Unfit to Be at Large

Elizabeth Higgins

Unfit to be at Large: Fragments from the life of Helen Fischer

Content Warning: Graphic Death, Suicide, Grief, Mental Illness

Part 1: Felling a Life


Two men in button boots and frock coats and top hats took my arms, pulled me into a carriage, then onto a train, slid steel faces on wood benches. Boxed me in as though I had somewhere to go, all of it shaken like paints in a sea of green wax with me suspended inside, inhaled in small shudders as the railcar rocked on its tracks.

The Morning Oregonian, May 12, 1900, p. 4(i)


He left early, gray wool coat buttoned over worn blue overalls. Winchester rifle strapped flat across his shoulder. Both pockets filled with slips of pork in buttered bread, boiled eggs wrapped in paper that I handed him on his way out. The bright gray sky cast his silhouette in the doorway. I spent the day scrubbing and boiling the wash, sewing a new steel button on his green shirt like I told him I would.


The wife and daughter incline to the opinion that Mr. Fischer is not dead… ¹

For a long time                                                                         

I still felt he might

walk through the door

at any moment,

goose in hand

ready for plucking,

sorry for taking

so long.

That I might be able

to lay my hand

on the warm breast

of his work shirt,

that his fingertips

and the outer edges

of his ears

were still red

with life.

That our story

was still unfolding.

Day XXVIII, part II

The body, by request of Mrs. Fischer, was kept out of public view. ³

I doubled over

and shielded

from my sight

white hands cramped,

arms marbled purple,

a circle of gunpowder

stamped in what once

was the soft underside

of a chin.

His chin. In his head

a dark hollow

where memories

emptied red

onto slick rocks

and green moss,

where red dried

and blackened.

Where edges

grew rot.

The face I knew

each crease of,


before me.

Plum pits

where eyes were.

Where once

I was seen.


As the weeks passed

the bells in my body

sounded one by one

until everything rang

and rang

and rang and clattered

tangles of nerves, rattled

walls, kicked up dust

from the crevices

between floorboards

and burned it with friction.

Shapes of letters

and features of faces

formed behind fumes.

An officer appeared

through the sheer curtain

over the front door,

opened a wooden

jaw, broke his words

over me,

submerged slivers

in my skin.

My mouth was

dry pulp, air taken

through tight fibers

and kept inside.

At about 10 o’clock on the morning of January 19th, 1900, my great grandfather, Irving Higgins, stood at the base of Spencer’s Butte looking down at the blue overalls that held August Fischer’s slightly decomposed body. He would have seen where the bullet entered at his chin and exited at the top of his head. He would have seen the nearby oak tree that caught his black hat. His boots would have crunched the thick underbrush. Hopefully gripped the rocks. His breath must have billowed out in white clouds. Irving was one of eight men in the search party that found August’s body. It had to be carried over a quarter mile through dense brush and was a big job, as it weighed 175 pounds and only two men could handle it at a time. ² When it was  his turn, did my great grandfather carry August by the wrists, or the ankles?

Only two men could handle it at a time

Picking Up

I tried to keep track

of the days.

The fields, the farm.

The chickens.

The children.

Held myself

inside the seams

of my apron,

worked while fibers

wore thin.

Hours stretched sheer

and collapsed into weeks.

Embers settled in the ash

of a season.

Walls wavered.

Invited infirmity.

Cold air,

and with it winter moths

I thought I left

in the middle west.


Their voices dissolved

in the air, receded

to a distant commotion.

Minnie was sixteen.

Albert twelve.

I sat in the brown chair,

brass upholstery tacks

cutting cold

against my skin, frozen

eyes fixed on

falling rain

that blew and clicked

the windowpane,

scored and scarred

the porcelain sky.

For a moment

they appeared

in the frame:

boots loose in mud,

blue dress curled

back in the breeze,

buckets swinging

under handles

gripped tight.

And then there was only

the yellow bellflower,

branches shading

a small stone lamb

and six plates of slate

laid flush in the ground.

The fields made

their last show

of sap green growth

as though frost

had passed.

As though there were

a farmer who might

open up the earth

and find life there.


Light passed.

Dogs howled

at the doorstep

to a lingering scent,

slid incisors

through the space

between the door

and its frame.

I braced myself

on the iron stove,

held tight to the lip

of the cooktop,

traced shapes

of bears outside

with my eyes as

the echo circled in,

as evil wrenched

the folds

of my petticoat,

lips and wind snarling,

fists cinched tight.

At Nightfall

Blood peppered itself

into my periphery,

slid into pools

from the carcass


in my mind,

dripped each night

from a ceiling

sealed against

the elements,

into a house

where each sound

could have marked

his return

but could not have

after all,

where each sound

instead rung inside

the black hollow

of the hole

in his head,

ran down skin

strained in cheesecloth,

settled in foul flesh.

I was rendered

in hot oil.

