said "the real cause" of the widow's breakdown was unknown, that her father had been insane and the "change of life has influences upon her."

With the paperwork was a receipt showing that Rebecca's four youngest children, ages 7 to 15 -- including Tabler's then 12-year-old father -- had been surrendered to a Portland welfare agency.

Tabler was stunned. He had never known.

Rebecca Jane Tabler lived in the asylum for nearly three years before dying at age 51.

A final request

Until the early 1900s, unclaimed hospital dead were buried in the asylum cemetery. But between 1913 and 1914, the state decided it needed the land for other purposes. It exhumed 1,539 bodies, including Tabler's grandmother.

All unclaimed remains were cremated, dumped in crudely welded copper cans and stored in the hospital basement. Over the years, more cans joined them.

In 1976, the cans, which numbered in the thousands, were moved to outdoor vaults on hospital grounds.

Tabler visited the mass grave in 1996.

"I didn't like it," he said. "It was just a little grassy plot with one little marker."

In 2000, as Tabler continued his genealogical quest, hospital officials discovered that water had seeped into the vaults, damaging the containers and obscuring most of their paper labels. The hospital quietly unearthed them and stashed them in the storage building.

A couple of years ago, as Tabler surfed the Web, he found a reference to the cans having been moved. He spoke to his sisters and decided to try to get his grandmother's ashes.

"We decided it would be very good if we could put her with my father at Mount Calvary Cemetery" in Portland, he said, "rather than have her sitting on some shelf down in Salem."

He wrote to the hospital, requesting the ashes, but a hospital worker said she couldn't find Rebecca Jane Tabler's can.

Tabler, who has located her cremation number, resubmitted his request last week, hoping that recent publicity would propel the hospital to try again to find his grandmother.

"If they can't find her," he said, "I can accept that. I just really need them to try to understand that even though she died 100 years ago, she's still important to someone."

© 2005 Oregonian Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Oregonian.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top