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.

The Reluctant Genealogist

Genealogy, in my view, was nothing more than the gathering of dry facts such as who begat whom, when they married, when they died. What I wanted was a more coherent narrative of Mom’s childhood; one that was continuous, had fewer contradictions, and more explanations for whatever had happened to her. A lifetime of listening to Mom’s brief and disjointed stories hadn’t given me that, so I had no expectations of getting it out of genealogy. Whenever I asked her how her genealogical research was going, Mom would spout random facts about her family: “My great-great-grandfather Warren was listed as a pauper in the 1860 U.S. Census.”  Or: “My great-aunt Rose owned her house in 1920.” These historical non sequiturs were even less compelling to me than the ones I had heard all my life. Mom’s genealogical tidbits might have piqued my interest if they had somehow illuminated the story of her childhood, but they didn’t.

The Relentless Family Historian

My attitude toward genealogy changed when I realized what family secrets I could uncover by reading my grandmother’s patient record from Norwich State Hospital, then comparing what I learned with what was in the family tree. I went back to Mom’s genealogy files and realized that many of the gaps in her research coincided with people who might have known the truth about her family. Maybe Mom thought the purpose of genealogy was to verify family stories that she already knew, not turn up alternative facts that might contradict them. Maybe Mom suspected that something wasn’t quite right in her family history, but didn’t want to know more. Maybe it was a combination of both.  All I knew was that I needed more out of my family history. Thus I began my relentless search for the truth, culminating in my work, Secrets of the Asylum.

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.

From its start, Norwich State Hospital for the Insane was plagued by overcrowding, understaffing, and underfunding.  There was also no unanimous theory in the psychiatric community on what caused mental illness or what might cure it. As a result, many dubious and ineffective methods were tried out on unsuspecting mental patients. I saw this played out in the patient record of my great-grandmother Graziella.

Norwich State Hospital and My Great-Grandmother

Graziella Metthe was diagnosed with “manic-depressive psychosis” in 1908, when she was committed to Norwich State Hospital.  At that time, a theory circulated among the state hospitals that insanity was caused by hidden infections in the body. The most likely place for these infections was the teeth. Without unbiased data that this was even true, thousands of patients had their teeth yanked out in the hope for a cure. If that didn’t work, some of them underwent surgery to remove other possible infection sites such as tonsils, adenoids, spleen, and even the colon.

The sad fact for my great-grandmother was that she had been slowly improving when, as my mother used to put it, “some doctor thought it was a good idea to remove all of her teeth.” Soon after this procedure, Graziella’s mental condition took a nosedive, from which she never recovered. She died there in 1910.

Norwich State Hospital and My Grandmother

My grandmother, Beatrice Tillotson, was also a patient at the hospital, admitted in 1935. Although fully delusional, and subject to the hallucinations that came with her paranoid schizophrenia, she was a generally cooperative patient.  She did try to escape a couple of times, but she was not considered violent. Over the years, her industrious nature worked in her favor. When World War II came along, the shortage of staff at the hospital became so dire that they began to hire their most functional patients to work as attendants. My grandmother was among the first to take that job.

Eventually, Grandma proved to the hospital psychiatrists that she could safely rejoin the community. Unfortunately, for reasons that I explain in Secrets of the Asylum, she had nowhere to go. This was why, after her discharge from the hospital in 1944, she moved from a patient ward to employee housing.  Grandma lived and worked at Norwich State Hospital until her retirement in 1958.

My Thoughts

I have concluded, after learning about my ancestors’ experiences, that Norwich State Hospital was neither a bad place nor a good place. It seems to me that what the hospital was to each individual depended on multiple factors:  the patients themselves, which staff worked directly with them, and whatever the prevailing theories of treatment were during the time they were committed.

Secrets of the Asylum is full of historical information regarding mental health care in the early twentieth century of the U.S. in general, and Norwich State Hospital in particular.  What I learned shed light on a very personal matter in my family history, the affects of which trickled down to my generation.

Sources Consulted:

Connecticut. Norwich Hospital for the Insane. Report of the Norwich Hospital for the Insane to the Governor for the two years ended … [Norwich, Conn.] : The Hospital, 1907-1942. State of Connecticut Public Document no. 51.

Grob, Gerald N. The Mad Among Us: A History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Grob, Gerald N. Mental Illness and American Society, 1875-1940. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Hurd, Henry Mills. The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1916-17. 4 volumes.