Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 3: Madness Unfolding

[This is Part 3 of a series on Norwich State Hospital and its effect on my family. To start at the beginning, go to Part 1.]

My great-great-grandparents, Pierre and Azilda Bonneau, were French-Canadians who left Quebec in the late 19th century and settled in Danielson, Connecticut.  Their daughter, Graziella Bonneau, married Philippe Metthe in 1899.

According to the 1900 U. S. census, Philippe and Graziella were mill workers, probably at the Quinebaug Mill. They had their first child in 1901 — my grandmother, Beatrice. For the next several years, Graziella gave birth every 18 months. She stayed home with the children while Philippe continued to work in the mill.  Philippe & Graziella were so poor that by 1906, they were living in a shed behind her parents’ house — just like Mom had told me.

Graziella began to show signs of mental illness, possibly due to the stress of poverty and all the pregnancies. In addition, it turned out that Philippe had a reputation of being irresponsible (I’ll get into that in a later post).

In 1908, Graziella had a miscarriage. About the same time, there was a fire in the house which frightened her so much that she began to hear voices and rave incoherently. She told everyone that she was a skeleton. She said that she wanted to kill herself, and threatened to kill Philippe as well. Graziella couldn’t be trusted to look after her own children.  Philippe had no choice but to go to the town selectmen and see if Graziella could be admitted to a state hospital for the mentally ill.

In those days, charity cases such as this one were the responsibility of the town where the citizen lived, according to the laws of settlement in Connecticut. The town of Killingly, of which Danielson is a borough, held a probate court hearing to determine three things.
Was Graziella a resident of Killingly? (YES) Was her family unable to pay for her care? (YES) And was she truly insane? Two doctors testified at the hearing that they had examined her and determined that she was indeed insane. The court ordered Philippe to take Graziella “without delay” to Norwich State Hospital.

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

In 1908, when Graziella was admitted, Norwich State Hospital for the Insane had been open for four years. The Administration Building had recently been completed, and there were four patient ward buildings. These were called North & South A and North & South B. The buildings north of the Administration building were for women and the ones to the south were for men. There was also a superintendent’s home on the premises, but not much else. In 1908, Norwich State Hospital was not yet the vast institution that it would eventually become.

Coming Next — “Graziella’s Teeth.”

[Read more about my family’s immigration in “From Quebec to Connecticut.”  To learn how I located the shed in Mom’s story, see “Grandma Lived in a Shed: Using Maps to Research a Family Story“]

5 thoughts on “Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 3: Madness Unfolding”

  1. I was born in Norwich, CT., and grew up there. I lived 1 mile from the Norwich State Hospital in the late 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. Many of my neighbors worked there. As a child, I used to play there. At Christmas, we would sing Christmas carols to the residents from outside the buildings. If you have any questions that I can answer, please let me know.

  2. In the ’60s and early ’70s, that I am aware of, my grandmother volunteered at the little chapel there. I would often go with her to help. In the 70’s I lived in Poquetanuck and went to school at St. Bernards. This brought me by the State Hospital every day. I remember thinking the buildings were beautiful and what a great campus it would make. They should have turned it into a college campus or something like that. Tearing it down seems like such a waste. On a final note, I was a student in the last nursing program run by Norwich Tech and classes were held there. At that time, there was one building, one of the newer ones, that still had a Psych wing. We did our psych rotation there.

  3. I grew up with my mom working there in the early 50’s. I’d go to work with her on a Saturday or Sunday and talk with the patients and ride around in the wheelchair, being she was supervisor of a geriatric unit called Seymour. Was a great play and when I graduated I also started my career, leaving after 36 years! WAs a great loving family based back in the day. Was a very sad day when then governor closed it saying to save money!!! Such a tremendous place for mental illness and addiction services.

  4. I remember as a violin student in Kelly Jr High a group of us went on a field trip at Christmas to play Christmas carols for some of the residents. 1977…

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