From Quebec to Connecticut

This post was revised and expanded on March 30, 2018.

I have spent the last six years researching and writing about the five women in my family tree who were mentally ill and committed to state hospitals.  Along the way, I learned that they were descended from French-Canadians who immigrated to the U.S. in the late nineteenth century.  Throughout the preceding fifty-five years of my life, I knew very little about my Quebecois heritage.

Quinebaug Mill and canal, ca. 1901. Danielson, Connecticut
Quinebaug Mill and canal, ca. 1901. Danielson, Connecticut

The Quinebaug Mill in Danielson, Connecticut is where several of my French-Canadian ancestors worked, after leaving their Quebec villages. These photos, from the collections of the Killingly Historical and Genealogical Society, offered me a window into what my great-grandparents’ working lives were like.
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Cleansing the Spirits at Norwich State Hospital

Postcard, ca. 1907, Norwich State Hospital for the Insane
Postcard, ca. 1907, Norwich State Hospital for the Insane

Norwich State Hospital Today

Because Norwich State Hospital has played such a significant role in my family’s history, I am interested in what is happening to it in the present and what will happen in the future. The hospital, renamed Norwich Hospital in the early 1960s, was permanently closed in 1996. Remaining patients were moved to other hospitals in the state. The property was then transferred to the State Department of Public Works. The town of Preston, in which most of the hospital grounds lie, purchased 390 acres from the state in 2009 and began demolishing the buildings in 2011. Millions of dollars were spent on environmental cleanup associated with the demolition, including the removal of lead-based paint, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

When I heard of the demolition of the hospital where so much of my family history transpired, I wondered if any of the buildings would be saved, or if every trace of the hospital’s existence would be erased. I knew that the buildings would just sit there rotting unless the town could make use of the land. I hoped that they were Continue reading Cleansing the Spirits at Norwich State Hospital

The Intergenerational Self

Standing in the old St. James Cemetery (photo by Robert Cantor, Oct 2013)
Standing in the old St. James Cemetery (photo by Robert Cantor, Oct 2013)

I started out, during my transformation from reluctant genealogist to ardent family historian, just wanting a narrative of my mother’s family history that made sense. I hoped that knowing what had really happened to Mom and Grandma would help me understand why they sometimes behaved in ways that were emotionally hurtful: Grandma toward Mom, and Mom toward me. Beyond that, I sensed that there might be a broader benefit to knowing the truth about the past, but wasn’t quite sure what it might be.
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Norwich Free Academy

1943 class ring, Norwich Free Academy, photo by Bob Cantor
1943 class ring, Norwich Free Academy, photo by Bob Cantor

My mother’s high school ring is a symbol of more than just her graduation from Norwich Free Academy. After researching and writing about her life, I realized that it represents the role education had played in her escape from the poverty and dysfunction of the family into which she was born. Continue reading Norwich Free Academy

Norwich State Hospital During World War II

War causes a staffing crisis at the hospital

In December of 1941, the United States entered into World War II. This military undertaking affected every level of American society, including state hospitals. Staffing at Norwich State Hospital had always been a challenge. Even in the best of times, there were never as many attendants as there should have been. It was particularly hard to recruit male attendants, since they were usually paid less than what they could make as tradesmen such as carpenters, electricians or auto mechanics. The pool of potential attendants was drained further after the war effort began, as men joined the military service or took better-paying jobs in the defense industry. The Superintendent of Norwich State Hospital, Dr. William A. Bryan, resorted to two unusual sources to fill his many vacant attendant positions.
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Not Your Typical Grandparents

Grandma and Grandpa Tillotson, in1956 (before they remarried).
Grandma and Grandpa Tillotson, in1956 (before they remarried).

Grandma and Grandpa’s relationship status, had they been on Facebook, could have been “it’s complicated.” My grandparents married in 1922, but two months later, Grandma left Grandpa. In 1925, when she became pregnant with Mom, they reunited.

My grandparents had a stormy relationship.  She continually accused him of cheating on her, and sometimes their arguments came to blows.  In retrospect, her suspicions were probably symptoms of her paranoid schizophrenia.  Grandpa suffered from PTSD and the effects of mustard gas from World War I.  He didn’t know how to handle Grandma’s rantings, which is why their marriage devolved into domestic violence. Continue reading Not Your Typical Grandparents

Architecture of Norwich State Hospital

Postcard showing the architecture of Norwich State Hospital, circa 1909
Postcard showing the architecture of Norwich State Hospital, circa 1909

This post is a short excerpt from the manuscript of Secrets of the Asylum.

In 1908, when my great-grandmother Graziella Metthe was brought to Norwich State Hospital, she was confronted with five imposing buildings spread out on a broad, 100-acre plateau overlooking the Thames River. Closest to the road was the Administration Building, a three-and-a-half-story red brick structure in French neo-Gothic style, trimmed with Indiana limestone and terracotta. Set back on either side of the Administration Building were the North and South A ward buildings, which were only two stories high, and meant to house fifty-two patients each. The North and South B wards were set back yet farther on either side of the A wards, and turned at forty-five degree angles. The B wards were three stories high and meant to house one hundred and fifty patients each. Ward buildings to the north of the Administration Building were designated for female patients and those to the south, for male patients. Continue reading Architecture of Norwich State Hospital

From Reluctant Genealogist to Relentless Family Historian

Mom as Family Historian

Selfie with my grandparents, November 2016 (taken after I became interested in genealogy)
Selfie with my grandparents, November 2016

You might think, with all the energy Mom spent on researching her family tree, that her stories would have become more detailed and connected than before. But Mom continued to tell the same old tales, which were unaltered by anything that she might have uncovered in her genealogical research. For that reason, genealogy didn’t interest me during the years that Mom was actively pursuing birth certificates and census records. Looking at the pedigree charts and family group sheets, filled out in Mom’s distinctive scrawl, I was unable to make any more sense of the past than I had by listening to her stories. Continue reading From Reluctant Genealogist to Relentless Family Historian

Norwich State Hospital

Norwich State Hospital, Administration Building, October 2013
Norwich State Hospital, Administration Building, October 2013

Norwich State Hospital looms large in my family’s history. Four of my ancestors — all women — were patients there, including my grandmother. While writing about my family’s experiences in Secrets of the Asylum, I studied the history of this institution from its beginning in 1904 through all the years that my ancestors were there, up to 1958.

I wanted to learn whatever I could about how mental patients were treated at state hospitals such as Norwich. It wasn’t long before I realized that this was a dark story, made even darker for me as I considered what might have happened to my own family members. Continue reading Norwich State Hospital