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467 Poisoned at Oregon State Hospital
November 18, 1942
 
One of the most tragic incidents in Salem’s history was the poisoning of nearly 500 patients and staff at the Oregon State Hospital, on the evening of November 18, 1942. Many who ate the scrambled eggs served for dinner that evening would later claim that they had tasted funny, some saying they’d been salty, others saying they tasted soapy. Within five minutes of consuming them, the diners began to sicken, experiencing violent stomach cramps, vomiting, leg cramps, and respiratory paralysis. Witnesses described patients crawling on the floor, unable to sit or stand. The lips of the stricken turned blue, and some vomited blood. The first death came within an hour; by midnight, there were 32; by 4 a.m., 40. Local doctors rushed to the hospital to help out staff doctors. The hospital morgue, outfitted for two to three bodies, was overwhelmed.

Eventually 47 people would die; in all, 467 were sickened. Though five wards had been served the suspect eggs, all the deaths occurred in four; in the fifth, an attendant had tried the eggs, found them odd tasting, and ordered her charges not to eat them.

Officials were baffled, and immediately focused on the frozen egg yolks which all the victims had been served, and which had come from federal surplus commodities. It was thought that the eggs might have spoiled due to improper storage, or even that they might have been deliberately poisoned by a patient who could have gotten a hold of a poison while on furlough. The biggest fear, however, was the fear of sabotage: with the country engaged in World War II, this possibility loomed large. Oregon Governor Charles Sprague ordered all state institutions to stop using the eggs. The federal government issued a similar order, and the Agriculture Department ordered an investigation into the handling of its frozen eggs.

But the eggs were part of a 36,000-pound shipment which had been divided between schools, NYA projects and state institutions in Oregon and Washington, 30,000 pounds of which had already been consumed with no ill effects. State officials confirmed that the eggs had been properly stored, and the president of National Egg Products Inc. pointed out that eggs bad enough to kill would be so obviously spoiled that no one would eat them.

The day after the poisoning, with dozens still ill, pathologists determined that the sickness and death had been caused by sodium flouride, an ingredient in cockroach poison; pathology reports showed large amounts of the compound in the stomachs of the dead victims. Five grams--the size of an aspirin--would have been fatal; some of the dead had eaten more sodium flouride than eggs. Cockroach poison was known to be available at the hospital, kept in a locked cellar room to which only regular kitchen employees had keys. State Police launched an investigation, and began interviewing staff and patients at the hospital.

Finally, several days after the poisonings, two cooks at the hospital, A.B. McKillop and Mary O’Hare, admitted that they knew what had happened, that they had realized soon after the symptoms had struck, but had not come forward for fear of being charged. McKillop took responsibility, saying he had been the one to send a patient trusty, George Nosen, to the cellar to get dry milk powder for the scrambled eggs he was preparing. He had given Nosen his keys to the cellar, and Nosen returned with a tin half-full of powder, an estimated six pounds of which were mixed into the scrambled eggs at McKillop’s direction. When people had begun getting ill, he had questioned Nosen about where he’d found the powder, and discovered he had brought roach poison.

Despite McKillop’s insistence that O’Hare bore no responsibility for the poisoning, and over the objections of the State Police, who had determined that the poisoning was accidental, District Attorney M.B. Hayden ordered both cooks arrested. A grand jury declined to indict them; the patient George Nosen was never charged. Considered by many of his fellow patients to be a mass murderer, he became something of a pariah at the hospital where he spent the rest of his life. Two brief attempts at life outside the institution failed, and he died at the State Hospital 41 years later, after suffering a heart attack during a fight with another patient.

Compiled and written by Kathleen Carlson Clements

Bibliography:
Capital Journal, November 19-December 1, 1942

Oregon Statesman, November 18, 1992

 

 
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