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. 


Amy Rea said...

Did they offer the ashes to Frieda?

Unknown said...

Was there ever a record or talk of sylvia's grandmother also haveing depression?

Catherine Rankovic said...

In that era they did not use the word "depression" as we use it. They would have said "melancholia." But it's clear from the symptoms described and from what little we know about the grandmother that she surely had what we would call depression, maybe post-partum depression that never went away.

lxv said...

This story is heartbreaking, but I've learned not to get too sentimental about our ancestors. My grandfather's mother died in one such place, an "insane asylum" in Dakota territory—in my mother's words: "Shortly after the move to Rapid City they moved again to Grand Forks, North Dakota probably in early 1899 or late 1898. In the spring of 1898 Sam left his wife in Grand Forks and returned to Illinois where, according to the hospital records for Florence, he went to see to the placement of his children with relatives. Upon his return about two weeks later he was told that Florence had had an altercation with the landlord over the rent which had been paid. This incident led to her being committed to the North Dakota State Hospital for the Insane in Jamestown in Stutzman County. She died there in May of 1903 of tuberculosis." I did not learn any of this until I was an adult, but my understanding is that she was one of those maddened prairie wives.