Saturday, October 3, 2020

Sylvia Plath's Mad Grandmother's Ashes

One of 3500 cans of ashes. Photo by "Kim" at

Sylvia Plath's paternal grandmother Ernestine Kottke Plath died at the Oregon State Hospital (formerly "Insane Asylum") in 1919, and her ashes in a canister sat in the hospital's basement for a hundred years with 3500 other such canisters holding the ashes of state-hospital patients. This forgotten "Library of Dust" was the subject of a 2011 documentary film of that name, and the subject of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning newspaper editorial published in Oregon in 2005.

When patients' death certificates became available, an Oregon-based contributor to the site volunteered to locate living relatives willing to receive the ashes. One of the certificates was for Ernestine Kottke Plath. The researcher, Phyllis Porter Zegers, learned that Ernestine's granddaughter Sylvia Plath became a poet and killed herself, but Zegers focused on finding Ernestine's living descendants.

A family member claimed Ernestine's ashes, finally, in September 2020. It's like Lady Lazarus risen.

[View Ernestine Plath's hospital photo, taken c. 1916, discovered in 2024.]

Sylvia Plath's father Otto Plath was Ernestine's eldest child. While his mother lived, Otto made himself scarce, leaving home for the U.S. at age 15 and then, when his parents and siblings came to the U.S., attending schools far away from them. Aurelia Plath later wrote that Otto stayed bitter about Ernestine's bad mothering. Ernestine's husband Theodor Plath committed Ernestine to the asylum in Salem, Oregon, in 1916. Zeger wrote that according to hospital records Ernestine was admitted suffering from overwork and a leg ulcer, had two "attacks" of something, and dementia. After three years in the crowded mental hospital, Ernestine died there of tuberculosis.

Sylvia Plath knew little or nothing about Ernestine. Aurelia kept secret from Sylvia her Aunt Frieda's information about Ernestine's mental illness. But we carry our ancestors' imprint always, in ways we might not know.