My family has had a consistently wistful relationship with the Norwich State Hospital for years. I grew up with a very close relationship to mental illness; my mother has worked in the mental health field since well before my birth. In the mid to late 80’s, my mother worked very happily at the Norwich State Hospital. She recalls the patients being treated with nothing but kindness, and respect. She recalls the theater, bowling alley, farming grounds and greenhouse, barber shop…and all of the other facilities that were open for use by the patients. My mother has told me of dances that were held for the enjoyment of the patients, whom she remembers as being nothing but collectively content.
My mother is sensitive. She is sentimental, and like anyone who loves their mother, I feel the guilt of her pain. For years, my mother has told me of her disgust with the ghost hunts, demolition projects, and the use of the buildings as practice for volunteer firefighters. Those buildings are part of her memories, and not only this, they are a fond part of her memories.
The Norwich State Hospital was built in 1904, and closed in 1996. In the 92 years in which it operated, 13 deaths occurred. Two of these were suicides, and the majority of the rest were due to patients who escaped the hospital and murdered others outside of its confines (a couple other deaths were due to the explosion of a water heater — both deaths were of employees). Only 13, and yet Connecticut condemns the site as haunted and disturbing. We assume the hospital was a terrible mental asylum filled with disgusting medical malpractice. Of the more pompous readings out there on the internet, damnedct.com said, “If the population at Norwich State Hospital wasn’t troubled enough already, over the years there were numerous published reports and investigations into cruelties inflicted by the staff, including beatings, starvings, sexual abuses, overly harsh restraints, prolonged confinements and even the occasional patient being packed in ice!” These incidents were surely isolated if they did in fact occur, and spread by word of mouth, as no search of such nature produces results.
Any and every mental hospital in operation in 1909 would have participated in some practices that could be deemed unethical by today’s standards — unethical, meaning that in 1909, mental health was not studied well enough to be properly treated. The majority of “mental health professionals” in 1909, even if they were not administering what we consider “correct” treatment, believed that they were doing the best for their patients. By this standard, Norwich State Hospital is no different.
The only practice that the Norwich State Hospital takes the cake for in terms of “unacceptable” is that of sterilization. Sterilization is the act of a surgical performance with the result of eliminating the opportunity for the male/female to fertilize an egg/be fertilized. From 1909 to 1963, the hospital sterilized 559 people; Connecticut was the second state, ahead of 22 more, to legalize practices pertaining to eugenics. Again, the hospital was just one of many doing what they perceived to be the right thing to do. Different time, different way of thought, different decisions.
Substreet.org says, “Sadly, Connecticut’s second hospital developed a bad reputation, although I will point out where others do not, that Norwich was founded with a large group of extremely difficult patients. Amongst them were criminally insane and physically violent patients. These groups shaped the early policy and thus the future treatment of patients here. Early protocol called for forced hydrotherapy and for nurses to liberally restrain patients.”
In 1966, with the arrival of a new superintendent, patients were allowed more freedom on the campus of the hospital. This was considered a positive turning point for the patients, as they were now given more free time and more opportunity for socialization. My mother did not arrive for just over 20 years; by this time, the hospital was rewritten. It was bright, happy.
For a long time, the Norwich State Hospital in its eerie abandoned plot has had strange lore surrounding it. Even while in operation, my mother recalls the tales she heard beyond its walls of a building filled with people that she did not recognize; because it did not exist. While it may make our lives now more exciting, as it may have done for the people back then who were even more fascinated then than they are now with the prospect of a “mental patient”, the Norwich State Hospital was nothing but that. A hospital. A place intentioned to treat those with ailments. Although the practices employed then (as far back as 1906) are vastly outdated now, to say that the Norwich State Hospital was a “cruel” or “horrible” place is to not understand the changes over time in the treatments of those deemed mentally ill.
A few weeks back, I recall my mother telling me a story. During one of the dances the hospital held, a patient, a tall, intimidating, but gentle man approached a few of the nurses asking to dance with one of them. The nurses, knowing that my mother was a pushover and would do what she could to keep patients happy, told him to go ask my mother. He did, and my mother danced with him, of course. That’s the kind of thing my mother remembers of this place so demonized by Connecticut. That’s the kind of person my mother is, and in reality, that’s the kind of place the Norwich Hospital was — long before its shattered windows and glaring sense of darkness gave it its reputation.
Jolie Suarez, Staff Writer
Junior Jolie Suarez is a staff writer for the 2017-2018 Colonel. While binge-watching The Vampire Diaries, she eats salt and vinegar chips, Twizzlers, Wendy’s, Sour Patch Kids, and drinks Olive Garden limonatas. You may deliver these foods at any reasonable hour to the main office for her.
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