Readers of this blog sometimes ask me how they can find a records for their own mentally ill ancestor. I try to answer these questions to the best of my knowledge. I want to share what I know with others, and it seems more efficient to do it in a blog post than in many emails to individuals. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy hearing from my readers, and will respond as time allows. My goal for this article is to have something useful to point to if a reader has a question about their mentally ill ancestor. Continue reading Researching Your Mentally Ill Ancestor
The following is a book review of A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans: Industrialization, Immigration, Religious Strife by David Vermette. Vermette is a researcher, writer, and speaker on French-Canadian and Franco-American identity. His book was recently published by Baraka Books.
In writing about the migration of French-Canadians to New England, Vermette has chosen an excellent example of how a feared ethnicity once labeled “Other” became assimilated citizens of the United States. One of the reasons this story is compelling is that it happened so long ago; another is that it is so similar to what is happening now at our southern border. Because it is the story of an underclass, it is has been ignored in American history books and courses which tend to lionize the rich and powerful — that is, men who became rich and powerful on the backs of this underclass. Continue reading A Distinct Alien Race: Book Review
In July 1908, my great-grandmother Graziella Metthe was committed to Norwich State Hospital, diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis. In the months leading up to her commitment, she was living with her family in a shed. Once she was hospitalized, her four children (including my grandmother Beatrice) were left in the care of her parents, Pierre and Azilda Bonneau. Continue reading What To Do About the Children?
I was honored to be interviewed by Lisa Louise Cooke for her podcast, Genealogy Gems. Lisa is well-known and respected in the field of genealogy. She travels widely, speaking and teaching at conferences and genealogy societies. Her free podcast is downloaded an average of 35,000 times per month.
The episode in which I was featured pulled stories from this blog, and wove them into a fascinating story of a part of my family’s history. I was surprised and moved that Lisa chose to devote an entire hour to it. It is not only informative from a genealogical point of view, but Lisa turned it into an entertaining narrative. I hope you will take time to listen to it, or at least read the summary in the show notes. Both are available via the link below.
Cooke, Lisa Louise, narrator. “Pulling Teeth.” Genealogy Gems, episode 219, featuring Julianne Mangin, July 11, 2018. https://lisalouisecooke.com/2018/07/10/episode-219/
Here’s another snippet of family history from Mom, one that sent me on an unexpected genealogical journey.
When my mother was a little girl, she lived with her family in a shed behind a relative’s house. Her sister, Pauline, was born there.
When I asked Mom why Grandma’s family was living in a shed, she just shrugged and said, “That’s what I was told.” She didn’t know where the shed was or which relative had owned it. At first, I suspected that this story was another one of those crazy things Grandma had told her a long time ago, and which she simply took at face value. I imagined that my grandmother, who suffered at times from hallucinations and delusions due to schizophrenia, had exaggerated her living conditions. Perhaps it was small, rickety house, I thought, but surely not a shed! At the time, I hadn’t realized how poor Grandma’s family had been. But as I pieced together their story, the impoverished conditions under which they had lived became ever more evident. After a while, the story about Grandma Beatrice living in a shed didn’t seem so preposterous.
In 1939, the Connecticut state legislature discussed the formation of a commission to investigate the care of disabled people in Connecticut. During the debate over the bill, State Senator Joseph B. Downes leveled serious charges against Norwich State Hospital: food and clothing for the patients were inadequate, the doctors were incompetent, and there were not enough nurses or attendants to handle the number of patients in the hospital. Conditions at Norwich State Hospital, in his words, “stink to high heaven.”
I had been a reluctant genealogist most of my life until I realized genealogy’s power to unlock family secrets and make sense of the stories Mom told me about her family. Such was the case with my great-grandfather, Philippe Metthe. (“Metthe,” a French-Canadian surname, is pronounced in English as “Metty”). Mom told me that he had left his wife, Graziella, which caused her to go insane. By looking at her patient record from Norwich State Hospital, I learned that this was not true. Philippe visited Graziella after she was committed, and when he couldn’t, he wrote letters inquiring about her condition. Mom also said that Philippe had gone back to Canada, but beyond that statement, she had no more details. When I finally took up the role of family genealogist in my mid-fifties, I suspected there would be some family myth busting involved.
Continue reading Family Myth Busting
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.
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.
Continue reading From Quebec to Connecticut
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
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.
Continue reading The Intergenerational Self