Dinorah Metthe, Grandma’s sister, was one of five women on my mother’s side of the family who were mentally ill and had been committed to a state hospital. Mom had a letter (which I presume she found among Grandpa’s papers) from Kings Park State Hospital in New York. Dated October 11, 1954, it was addressed to Beatrice, with a memo line that read: “RE: Dinorah Metthe: deceased.” The hospital acknowledged the receipt of Dinorah’s divorce papers and some personal correspondence that Beatrice had sent them. How I wish Grandma hadn’t done this! These documents, which were subsequently filed in her patient record, would have revealed Dinorah’s state of mind, and perhaps provided additional details to the family story.
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
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.”
War causes a staffing crisis at the hospital
In December of 1941, the United States entered into World War II. This military undertaking affected every level of American society, including state hospitals. Staffing at Norwich State Hospital had always been a challenge. Even in the best of times, there were never as many attendants as there should have been. It was particularly hard to recruit male attendants, since they were usually paid less than what they could make as tradesmen such as carpenters, electricians or auto mechanics. The pool of potential attendants was drained further after the war effort began, as men joined the military service or took better-paying jobs in the defense industry. The Superintendent of Norwich State Hospital, Dr. William A. Bryan, resorted to two unusual sources to fill his many vacant attendant positions.
Continue reading Norwich State Hospital During World War II
In 1908, when my great-grandmother Graziella Metthe was brought to Norwich State Hospital, she was confronted with five imposing buildings spread out on a broad, 100-acre plateau overlooking the Thames River. Closest to the road was the Administration Building, a three-and-a-half-story red brick structure in French neo-Gothic style, trimmed with Indiana limestone and terracotta. Set back on either side of the Administration Building were the North and South A ward buildings, which were only two stories high, and meant to house fifty-two patients each. The North and South B wards were set back yet farther on either side of the A wards, and turned at forty-five degree angles. The B wards were three stories high and meant to house one hundred and fifty patients each. Ward buildings to the north of the Administration Building were designated for female patients and those to the south, for male patients. Continue reading Architecture of Norwich State Hospital
Norwich State Hospital looms large in my family’s history. Four of my ancestors — all women — were patients there, including my grandmother. While writing about my family’s experiences in Secrets of the Asylum, I studied the history of this institution from its beginning in 1904 through all the years that my ancestors were there, up to 1958.
I wanted to learn whatever I could about how mental patients were treated at state hospitals such as Norwich. It wasn’t long before I realized that this was a dark story, made even darker for me as I considered what might have happened to my own family members. Continue reading Norwich State Hospital