In 2012, at age 87, my mother was moved into assisted living. The unit was too small to accommodate her genealogy research, which was stored in several boxes full of binders and file folders, pedigree charts and census sheets, certificates and photographs, books and magazine articles. So, all of that came to my house. I stored it all in my basement, intending to hang on to it until someone else in my family expressed an interest in genealogy. But the librarian in me couldn’t resist peeking into the boxes and organizing what was there. I didn’t know at the time that I was on a slippery slope from being a reluctant genealogist to a relentless family historian.
As I poked around in the boxes, I was surprised to discover what wasn’t there. There was nothing about Grandma’s time at the mental hospital, except a couple of letters written to her with the address, “Norwich State Hospital.” Until that time, I hadn’t been sure where the so-called “mental hospital” had been. Now I had a name.
Armed with this information, I searched the Internet. I quickly found that the archives at the Connecticut State Library has some, but not all, records for patients at Norwich State Hospital. They have the records who were discharged from 1904-1944 (the first 40 years of the hospital’s existence) and scattered years after that. The archives could not take in all the patient records because they didn’t have room for them. Fortunately, my grandmother’s discharge took place on October 26, 1944. If her discharge had taken place three months later, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you as much as I now can about my family history.
After I provided proof that I was a direct descendant of a patient at Norwich State Hospital, the archivist searched for Grandma’s file. A few days later, I received word that it had been found. In addition, he had pulled the files for three other family members who had been patients at Norwich.
- My great-grandmother Graziella who was there from 1908 to 1910;
- her sister Rose from 1924-1925;
- my grandmother Beatrice, who was a patient from 1935-1944;
- and her sister Pauline who was there from 1929-1930.
In addition, Beatrice had another sister, Dinorah, who was a patient at state hospital in New York for twenty years. To sum it up, not only was Grandma Beatrice mentally ill, but so was her mother, one of her aunts, and both of her sisters. That’s a lot of mental illness in one family!
The patient records I received were a wealth of information about two generations of my mother’s family. When patients were admitted, they were evaluated both psychologically and physically. The patient’s relatives were also interviewed and the results were used to put together a social history of the family. There were progress reports on the patient’s condition, incident reports if the patient had been injured or in a fight, visitor logs, and correspondence between the family and the hospital administration.
When it became time to parole a patient, a social worker would search for family members who would agree to be responsible for her. Their findings as to the appropriateness or inappropriateness of each member of the family were documented in the patient record, providing even more family history. This of course, was a genealogist’s dream come true.
What I didn’t find in the records was much about how they treated mental illness in those days. But as you’ll see in coming installments, I figured a few things out on my own by reading between the lines of the patient records. I also read the hospital’s biennial reports, found reports on an investigation into the hospital, and read several books on the history of mental health care in the first half of the twentieth century. I will list these books in the “Sources Consulted” section of the blog articles as I go along.
Coming Next, “Madness Unfolding.”
Connecticut. Norwich State Hospital. Norwich State Hospital Records. 1904-1996. Connecticut State Library, RG021_008. https://ctstatelibrary.org/RG021_008.html
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.