Retired librarian using her skills to research family ties to Norwich Hospital
Julianne Mangin stood at the edge of the former Norwich Hospital on a brisk fall afternoon recently, gazed out at the mostly cleared landscape and was silent for a moment.
Even cleared of the dozens of institutional buildings, and with weeds growing through cracked pavement of old parking lots and roads, seeing the property where her grandmother, great grandmother and two aunts spent many years of their lives in the early 20th century felt important.
As a child, Mangin’s mother, Pauline Tillotson, even spent her school-age years at the nearby New London County Temporary Home for Neglected and Uncared for Children while her mother was an inpatient at Norwich Hospital. That building closed in the 1940s and was absorbed by Norwich Hospital as well, becoming known as the Bryan Building.
Mangin, 62, of Silver Spring, Md., a retired librarian at the Library of Congress, has spent the past four years researching Norwich Hospital records, patient records on her four ancestors and the history of Norwich Hospital in libraries and newspapers in her effort to write a memoir based on her family’s ties to Norwich Hospital.
“It’s like I’ve been preparing all my life for this,” Mangin said of her career as a librarian and lifelong passion for learning the truth and flushing out the minimal and at times contradictory stories her mother told over the years. Mangin’s mother died in March at age 91.
In early November, Mangin and her husband, Bob Cantor, visited southeastern Connecticut to get a firsthand look at the site where her ancestors lived and worked. Her grandmother was hired as an attendant after she was discharged as an inpatient, apparently a common practice, Mangin said.
Mangin has been following newspaper stories of Preston’s takeover of the former hospital property, the slow cleanup and demolition of so many buildings. She contacted town officials and was pleased to learn they planned to save the original building, called the Administration Building, on the campus.
She was relieved again to read that Mohegan tribal officials plan to try to save that building for an as-yet-unknown use when Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment takes over ownership in one to two years for its major redevelopment plan.
“That’s the one building where all four of my ancestors actually passed through,” Mangin said standing at the security fence at the property’s edge and taking photographs of the building. “I hope the Mohegans save a little space to explain what it was for.”
Mangin also gazed at the open lawn area where Mohegan tribal leaders have held traditional tribal cleansing and memorial ceremonies to honor all lives who have passed through the property over the centuries, be they Mohegan ancestors, early European settlers, Norwich Hospital patients, staff, volunteers or family members.
“I want to contact the tribe to thank them for preserving the ceremonial field in honor of my ancestors,” she said.
According to Mangin’s research, her great-grandmother Graziella (Bonneau) Metthe was committed to Norwich Hospital in 1908 with “manic-depressive psychosis.” At the time, a common theory held that insanity was caused by unseen, unknown infections somewhere in the body, possibly the teeth, tonsils, adenoids or spleen, Mangin learned.
“Some doctor apparently thought it was a good idea to tear out all her teeth,” Mangin said, repeating phrasing her mother had used in telling her the story.
Metthe never recovered from that procedure and died of pneumonia on Dec. 15, 1910. Her sister, Rose Bonneau, also was an inpatient at Norwich Hospital.
Mangin’s maternal grandmother, Beatrice (Metthe) Tillotson, was admitted to Norwich Hospital in 1935 with paranoid schizophrenia. Her sister, Pauline Metthe, also became a patient there.
Tillotson, a diminutive woman at 4 feet, 7 inches tall, was not considered a violent or dangerous patient, although she apparently did try to escape once or twice, Mangin said. When she was discharged in 1944, she was hired by the hospital as an attendant in the elderly dementia ward — also apparently a common practice with the World War II labor shortage.
Her great-grandmother was housed in the North B Building, later named the Bell Building. That building has been demolished.
Her grandmother was in the North G Building, later named Mitchell, one of the few buildings that remain standing, and the Stedman Building, demolished in Preston’s cleanup effort. She later moved to the Awl, one of the first buildings torn down by Preston. She later lived in employee housing until she retired in 1958, Mangin said.
Across Route 12 from the main hospital campus, and just across the border in Norwich, stood the Temporary Home for Neglected and Uncared for Children. While her mother was an inpatient at Norwich Hospital, young Pauline Tillotson — Mangin’s mother — lived in that home from 1935 to 1942.
Mangin said her mother had fond memories of the Temporary Home. She was able to attend Norwich Free Academy, where she excelled academically and earned the Catholic League scholarship to the University of Connecticut.
“She was so grateful for that,” said Mangin, who wears her mom’s NFA Class of 1943 ring.
Her mother became a librarian and her first job was at Otis Library in Norwich.
Mangin said her mother had “a lot of cryptic stories” about her experiences and her ancestors’ experiences at Norwich Hospital. So when she retired in 2012 from the Library of Congress, Mangin gave herself the job of learning the family genealogy and the real stories of her mother’s family.
“I wanted to get to the bottom of things,” she said.
The middle child of six siblings, Mangin said her siblings are OK with what she is doing. Her nearly completed memoir combines the history of Norwich Hospital in the early 20th century with mental health care in general in the United States at the time and weaves in her family’s stories, including some as-yet unpublished surprising family secrets.
She has created a blog at https://juliannemangin.com to discuss her work and her thoughts on the project and is seeking a publisher for the book.
“I have concluded after learning about my ancestors’ experiences,” she wrote in one blog post, “that Norwich State Hospital was neither a bad place nor a good place. It seems to me that what the hospital was to each individual depended on multiple factors: the patients themselves, which staff worked directly with them, and whatever the prevailing theories of treatment were during the time they were committed.”
Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of the Stedman Building of the former hospital, as well as the dates that young Pauline Tillotson lived in the New London County Temporary Home for Neglected and Uncared for Children.
Stories that may interest you
Theo Hespeler, 5, of Salem jumps as he tries to get his kite in the air on Thursday at Poquonnock Plains Park.
While assigned to the New London Judicial District, Judge Robert J. Devlin Jr. presided over years of court proceedings in a sensational murder-for-hire case involving local attorneys Haiman Clein and Beth Carpenter.
Proposed Preston budget includes nearly doubling fire department budget to hire paid firefighters to fill gaps in responses by volunteers.
Students from the Science and Technology Magnet High School in New London spent the day digging through trash bags and separating out recyclables during an audit of the high school's waste stream.