Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 6: Beatrice’s Story

Azilda Davignon Bonneau was my great-great-grandmother. In this studio portrait taken circa 1911, she is accompanied by two of her grandchildren. On the left is my grandmother Beatrice; on the right is her younger sister, Dinorah.
Azilda Bonneau, ca. 1911. On the left is my grandmother Beatrice; on the right is her younger sister, Dinorah.

[This is Part 6 of a series on Norwich State Hospital and its effect on my family. To start at the beginning, go to Part 1.]

Until I pieced together the family history through genealogy and patient records from Norwich State Hospital, I never knew how unsettled my grandmother Beatrice’s childhood had been. She spent her early years in poverty, with a mentally ill mother. She was seven years old when Graziella, was committed to Norwich State Hospital. Her father, Philippe, vanished after her mother died at the hospital in December of 1910. Beatrice was then raised by her grandparents, Azilda and Pierre Bonneau. But the losses kept coming.

In February 1911, Pierre also died, just a few months after her mother had. A year and a half later, on Thanksgiving Day 1912, Azilda died. Beatrice was then raised by her aunt.  Aunt Rose, according to Grandma, was none too happy to be raising her sister’s children. Beatrice quit school after the eight grade and went to work. According to the 1920 census, when she was nineteen, she was still living in her aunt’s home and working in a belt factory.

Beatrice Meets Frank

In the early 1920s, my grandmother, Beatrice, met my grandfather, Frank, when he delivered coal to her house in Danielson.

Frank Tillotson, ca. 1917 and Beatrice Metthe, ca. 1922
Frank Tillotson, ca. 1917 and Beatrice Metthe, ca. 1922

In many ways, my grandparents were complete opposites. Beatrice was petite, dark-haired, French-Canadian, and Catholic. Frank was tall, fair-haired, Anglo-American and Protestant. Religious reasons alone could have accounted for the disapproval of both their families. In addition, Aunt Rose didn’t want Beatrice to get married and leave home.  She believed that Beatrice should stay and continue to earn money to support the family. Frank’s family may have objected to the marriage because they were disturbed by Beatrice’s difficult personality.  Despite the family disapproval, Beatrice and Frank married in 1922. She was 21 and he was 26. The marriage seemed doomed from the start.

Beatrice had grown up to be an ill-tempered, sarcastic, and jealous woman. I learned this by reading what was said about her in her patient record. She was suspicious of Frank’s relationship with his step-mother, who doted on him. Beatrice also believed that Frank was having affairs behind her back. Her delusions about him may have been early evidence of her mental illness.

Frank was a disabled veteran of World War I who had served on the front lines of major campaigns in France. After the war, he suffered not only from skin lesions he’d gotten from his contact with mustard gas, but also from shell-shock (now known as PTSD). He found it difficult to keep a job because of his medical issues. It also made him irritable. When Beatrice went on a rampage about his supposed infidelity, they had terrible fights.

Beatrice Leaves Frank

Beatrice and Frank had only been married for two months when she left him and went live in Stonington with her Aunt Blanche’s family (Blanche was Graziella’s sister). Beatrice lived with them for three years in an apartment above the delicatessen that Blanche ran on Water Street.

Blanche's delicatessen, now the Water Street Cafe. Photo by J. Mangin, October 2012
Blanche’s delicatessen, now the Water Street Cafe. Photo by J. Mangin, October 2012

Beatrice and Frank Reunite

When Beatrice discovered that she was pregnant, she and Frank got back together again. The family lore was that the two had continued to see each other during their separation. Blanche’s husband set Beatrice up to run a delicatessen and he moved his family to Mystic to start a grocery store. My mother Pauline was born in 1925 and spent her early childhood living at the deli.

During this time, Beatrice’s psychotic symptoms began to emerge. According to her patient history, “In 1928 and 1929 she went into what seemed to be a sort of trance. She was passive and had spasms of laughing and crying. Accused her husband of illicit relations with his step-mother, used bad language, screamed and was assaultive toward her step-mother-in-law.”

I can’t help thinking with sadness of what all this crazy behavior must have seemed to my mother, Pauline, who was only three or four years old at the time.  I was struck by the fact that Mom had grown up with a mentally ill mother who was emotionally unavailable to her. It was a parallel of what Grandma had gone through when she was growing up. I was thankful that my mother was able to prevent this pattern from being repeated in my generation.  However, I couldn’t help wondering if the psychological effects of the trauma she and Grandma had experienced might have been passed down to my generation.

The Delicatessen Fails

In 1931, during the worst of the Great Depression, the delicatessen failed. Beatrice, Frank, and Pauline were forced to move back to Danielson. As time went on, Beatrice became increasingly depressed over the loss of the deli. Her delusions, and the fights they cause, worsened. She continued to believe that Frank was cheating on her, although I never found any evidence that he had.  Due to his shell-shock, Frank was not able to handle his anger at her accusations. Somewhere nearby, while her parents battled it out, my mother must have been cowering in fear.

This went on for years, until one night in July 1935, when Frank and Beatrice had a particularly terrible fight. After it was over, Beatrice went to the town social workers to complain about her husband. This didn’t work out the way she expected it to. According to a report that I found in her patient record, while she was in the town office she said “a great many strange things which made them made them feel that she was mentally disturbed.” The town called the State Police to check on the family situation. The State Police, in turn, called the Connecticut Humane Society’s Children’s Division because they were concerned about Pauline’s welfare.

Letter from the Children's Division of the Connecticut Humane Society, dated December 26, 1935, regarding the Tillotson family.
Letter from the Children’s Division of the Connecticut Humane Society, dated December 26, 1935, regarding the Tillotson family.

Beatrice is Taken to Norwich State Hospital

Beatrice was taken to Norwich State Hospital for evaluation. Pauline was sent to live in the New London County Temporary Home in Norwich because Frank was determined to be unfit to take care of her on his own.

Most of Mom’s story about the delicatessen, the mental hospital, and the county home (mentioned in Part 1 of this series) turned out to be true.  However, she’d always said that she’d gone into the county home when she was seven years old.  According to the documents in Grandma’s patient record, she was actually ten.  Given that the years between 1931 and 1935 were so full of domestic abuse, Mom must have wanted to erase those years from her life story.  Now that I know what really went on in her home, I can hardly blame her.

There was also something missing from Mom’s story — a huge family secret — which I found in Grandma’s patient record.  It was a sad story, but in a way, I was relieved to know it.  Everything began to make sense — Mom’s estrangement from her relatives, her fierce defense of her father, and even her lack of emotional support toward me during my childhood.

Coming up next:  Family Secrets

3 thoughts on “Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 6: Beatrice’s Story”

  1. I found this very interesting and sad as well. I was at Norwich hospital as a senior student nurse from St Francis hospital school of nursing in late fall of 1962-till early 1963. What an education we had down there.

  2. It was always curious to me how strongly families defend the secrets and truths of their ancestry from the newer generations. I’m sure it has not been easy for you to bring this out in print.
    Congrats on an amazing job of research and story telling. I am looking forward to part 7.

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