In 1935, when my mother was ten years old, she was taken from her parents and placed in what she called “the county home.” Its full name was the New London County Temporary Home, a facility for neglected and uncared for children. The county home was not an orphanage, because the goal was not to put the children up for adoption, but to eventually return them to their own families. In Mom’s case, she had been taken away from her parents because her mother had been admitted to Norwich State Hospital and her father was deemed physically and mentally unfit to raise her on his own. Continue reading New London County Temporary Home
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.”
I had been a reluctant genealogist most of my life until I realized genealogy’s power to unlock family secrets and make sense of the stories Mom told me about her family. Such was the case with my great-grandfather, Philippe Metthe. (“Metthe,” a French-Canadian surname, is pronounced in English as “Metty”). Mom told me that he had left his wife, Graziella, which caused her to go insane. By looking at her patient record from Norwich State Hospital, I learned that this was not true. Philippe visited Graziella after she was committed, and when he couldn’t, he wrote letters inquiring about her condition. Mom also said that Philippe had gone back to Canada, but beyond that statement, she had no more details. When I finally took up the role of family genealogist in my mid-fifties, I suspected there would be some family myth busting involved.
Continue reading Family Myth Busting
Norwich State Hospital Today
Because Norwich State Hospital has played such a significant role in my family’s history, I am interested in what is happening to it in the present and what will happen in the future. The hospital, renamed Norwich Hospital in the early 1960s, was permanently closed in 1996. Remaining patients were moved to other hospitals in the state. The property was then transferred to the State Department of Public Works. The town of Preston, in which most of the hospital grounds lie, purchased 390 acres from the state in 2009 and began demolishing the buildings in 2011. Millions of dollars were spent on environmental cleanup associated with the demolition, including the removal of lead-based paint, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
When I heard of the demolition of the hospital where so much of my family history transpired, I wondered if any of the buildings would be saved, or if every trace of the hospital’s existence would be erased. I knew that the buildings would just sit there rotting unless the town could make use of the land. I hoped that they were Continue reading Cleansing the Spirits at Norwich State Hospital
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
Grandma and Grandpa’s relationship status, had they been on Facebook, could have been “it’s complicated.” My grandparents married in 1922, but two months later, Grandma left Grandpa. In 1925, when she became pregnant with Mom, they reunited.
My grandparents had a stormy relationship. She continually accused him of cheating on her, and sometimes their arguments came to blows. In retrospect, her suspicions were probably symptoms of her paranoid schizophrenia. Grandpa suffered from PTSD and the effects of mustard gas from World War I. He didn’t know how to handle Grandma’s rantings, which is why their marriage devolved into domestic violence. Continue reading Not Your Typical Grandparents
This post is a short excerpt from the manuscript of Secrets of the Asylum.
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