Kernels burst

in my veins,

copper tubing

licked by vicious smiles

of green flame.


was the headline

bled in black ink,

settled deep

in creases

and hardened

beneath the skin

of my fingers

and hands.

Near the bottom

of the fifth column

on page seven

the paper said

that Helen Fischer

was committed

to the asylum

in Salem Saturday

on the charge

of insanity.

My body sits in a small

white room with an

intake nurse, but

the rest of me

drifts, circles

the house, the butte,

watches the pack

of dogs sprint

toward the orchards

from above.

I hover over

the collars I starched

when I still thought

he would return,

inhale the scent

of skin and overripe fruit

on his coat.

Hear whispers

of pity.

The paper said

It will be remembered

that her husband August

committed suicide

near Spencer Butte ⁵

in January,

the bullet running up

through his chin,

his hat…blown

into the tree above him.

1918: The first edition of the Statistical Manual for the Use of Institutions for the Insane is published, representing the country’s first nationwide statistical standard for mental illness, listing 21 disorders. ⁸ The SMUII is renamed ⁹ and revised ten times over the next twenty-four years. ¹⁰

1943-1947: During World War II, the U.S. Army finds that SMUII diagnoses only account for ten percent of their cases, necessitating the creation of a separate classification system. ¹¹ Postwar, there is pressing demand for a cross-institutional standard.

1952: The first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), is published, listing 106 disorders. ¹²

1968: The second edition, DSM-II, lists 182 disorders. ¹³

1974: my mother graduates with a master’s in social work.

1980: the DSM-III lists 265 disorders. ¹⁴

1994: the DSM-IV lists 297 disorders. ¹⁵

2003: I, thirteen, secret my mother’s copy of the DSM-IV from the bottom of the tall white bookshelf in the living room. I slide my hand across its maroon cover and yellow letters, open its cracked spine. This is the source material. The words in the questions she asks me, this is where they come from. I am determined to know more about me than she does. I read, inhale the clean lines of black ink on white paper. Again and again I open it, watch the words closely as though the right gaze might bring hidden lines into focus, peel paper to reveal missing pages. By the time I’m done with it, the binding is broken clean through.

Pages amber like flypaper in the light of a century: A Timeline


¹ “Missing: August Fischer, Farmer, Last Heard of Friday.” The Eugene City Guard (1870-1899), 30 Dec. 1899, p. 1. Historic Oregon Newspapers, University of Oregon Libraries, oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn84022653/1899-12-30/ed-1/seq-1/. Accessed 16 April 2023.

² “August Fischer: Body Found at Foot of Spencer Butte This Morning.” The Eugene City Guard (1870-1899), 27 Jan. 1900, p. 5. Historic Oregon Newspapers, University of Oregon Libraries. https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn84022653/1900-01-27/ed-1/seq-5/. Accessed 16 April 2023.

³ “August Fischer: Body Found...”

⁴ "Commitment.” The Eugene Weekly Guard (1899-1908), 12 May, 1900, p. 7. Historic Oregon Newspapers, University of Oregon Libraries, https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn96088102/1900-05-12/ed-1/seq-7/. Accessed 16 April 2023.


"August Fischer: Body Found..."

⁷ “Table X: Showing the alleged cause of insanity as stated in commitments of patients admitted from December 1, 1898 to November 30, 1900, inclusive.” Ninth biennial report of the board of trustees and superintendent of the Oregon State Insane Asylum to the twenty-first legislative assembly, 1901, p. 23. Digital Collections, State Library of Oregon , https://digital.osl.state.or.us/islandora/object/osl%3A94960. Accessed 7 June 2023.

⁸ Statistical Manual for the Use of Institutions for the Insane. American Medico-Psychological Association; National Committee for Mental Hygiene, 1918.

⁹ Statistical Manual for the Use of Hospitals for Mental Diseases. 3rd ed., American Psychiatric Association; National Committee for Mental Hygiene, 1923.

¹⁰ Statistical Manual for the Use of Hospitals for Mental Diseases. 10th ed., American Psychiatric Association; National Committee for Mental Hygiene, 1942.

¹¹ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Mental Disorders. American Psychiatric Association, 1952, p. vi.

¹² Surís, Alina et al. "The Evolution of the Classification of Psychiatric Disorders." Behavioral Sciences (Basel, Switzerland), vol. 6, no. 1, 18 Jan. 2016. National Library of Medicine, https://doi.org/10.3390/bs6010005. Accessed 11 June 2023.

¹³ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 2nd ed, American Psychiatric Association, 1968.

¹⁴ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 3rd ed, American Psychiatric Association, 1980.

¹⁵ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed, American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

Elizabeth Higgins writes across genres and disciplines to consolidate information and experience, and through archival research as a way to confront the past and reframe the present. Elizabeth is an academic coach and former library cataloger with an MFA in creative writing from Oregon State University Cascades.