The Day – Memories of an Asylum: A look back at the resumption of cleaning at Norwich Hospital

After more than two years of delay, work has recently resumed on clearing the nearly 400-acre former Norwich Hospital site in Preston in preparation for handing over the property to the Mohegan Tribe. The tribe’s waterfront development projects include outdoor and indoor attractions, hotels and retail spaces, restaurants, housing, a marina, RV park and more.

The Norwich Hospital for the Insane opened its doors to patients in 1904 and over the next decade the campus expanded to accommodate the growing number of patients. During the first half of the century, new buildings were constructed to serve as residences for staff and physicians, laboratories, patient accommodation, and farm buildings. After the hospital closed in 1996, many buildings fell into disrepair, were vandalized, burned, or toppled, and the campus lay in ruins.

As the cleanup continues and plans are made to replace historic architecture and peaceful grounds with modern buildings and mainstream offerings, we take a look back with local author and hospital lawyer Christine Rockledge-Philips, author of Images of America: Norwich State Hospital. Rockledge-Philips has spent years researching the hospital, talking to former staff and patients and their families, and giving presentations about the history and significance of the site and the work that took place there.

Her book is sold at local bookstores in the Norwich and New London areas and through online retailers, and signed copies can be purchased directly from Rockledge-Philips by messaging her through her Facebook page, facebook.com/ norwichstatehospitalbook or by email, [email protected]

Q: How did you come to find the hospital? When and why did your interest start?

A: The first time I laid eyes on the property was in late 1996, just a few months after it closed. I left the Mohegan Sun Casino at 4 am. I saw the tops of the administration building, Salmon and Awl buildings in the dark, backlit by the bright lights of the casino. One of the people I was with gestured towards the buildings and said something about a mental hospital.

Over a decade passed before Norwich came back into my life and stole my heart. I say it stole my heart because unless you have been there and spent time there, like me, friends and of course ex-staff, it is something that is almost impossible to explain. I’ve had this conversation with so many friends and former staff that 100% agree with me – there’s something about Norwich Hospital that grabs you and won’t let go.

Q: What was it like walking around the abandoned hospital during your research?

A: It was always so peaceful and beautiful in any season, any time of the day or night. You could see the care taken in the design and construction of each building and the way the campus was laid out. You could feel this healing as you ventured into buildings and tunnels. There was something that said, “This was put here for a reason.”

Each building was its own time capsule in terms of what remained inside, giving a small clue as to when life ceased there. Some buildings were definitely closed in the 1950s and 1960s. An example of what will always stick in my mind is a building that had a small cabinet labeled “hair tonic.” Various other items found in this building, such as refrigerators and the like, were indeed from the 1950s. Even the clothing of the patients left behind was the style of that era, men’s and women’s clothing.

Venture into the modern buildings such as Russell, Lodge, Kettle and Ribicoff and it was evident that they were in use until closing time.

Q: What surprised you?

A: It was the way the campus was laid out. How beautiful and peaceful it was. Abandoned objects. How the contents of each building was like a time capsule. How I always felt relaxed and at peace there. How I’ve always felt something that’s so hard to put into words, but I’ve discovered over the years that I’m not the only one who feels this. Many know exactly what I’m talking about. So many things left me with a million questions I needed to find the answers to.

Q: How did your search go?

A: Researching the hospital and getting the intimate answers I needed took about a decade. Internet searches were useless. All the ones that were conjured up were a bunch of ghost stories and fabricated tales. I wanted a real historical fact. I spent a lot of time in the archives. I reunited with many former staff members and their family members who welcomed me into their homes and into their pasts and shared their memories to help me better understand the hospital, to do live for me and help me put everything back together. I did not expect to meet such generous and warm people with whom I am still friends today. My twin daughters first birthday party were former students from Norwich Hospital.

I wrote the book because I was frustrated that I couldn’t find the information I so wanted about Norwich Hospital, because I felt that what I had discovered and experienced needed to be shared, and for all people who made the hospital what it was. been.

Q: In your presentations and social media posts, it’s clear that you stand up for the hospital.

A: You are right. I have always defended Norwich Hospital. At the beginning of my research, I worked with a man whose uncle suffered from a serious mental illness. This man and his family credit Norwich Hospital with treating his uncle with compassion and patience, and finding the right combination of medication and outpatient therapy to help him reintegrate into society and live his life. happy life. This man’s uncle was barricading himself with boxes of cereal at the kitchen table in a state of paranoid paranoia. It took several hospital visits and a variety of medication adjustments to help her with her illness, but her story is a success story, and it’s not the only success story I’ve heard from. personal friends who had relatives who were patients at Norwich Hospital. .

It goes without saying that the experience of all patients at Norwich Hospital has not been positive. I don’t see the hospital through rose-colored glasses. I never wanted. In my research, I wanted the truth, which is both good and evil. I have spoken to many former patients who did not care to share their experiences with me beyond saying that their time there was not good or beneficial. I respect that.

Q: That’s not the typical response when the hospital is mentioned – that it’s haunted, spooky, or spooky.

A: I never liked ghost stories and gossip about haunted mental institutions from the start. It wasn’t until I started talking to people, whether they were former staff members, patients, family members with ties to the hospital, etc., that I I really took a strong contempt for discussions of ghosts and hauntings. Yes, suicides have happened in Norwich Hospital, and they have also happened in every mental institution in the country. Physical, mental and sexual abuse of patients took place there. I know some of the abuse victims personally and cannot even begin to fully understand how they are affected. These tragedies must be respected. Personally, I think people who say that mental institutions are haunted and filled with ghosts, who claim to have orbs in their photos and videos or claim to see a shadowy figure in a window and so on, are disrespecting the anxiety of people with mental disorders. disease to live with. Put yourself in that person’s shoes and try to imagine living in a way that is not “normal” like everyone else. For all concerned, it’s hell.

Q: As a new chapter in the site’s history approaches, why is it important to preserve the memory of the hospital?

A: No institution is perfect. Norwich Hospital was set up with the aim of trying to provide the best care possible and trying to restore people’s mental health and helping those affected to live the best possible life. Norwich Hospital ended on that same note. I feel like if the progress of history isn’t remembered and honored, we as a society won’t remember how we got to where we are today and what we can do to improve ourselves in the future.

The system is broken. Especially at a time like this – when I quite often see articles in the newspapers about how the pandemic has affected the mental health of adults and children – it is critically important to remember our mistakes and our past mistakes to build a better system.