Saturday, October 30, 2010

More Poe than Pennington: The Lost and Damned at the Prison Block

Maybe you heard a little about the Nightmare Factory at the Oregon School for the Deaf?

But of course Halloween at State institutions isn't always fun and games.

While we wouldn't want to douse most of the fun*, we do think that in addition to the fun, we might take a moment to think about real horror.

As Salemites can hardly not know, Ty Pennington and the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition revamped the haunted house at the School for the Deaf. Since 1987 the fun and games have been an important fund-raiser. Fortunately, stories, apocryphal or verifiable, of the kinds of tragedies that lead to hauntings aren't obvious.

But while there don't appear to be any ghosts at the Deaf School, we're sure there should be ghosts at other Salem places. Unhappy lives and deaths at the Asylum, Penitentiary, and Institution for the Feeble-Minded easily make the case that each institution should be haunted. Some of the stories, in fact, get a page on "haunted Salem" in the Salem online history.

Executions are profoundly sad, horror and woe radiating in every direction. It's also unclear that the state convicts the correct person 100% of the time. The execution of the wrong person is especially horrific. Of course, no matter how you feel about the executions, the truly guilty have left a long trail of woe behind them. There's long sadness no matter where you look.

Here's a list of the hangings and gassings between 1904 and 1962. Two of them are Halloween hangings at the Penitentiary on October 31st, 1913.

The State hanged Frank Seymour at age 19 and Mike Spanos at 21 on that October 31st. The year before, after meeting George Dedasklou at a pool hall in Medford, they retired to an old factory and assaulted and robbed Dedasklou. The robbery went awry and they apparently finished him off.

The case went to the Oregon Supreme Court and it appears there were at least some questions about the validity of the confession and whether a third person was involved in the murder. After reviewing the case, Governor West declined to grant clemency.

At the Penitentiary, the State invited 15 people to witness the executions.

After the deaths, Prison Superintendent said that the men had left letters for him in which they "blamed whiskey for all their troubles."

Spanos and Seymour may not be innocent, but according to the Innocence Project, even with modern protocols and technology, since 1989, 261 people have been exonerated through DNA matching after conviction. A century ago the "error rate" must have been much, much higher. It is difficult to read the newspaper accounts of Spanos and Seymour, at least superficially resembling in some details the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti, and be confident justice was served.

Just north of the prison is the State Hospital. Recently, the Hospital Museum blog mentioned a documentary about David Maisel's Library of Dust project. It's not clear that the documentary is completed.

But what are finished are the amazing photos. You really need to click through to see the azure patina and copper.

The images are beautiful. The contents of the tins, unbearably sad. The moral and aesthetic whiplash, violent. This tin is labeled "baby," March 7, 1924. How did a baby enter or be born at the State Hospital in 1924? Was its mother pregnant before she was admitted? Did she get pregnant while in the Hospital? What's the story?

But the remains went unclaimed, the story erased.

Right after Halloween is All Soul's Day and Day of the Dead. As we celebrate the fun and games this Halloween, we'll take a moment and tip a pint to the lost and damned, known and unknown, in Salem's Institutions.

*Over at DSS, Emily's got a note about zombie hangings whose imagery - indeed, iconography - veers disturbingly close to that of lynching. That's some Halloween fun that could maybe use some dousing. So is the unseemly relish Lost Abbey brewing seems to take in depicting a burning witch.

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