Family members sifted through a storage tub of scrapbooks and mementos in 2019 after Ralph Nasch died at 98 in Mesa, Ariz. There they found a green composition notebook containing 80 haunting, handwritten poems among the items tucked away by the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, who grew up in St. Paul.
Ralph's mother, Martha Nasch, wrote the poems during more than six years locked up against her will at St. Peter State Hospital, from 1928 to 1934.
"From then, I was forsaken, / By husband, child and friend. / And put in a dungeon, / To suffer with no end," reads part of a poem titled "Forgotten." Another one, "Thoughts," includes this verse: "I'm millions of miles from nowhere. / I have no world, not a home … / To those I one time knew / On Earth, wide and blue, / I'll send them my thoughts in a poem."
More than a half-century since her death in 1970 at age 80, Martha's words have resurfaced. Her granddaughter, Jodi Nasch Decker, and great-granddaughter, Janelle Molony, both of the Phoenix area, have chronicled her life and compiled her poetry in a self-published 316-page book, "Poems From the Asylum." (tinyurl.com/AsylumPoems)
"While her story is harrowing, it also shows her remarkable resolve and in a sense vindicates her in a tale of redemption and resilience," said Decker, who is Ralph's daughter and teaches public speaking at Glendale Community College.
Decker and Molony, a writing teacher and author, researched the life of Martha — known as Patient 20864 — and dissected her poetry, which advocated for fellow patients at St. Peter and detailed the horrors of force feeding and other grim practices of the era.
Though originally committed by her husband for what doctors considered a case of nerves, Martha "ultimately was not mentally ill," according to Molony.
Researching the rudimentary state of anesthesiology back then, the mother-daughter authors theorize that Martha's breakdown might have stemmed from intubation during a mysterious surgery she underwent in 1927, possibly gynecological. When surgeons put a tube down her throat, it could have affected nerves in her tongue or jaw — leaving her unable to taste or swallow.
The fourth of six children of German immigrant farmers, Martha Gruening was born in 1890 in Belle Plaine, Minn., and schooled through fifth grade. She married a St. Paul house painter, Louis Nasch Jr., in 1913, and their only child, Ralph, was born in 1921.
The marriage was rocky, with reports of frequent arguments, Louis' unfaithfulness and domestic violence — some of which Martha described in her poetry. "This undoubtedly added to the mental and emotional chaos Martha felt prior to her committal," the authors say.
Martha was committed to St. Peter by Louis and her doctors on Jan. 29, 1928. She would remain there for more than six years, seeing her son only during occasional visits from the time he was 6 until age 12.
Martha's precise diagnosis and treatment remain unclear, but Decker analyzed medical and psychiatric practices of the 1920s to paint a picture of what her grandmother likely faced. If you were suspected of general moodiness, depression, addiction or even heartbreak, it could be enough to get you locked up.
Records show Martha twice escaped briefly from the St. Peter asylum, in 1930 and just before her release in 1934. Both times she was back the next day.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of her story came in the months after her release. With Martha still having trouble sleeping and eating, Louis contacted the press to dispel the notion he was "starving my wife."
Mocking stories circulated by the Associated Press ran across the country, reporting Martha insisted she hadn't eaten anything in seven years. "In St. Paul, Mrs. Martha Nasch swore that for seven years, she had not eaten a mouthful, drunk a drop or slept a wink," Time magazine reported.
"In less than sixty days," Decker and Molony write, "Martha's story of survival, healing, perseverance, and medical discovery was reduced to a punchline."
Ralph said his mother never forgave Louis for her committal. They divorced in 1941, the year after Ralph graduated from Humboldt High School. Four years later Martha remarried Bill Lehman, a carpenter from Henderson, Minn. By all accounts, it was a far happier marriage than her first one.
Decker acknowledges credibility issues surrounding her grandmother. "But these are not the rantings of a mental patient," she said, "and our research only reinforces and validates her story."
Decker and Molony believe Martha suffered from a nerve condition called dysgeusia, which distorts the sense of taste — possibly caused by the intubation during her 1927 surgery.
"We've definitively shown how dysgeusia symptoms can be experienced as and interpreted as an expression of mental illness, even to this day," they write. "For what it's worth now, we declare Martha Nasch was sane."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.