The Curious Case of Charley Sturgis

Hear this edition of Canby Then in all of its audio glory on Episode 3 of the Canby Now Podcast.

Based on real events, the 2008 film Changeling tells the story of a single mother whose son is abducted. Police later return a boy whom they claim is her son, but she doesn’t recognize him. When she refuses to accept the imposter, the authorities have her committed to a mental institution.

A similar story, albeit one with a much older child and a much happier ending, happened right here in Canby 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 experimented 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 escaped from the Oregon State Hospital. It also was probably not surprising to local officials when a body, an apparent murder victim, turned up in the mountains near Eugene, matching Charley’s description and 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 as 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.

Then, on Nov. 21, four days before Thanksgiving, a knock came on the door of the Sturgis family home. 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 to see the man she’d assumed had been buried months ago, standing before her. 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 mental state. 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 it had actually been a group who’d escaped the institution in April 1915, and they’d all traded clothes before splitting up in order to confuse any authorities they encountered. But as to who he was, and how he met his grisly fate, we’ll probably never know.

Unfortunately, with the limited resources available to us, we were unable to pick up any threads of this fascinating story after 1915. If you know anything about what became of Charles Sturgis and his family, please let us know. You can reach me at

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