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Inmate Records Released from Closed Washington Psychiatric Lockup

In July 2023, writer Brad Bigelow learned his great-grandfather’s 1951 obituary was a lie—George Bartles had not died at his Seattle home. Newly released records revealed that the 74-year-old was instead an inmate at the now-shuttered Northern State Hospital, where he had been involuntarily committed with dementia for the last six months of his life.

Begun in 1909 when Sedro-Woolley businessmen persuaded state officials to establish a farm operated by mentally ill wards of the state, Northern State was supposed to sustain itself with a dairy herd they maintained. But as cities and counties sent those with epilepsy, dementia and alcoholism, the lockup became overcrowded; tuberculosis became a leading cause of death.

Doctors also experimented with remedies for syphilis, which was known to cause dementia. They removed overactive thyroids and deliberately infected patients with malaria, believing high fever would wipe out madness. Those resistant to treatment were put in comas induced by insulin injections.

As policies toward the mentally ill became more progressive, Northern State fell on hard times and closed in 1973. Inmates were moved into group homes, from which many were forced onto the streets. The legacy of that penny-pinching closure still haunts the state: Those with serious mental illnesses cycle between the streets, local jails and the state’s precious few psychiatric beds.

Rumors of inmate mistreatment swirled after Northern State closed. An anonymous 2018 letter to the city council claimed that fetal and infant remains delivered from pregnant inmates were buried on the former farm. Many inmates ended up in a cemetery on the property. According to John Horne, a former chemical dependency counselor who is now a volunteer worker, “more than 1,600 patients are believed to be buried on the campus or elsewhere in the valley—close to 900 of them cremated and interred in metal food cans.”

When Horne returned to the campus three years ago, he began to explore the cemetery. Most headstones lay forgotten under the mud, the identities of inmates coded in initials and numbers. Records for most were sealed, so Horne began matching initials on the headstones with names on burial records he found in a file cabinet while scavenging the hospital campus. He then uploaded the information online, gaining 1,800 Facebook followers along the way. To date he has uncovered 200 headstones and identified 300 more beneath the grassy surface.

Under pressure from the Seattle Times, the state unsealed all Northern State inmate death records at least 50 years old, which the news organization uploaded to its site in 2023. That’s where Bigelow found out the truth about his great-grandfather Bartles.

Said Horne, “Nobody deserves to be forgotten like that.”  


Sources: KOUW, NPR News, Seattle Times

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