Norwich State Hospital: Book Review


Book cover: Norwich State Hospital, by Christine Rockledge. Introduction by Steve DePolito. Arcadia, 2018. Images of America series.
Book cover: Norwich State Hospital, by Christine Rockledge. Introduction by Steve DePolito. Arcadia, 2018. Images of America series.

Norwich State Hospital, by Christine Rockledge. Introduction by Steve DePolito. Mt. Pleasant: SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2018. Images of America series.

I was happy to see this book come out because I have spent the last six years researching Norwich State Hospital from a different angle than this author did. Four of my ancestors were patients there. Using their records (which I acquired from the Connecticut State Library) and supplementing them with historical background, I have tried to show what life was like for my family members during the years 1908-1958. Although my research didn’t take me into Norwich State Hospital’s more recent history, I can say that what is in this book about the first fifty years of the hospital is congruent with what I found in my own research.

The ninety-two-year history of a hospital is a formidable subject about which to write.   The author, Christine Rockledge, has crammed more facts about the hospital into the captions than I’ve seen in any other edition from the Images of America series. In this book, the reader will learn about the hospital and how its construction reflected the prevailing theories about treating the mentally ill.  Over the years, it became a vast enterprise with dozens of buildings to house and treat patients.  It had its own farm, power plant, water supply, and even fire and police departments.  There are photographs of almost all of the buildings, plus blueprints and maps and other plans that show the layout and functions of the hospital.

Much of the hospital’s story is told through the photographs of the individual buildings.  Some buildings were devoted to patients with violent tendencies; others for patients with epilepsy, tuberculosis, and senile dementia; and still others for patients who were relatively functional and well-behaved.  Photographs of treatment facilities illustrate the use of metrazol shock therapy and pre-frontal lobotomies.  There are also many photographs of patients engaging in recreational activities such as bowling, painting, and attending concerts.  The hospital was a vast concern, encompassing hundreds of acres and treating thousands of patients in what were often crowded conditions.

There is a brief mention of an investigation into the treatment of patients which was initiated by the state legislature in 1939.  Norwich State Hospital struggled for sufficient funding from the moment it began.  One can only imagine how difficult conditions must have become during the depths of the Great Depression.  The result of the government’s investigation into conditions at the hospital resulted in a new, more dynamic, and forward-looking superintendent named Dr. Bryan.

In the latter part of the book, dealing with Norwich State Hospital from the 1960s until its closure, deals more with the staff of the hospital.  There were many photographs that I had never seen before. Many of them were from personal collections, including the author’s own.  I enjoyed seeing photographs of people on site at the hospital, because it gave the sense of Norwich State Hospital as a living, thriving place.  It’s obvious that there were employees who loved their work and were trying to make a difference in the lives of their patients.

I wish that this book could have shown what Norwich State Hospital was to its patients, but I don’t blame the author.  Due to privacy concerns, it is difficult for any researcher who is not a family member of a patient to get that kind of insight on the hospital.  By reading my grandmother’s patient record, and remembering family stories about her, I am trying to piece together what Norwich State Hospital meant to her.  I know that the hospital and its staff helped my grandmother return to the community and adjust to life outside the hospital (despite her schizophrenia.   With persistence and luck, I hope to get my family story published. I expect it will complement this book, not contradict it.

Another thing that I appreciated about the book was that there was no mention of ghost-hunting and no photographs that were taken while trespassing inside the buildings. There is too much of that already on the Internet, in my opinion. It disturbs me to see Norwich State Hospital treated as a source of spooky entertainment, because it was so much more than that. It was both a good place (my grandmother was discharged after 10 years and remained there as an employee for 14 years) and a bad place (two of my ancestors died there).  I think of Norwich State Hospital as a character in my family’s saga, and I do not say that lightly.

I wish the book had included notes on the sources the author used. As a researcher, I would have appreciated at least a list of references in the back of the book.  Although I consider myself pretty familiar with the history of Norwich State Hospital, there were a few times when I would have liked to know where the author got her information.

There is one error in this book that in the scheme of things is small, but because it is close to my family experience, I am disappointed that it was made. On page 74, the author says that the Bryan Building used to be the “New London County Home for tuberculosis patients.” It was not. It was formerly the New London County Temporary Home and was used to house neglected children who for some reason couldn’t be placed in foster homes. I know this because my mother lived there from 1935 to 1941, from the age of ten until she was sixteen.  Not long after my mother was placed out of the county home, it was purchased by Norwich State Hospital.  Eventually it was renovated and dedicated as the Bryan Building, after the superintendent who ran it from 1940 until his death in 1944.

Despite a few weaknesses that I have mentioned, I think this book is a much-needed presentation of information about Norwich State Hospital, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

2 thoughts on “Norwich State Hospital: Book Review”

  1. Dear Julianne,
    I found your blogpost after hearing your interview on Genealogy Gems podcast. When I heard your mention of Norwich State Hospital I had to get in touch. I am a retired occupational therapist, but in 1974 I spent 12 weeks as an OT intern at Norwich State Hospital. I have no photos, but vivid memories indeed. The modern nurses’ dorm was full, so they opened 11 rooms in an old dormitory for 8 seminary students and 3 OT students. It was quite a culture shock to be out in the countryside with no car or transportation. The 3 students with cars were quite popular, especially on weekends! Many of the buildings were closed from the time your grandmother was a patient. I remember there was a resident who was a former patient who lived on the grounds and ran a small newsstand in the basement of the main building. I could buy stamps and mail letters there. This man was not unique. Another former patient, a resident in our dorm, worked in the pharmacy. These residents were more comfortable in the community of the state hospital than they were in the outside community after they were discharged. I have wondered over the years what became of those residents and patients, most of whom were quite debilitated by their mental illness, after the hospital closed. For many it was their home and sanctuary. Please feel free to contact me, I would be happy to share more memories with you. Thanks for sharing your family history and insights.

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