Mystery Passport in State Hospital Archives Tells Story of Worker Who Crossed the Border and Found Love

Oregon State Hospital’s century-old records, discovered as part of a state archivist’s project to index patient records, included a 1927 Norwegian passport, mailed to Salem years after the release of the man. Through participatory research, a clearer picture of Johannes Blankrud’s life has emerged.

The Norwegian passport of Johannes Blankrud, an indentured worker at the Oregon State Hospital who was discharged in 1920. The document and a mysterious pair of keys remained in his patient file, which is now in the archives of Oregon State (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A bright red booklet caught Todd Shaffer’s eye as he worked through a pile of patient charts.

Shaffer, archivist of the Oregon State Archives, said it’s not uncommon to find surprises in the decades-old records of people committed to the state psychiatric hospital.

But Johannes Blankrud’s file contained something Shaffer had never seen before: a Norwegian passport.

The passport was issued in 1927 and apparently posted to the hospital soon after. Shaffer said its presence in the file was a mystery, as were two small metal keys included.

Hospital records show that Blankrud was released in 1920 and deported to Norway soon after, a common practice for discharged immigrant patients. There is no logical reason why the hospital came into possession of his passport years later.

The archives posted the find on their Facebook page on Feb. 7, sparking a little historical scavenger hunt as some interested citizens scoured genealogy databases, newspaper archives and census records to flesh out Blankrud’s story.

Tim Dingman, a researcher from Iowa, sent Shaffer a nine-page document containing scans of church records, ship manifestos and other historical documents tracing Blankrud’s life.

“It almost became a participatory research project organically,” said Carla Axtman, editor of the Oregon Blue Book, which helps compile stories from the archives and share them with the public.

Through these records, a more detailed but still incomplete picture of Blankrud’s life has emerged. He was born in Norway in 1884 near Fumes, a village about 80 miles north of Oslo.

In 1910, census records show Blankrud was living in Spokane, Washington, with his brother Carl after traveling to the United States in 1906. He worked as a sawmill worker and as a cabinet maker.

His patient record at the state hospital does not detail how he ended up in Oregon, but in April 1914, a Multnomah County judge committed him to Salem Hospital.

The Medical Examiner reported Blankrud’s habits as “bad” and listed the cause of his “attack” as “masturbation”. His symptoms were only described as “irrational speech, religious mania”.

Johannes Blankrud’s Oregon State Hospital Patient Record (Oregon State Archives)

He spent six weeks in hospital, then returned to Norway, where he was confined in an asylum for six months. Blankrud returned to the United States in 1915, and by 1919 had been committed to the state hospital for the second time.

“At present this man is very disturbed in mind, has auditory hallucinations, is excitable, restless, and believes that spirits direct his actions and inhibit his thoughts,” read a patient report from the 25th March 1919. “He seems to be a clear case of expulsion.”

According to newspaper reports, Blankrud was deported soon after, but he sought to return to the United States. Apparently a young woman from Spokane, Lena Updahl, had captured his interest.

The Spokesman-Review, Spokane’s daily newspaper, reported that Blankrud had returned to the area in October 1920, tricking immigration officials into returning to the country.

A February 18, 1921 article in the Spokesman-Review of Spokane about the marriage of Johannes Blankrud and his subsequent deportation.

After a warrant was issued for his arrest, he married Updahl in Spokane. On February 4, 1921, the couple began what the newspapers lightly described as their “honeymoon” – a government-paid trip to Seattle with other deportees awaiting transport to their home countries.

Shaffer, the archivist who found the passport, said he enjoyed seeing more information about Blankrud’s life coming together, although the mystery of the passport remains unsolved.

He said archivists are increasingly looking not only to preserve records, but also to share stories and publicize their findings. Blankrud’s file is an example of how even a fragment of someone else’s life can resonate.

“Sometimes the ones that don’t have all the answers are the most interesting,” Shaffer said.

He has spent much of the past two years indexing decades-old records from Oregon State Hospital. It tracks the records it processes in a master spreadsheet, something researchers can use to quickly identify which box a particular patient’s record is in.

Records, like Blankrud’s, detail the commitments, diagnoses and treatment of Oregonians with mental illnesses confined to the institution in the early 20th century.

Schaffer said he found several surprises while indexing the files. Her favorite is a nun from Mt. Angel confined to the hospital in the 1930s.

“I open this file and, at the very top of this pile of papers, I stare at the metal handle of a kitchen utensil… that someone has filed down in a screwdriver. And I look at that and I’m like, ‘There’s a story here’,” Shaffer said. He started to read his file.

The nun made it clear early on in her engagement that she had no place in the public hospital and set about trying to escape by any means necessary.

“It was his only obsession was getting out of the public hospital,” Shaffer said.

To do so, she apparently commandeered a spoon or fork from the kitchen, filed it down to a point, and used it to lift the bars of the upstairs window, while also threatening her roommate to shut up.

Her rope of tied sheets broke in mid-autumn, resulting in the nun’s injury. She somehow made it to Portland, but later sought hospital treatment for her injuries and was re-interned at the state hospital, where she again escaped. Shaffer said records show her eventually working as a nanny for a wealthy family in Seattle, then living in the Bay Area.

“It’s just crazy,” Shaffer said. “It contains all the elements of an incredible story.”

Contact journalist Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Michael A. Bynum