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At Rest

At Rest

Pioneer farmer Myrtilla Barker's life was marked by hard work, loneliness and an untimely, painful death.

More than 60 years after an accidental poisoning at the Oregon State Hospital, the woman who traveled by wagon train to Oregon as a toddler in the 1860s has returned home to the Rogue Valley soil she spent so many years tending.

Interred in recent weeks at the Masonic Cemetery in Central Point, Barker is believed to be one of nearly 500 who were poisoned at the century-old asylum on Nov. 18, 1942, when a patient trustee unknowingly swapped roach poison for frozen egg yolks.

According to a historic account on file with the Salem Public Library, 467 patients and staff on Ward 4 were poisoned in the incident.

With fatal levels of sodium fluoride in their systems, some 40 victims died between dinnertime that night and 4 o'clock the next morning.

— Victims were witnessed crawling on the floor, unable to sit or stand, while their lips turned blue. They vomited blood and succumbed to violent stomach cramps and respiratory paralysis.

An additional seven died in following weeks due to a range of causes.

The hospital morgue, outfitted for no more than two or three bodies at a time, was overwhelmed and sent some of the 47 bodies to morgues in surrounding areas.

Barker's nephew, lifelong Rogue Valley rancher and historian John Black, 94, recalls being notified of his Aunt Myrtilla's death immediately following the poisoning ' and learning her remains had simply been lost.

We tried to get her from the state hospital and they didn't know where (the ashes) were, Black said. They said they went to some cremation place and they didn't know where they were after she died.

In his address to the 42nd Legislative Assembly in 1943, Gov. Charles Sprague said, With real sadness, I report the death of 47 patients at the state hospital and the illness of several hundred others because of accidental mixing of poison with food. The facts are well known. The incident brought freshly into focus the distressing conditions at the state hospital, referred to in my last message, and which the last Legislature took initial steps to correct.

Eventually, a stone memorial for Barker was placed in the family plot in the cemetery along Hamrick Road where Barker's sister, Martha, who died in 1955, and her parents, John and Mary Black, are laid to rest.

Born Myrtilla Black in September 1861 in Ohio, Barker worked her entire life as a farmer, raising chickens and turkeys, selling eggs and working the land she eventually would inherit from her parents.

Following her father's death in 1907, Barker cared for her mother until she died in 1911.

Barker was married twice: first to a farmer named Chris Bergman, who died in 1922, and later to an Englishman named Sidney Barker. Neither union produced children.

Family members recall that Barker mysteriously ceased contact with family after her marriage to Sidney, whom John Black declared a bloody Englishman who likely married the woman for her land.

Black's son, Jared, 67, recalls meeting his aunt for the first time when the family said goodbye.

I only remember vaguely meeting her ' and being scared witless, remembers Jared Black with a chuckle.

Our family went out to see her. She lived between Shady Cove and Eagle Point and she was getting ready to be sent to the hospital to be committed — I couldn't have been more than — or 4 years old and remember thinking here was somebody who was going into the mental hospital. I was scared to death.

Jared Black said that according to limited records claimed by the family, Alzheimer's may or may not have been an accurate diagnosis of his aunt.

It seemed that she was hallucinating ' that was one of the claims ' which doesn't sound like Alzheimer's, he said.

Other than her memorial, little remained for many years of the Rogue Valley farmer who left her home to die, just a year later, in a state asylum.

Then last year I saw a notice in the paper, John Black recalled.

They were trying to find out about the cremated ashes that were up in storage up there. I told my son maybe they had his great aunt up there, so they went to work on it.

After submitting proof of their relationship to Barker, the family was granted the right to claim her ashes. Jared Black traveled to Salem to claim the missing family member who'd scared him witless as a child, then disappeared seemingly forever.

Out came the little brass canister sealed up. That was Myrtilla, they said. There didn't seem to be any real documentation linking the can to anything else but I'm satisfied it's her, Jared Black said.

It was really kind of intriguing to look at this brass container of ashes and think that woman had come across the Plains in a covered wagon as a 2- or 3-year-old. It was pretty neat to be able to bring her home. Now she's buried in the plot with her parents. It's kind of a happy ending for her.

— Cremated remains of more than 3,600 former patients of the Oregon State Hospital remain unclaimed.

The remains became widely publicized last year when Sen. Peter Courtney toured the century-old, crowded, run-down hospital where much of the 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed.

From the hospital's opening in 1883 until the early 1900s, unclaimed hospital patients' bodies were buried in a cemetery. In 1913, due to space constraints, the former patients were exhumed and incinerated, then stored in welded copper cans in the hospital basement for more than six decades.

The urns were relocated to an underground vault in 1976, then transferred in recent years to an abandoned storage building. As many as a quarter of the urns cannot be identified for various reasons.

Director of Medical Records Services Joni Detrant said families had been steadily trickling in to try to claim lost loved ones since news reports publicized the unclaimed ashes.

In 2005, the hospital released the remains of 36 patients, down from an official count of 3,654.

Several decades back, Detrant surmised, it might have been tough to claim a loved one living so far away.

I don't think anybody really knew we had these — and back then, I think it came down to survival for the families, Detrant said. Where were they working? Were there roads? Were they farming and bringing in the harvest when Aunt Gertie died?

It seems to have skipped a generation, but people are starting to come forward who know or believe they have a family member here — we're getting a steady stream of requests.

The hospital's cremation policy was halted in the 1970s. Unclaimed bodies are now sent to funeral homes for burial.

Olena, Jared and John Black pay tribute to John Black?s aunt, Myrtilla Barker, who is buried in the family plot at the Masonic Cemetery in Central Point. Her ashes came to rest 60 years after she died at the Oregon State Hospital from accidental poisonin Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli