Tuesday, May 14, 2024

From Germany to the Pacific Northwest

Sylvia Plath's story is so New England that links to the Pacific Northwest seem sort of odd. A true Bostonian, she saw England and France before venturing west of the Hudson. In 1910 her future dad Otto Plath left Wisconsin for grad school in Seattle despite universities aplenty nearer by and out east. Otto's classmate inspired his move to Seattle, where in 1912 he got a master's degree and his first teaching job and first wife. But I think it mattered too that Otto's parents and three brothers were already in the Pacific Northwest. 

Although Otto's grandfather disowned him, his family stayed in touch and asked him whether he'd take in his sickly brother Paul. Otto said no.

Otto had been getting kid-glove fine schooling while his family came from Prussia straight to the North Dakota plains where Otto's blacksmith uncle had prospered. After eight lean years, the Plaths in 1910 joined the rootless hundreds of thousands picturing the far-western forests they could mill, mountains to mine, ocean to harvest, friendly neighbors and homesteading land purged of natives. And some good universities. The Northern Pacific Railway made it easier to migrate west than north or south -- and easy to go back if anyone had to.

The railroad further baited its hook with discount ticket prices for passengers going west to the end of the line.

The Plaths like every family in the Northwest labored at lumber mills, paper mills, smithing, shipping, repair shops, contracting, and farming. This map helped me understand why they chose the Pacific Northwest, where some of their descendants still live.

Northern Pacific Railway, 1910. Otto would have got aboard at St. Paul.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Ernestine Plath's Extreme Mental Illness

Sylvia Plath's mentally ill grandmother, Ernestine Plath, was much sicker than we ever knew, a mental hospital veteran when her husband signed her into the Oregon State Hospital in autumn 1916 (see her photo in last week's post). Ernestine was then 62, diagnosed with senile dementia, and died in the hospital in 1919, and I have a copy of her hospital files including the chilling photo with the black eye.

Ready to post this week about domestic violence, I took time to consult other sources and learned:

1)  That photo probably wasn't from the day of intake. Although it's undated I'd assumed that, and thought Ernestine's husband or sons had beaten her. Hospital historian Jessica Cole told me a photographer came to the hospital every few months, and the staff lined up new patients for mugshots one after another: efficient. The black eye -- terrible in any case -- then might have come from anywhere.

2) Ernestine had lived in North Dakota from 1902 to 1905 when she was admitted to the state insane asylum at Jamestown, N.D., staying until 1910. I wanted proof of a five-year stay. I found it in the 1910 federal census listing the inmates of the Jamestown women's ward. All inmates gave their first and last names while Ernestine gave the name "Mrs. Antonio Plath." That's why she hadn't shown up in searches of that census. There was no Antonio Plath in the family. Yet Ernestine's surname and demographics matched her husband's answers to the Oregon hospital's questionnaire:

Patient ever insane before? "Yes, one time five year in Jamestown N. Dakota." First symptoms: "1905, head-ache, sleep and appetite loss, and anxious an [sic] persecution."

The Oregon state hospital could not get Ernestine's Jamestown records, and we don't have them, so we've had the illusion that Ernestine's second, documented, hospitalization was the first one, the only one, or the really big one, and that her illness was mostly from aging when it was cyclic and chronic.

Although Sylvia wasn't told about her paternal grandmother's illness, she was terrified of becoming chronically mentally ill and a charity case in state mental hospitals.