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On Canby Then this week, and in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, we wanted to revisit one of the most fascinating and intriguing episodes that we have ever run across in our digging through Canby’s history. It happened right around this time of year back in 1915.
Two years earlier, In 1913, Oscar W. Sturgis, a well-known Clackamas County pioneer and Canby farmer, made a very difficult decision. He had his 40-year-old son, Charley, committed to the state insane asylum in Salem.
We don’t know the exact circumstances of this decision. But we know Oscar Sturgis was in his 70s. His wife, 15 years younger, was also in poor health. It’s a reasonable assumption that the Sturgises were unable to provide the level of care that Charley needed.
The Oregon State Hospital in the early 1900s was a dark and infamous place, which is not unusual in a time when mental illness was greatly feared and poorly understood. The hospital was underfunded and overcrowded.
Later, its staff would participate in the eugenics movement, sterilizing more than 2,600 patients over the years, and experimenting with practices now considered barbaric, including electroshock therapy and insulin shock therapy, where patients were repeatedly treated with large enough doses of insulin to induce daily comas.
Is it any wonder that, in April 1915, less than two years after he’d been institutionalized, Charley Sturgis, along with a group of other “patients,” escaped from the Oregon State Hospital. It also was probably not surprising — at least not to the local officials who were investigating the case — when a body turned up in the mountains of Eugene, near the Wendling Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The man, who had evidently been murdered, matched Charley’s description and was wearing his hospital-issued clothing.
Back in Canby, the Sturgises were informed of the gruesome discovery and sent a family friend, A.J. Burdette, to view the corpse. He positively identified it, noting a particular scar on the neck that was a match to Charley Sturgis. The body was transported back home and laid to rest in a family plot at the Canby Oddfellows Cemetery.
Months passed, and the family worked to move on and put the sad episode behind them. As the holidays drew near, one can imagine how heavily the tragic loss of their ill son must have weighed on his parents’ hearts. I can only guess that they must have blamed themselves for his death.
“If only we hadn’t sent him away,” they must have lamented in the dark, cold hours of the night. “If only we had kept him home for a little while longer, things might have turned out differently.”
Then, on Nov. 21, four days before Thanksgiving, a knock came on the door of the Sturgis family home. It was, perhaps, the most unexpected knock in the history of Canby. It was Charley Sturgis. Miraculously alive, smiling, and in good health, mind and body.
The door had been answered by his sister, Bertha Hurst, who was dumbfounded — and maybe more than a little afraid — to see the man her family had buried months ago, standing before her (and waiting impatiently to be invited in). When she recovered, she took Charley to his old room, then went to break the news to their mother.
She knew she had to handle this carefully, given her mother’s fragile state of health. She asked, “Can you stand some news which might be a little shock?”
“Yes, I guess so, but what is it?” her mother replied.
She explained that her brother was not dead, in fact had just come home, and her mother promptly fainted.
“We had to put her to bed and call Dr. Dedham,” Bertha later recalled.
When Oscar Sturgis was told the news, he had the same reaction.
Charley, of course, had no idea that he’d been pronounced dead, that he’d had a funeral, that there was even a body in a cemetery with a tombstone bearing his name. And his sister was reluctant to tell him, for fear of the effect that this would have on his own mental state. He had, after all, been a patient at a mental institution only a few months earlier, and the only reason he was not still there was because he had escaped. For this same reason, he was not told of the impact his return had had on his parents.
“Everything possible is being done to prevent Charles Sturgis from becoming excited,” one newspaper noted.
The truth slowly emerged over the next several days. After escaping the state hospital, Charley had traveled to Washington state, where he’d worked in various towns, before deciding he missed home and wanted to see his family.
But this didn’t answer the big question: Who was the man buried in the Sturgis plot? And why was he wearing Charley’s clothes, down to the patient number he’d been issued at the state hospital?
Part of this was eventually answered when Charley explained that the group who’d escaped the institution in April 1915 had hatched an unusual plot. They had decided to all trade clothes before splitting up, in order to confuse any authorities they encountered. But as to who the man was, and how — and why — he met his grisly fate, we’ll probably never know.
One thing we can be sure of: The Sturgis family was much brighter that Thanksgiving.
“Oh, it’s a happy Thanksgiving for us,” Bertha Hurst, the sister, told The Oregonian. “We are so happy because Charley has come home — come home brighter than ever before. Our sorrow has been turned to joy.”
She said the family would not be returning Charley to the State Hospital, and also that the unknown man whose body had been buried in the Sturgis plot would be exhumed “immediately” and laid to rest elsewhere. (Hopefully, they waited till after Thanksgiving.)
Unfortunately, we were unable to follow the threads of this fascinating story beyond 1915. If you know anything about what became of Charles Sturgis and his family, please let us know.
Up next is the story of a shooting star, a long time member of the U.S. Rifle Team from right here in Canby. That’s next time, on Canby Then.
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