New book provides intimate look at Norwich Hospital

The intact Administration Building with the rubble of the former Salmon Building in the foreground in this undated 2012 photo. In the caption in her book, Christine Rockledge wrote: “As demolition moved forward in 2012, the sight of building after building falling at the hands of the wrecking ball became too heartbreaking for former employees to bear. (Photo courtesy Christine Rockledge)
The intact Administration Building with the rubble of the former Salmon Building in the foreground in this undated 2012 photo. In the caption in her book, Christine Rockledge wrote: “As demolition moved forward in 2012, the sight of building after building falling at the hands of the wrecking ball became too heartbreaking for former employees to bear. (Photo courtesy Christine Rockledge)

Christine Rockledge grew up in Manchester and knew nothing about Norwich Hospital until she heard stories in the 1990s from a co-worker at Manchester Hospital whose uncle was a patient there.

In 1999, while visiting a friend who worked third shift at Mohegan Sun, she got her first glimpses of the abandoned buildings silhouetted across the Thames River. She made a “mental note” to learn more about the place.

It was another nine years before she returned, driving up and down Route 12 mesmerized by the beautiful, intricately designed Gothic buildings, the overgrown lawns, the entire picture.

She was smitten.

“I had to know all about this place,” said Rockledge, now 42. “I had to know everything about this place.”

When the abandoned campus was owned by the state, it was open and unsecured. People jogged the grounds and explored out of curiosity or professional interest — photographers, historians, former employees. Initially, Rockledge got permission from the state to enter a limited number of buildings. Then she branched out.

Camera in hand, she and friends combed through buildings, offices, patient wards and kitchens. She collected historical photos, building signs, a 1932 night ward log book, newspaper clippings, silverware stamped “NSH” and even dust-covered drawings and hand-written notes by patients.

She never considered it theft, but historic preservation.

“Being inside, seeing the place, some buildings were like a time capsule,” she said. “Some looked like somebody was on a coffee break and were going to come back.”

She said she encountered vandals ripping down copper gutters and downspouts and scrap metal and scolded them for destroying the beautiful buildings.

“I think we thwarted some of it,” Rockledge said.

Neither a researcher nor a writer, Rockledge plunged into local libraries and the state library. She contacted Preston Historical Society President Linda Christensen, interviewed former employees and tracked media coverage from the failed Utopia Studios proposal through the current Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment plan to develop the Preston portion of the former campus.

Rockledge’s first book, the self-published “More Patience, Less Patients,” came out in 2013 through www.blurb.com. It was also about the hospital.

“But I did not come away from it feeling I did the hospital justice,” she said. “I felt I had to go further.”

Rockledge’s new book, “Norwich State Hospital,” is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series of photo books with historical context and stories. Chapters trace the hospital’s founding, expansions, work and daily lives of patients, employees and their families and finally its demise.

She will sign copies of the book at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Otis Library in Norwich.

As former Norwich Hospital clinical coordinator Steve DePolito — a second-generation employee whose parents, two aunts and two uncles worked at Norwich Hospital — put it, Rockledge nailed it.

“I always was a student of history,” said DePolito, who created a public TV documentary on Norwich Hospital closing. “I always loved history. As a historical research project, she was outstanding. … Her research was impeccable, so thorough, and the way she presented it made you want to read more.”

The book was released Oct. 15, timed for the Oct. 10, 1904, opening of the hospital, and coincidentally, with the Oct. 10, 1996 final closure.

Rockledge flatly rejected any connection of the book release with Halloween and the many ghost hunters who also have combed the campus seeking horror stories and tortured souls unable to escape.

Rockledge wanted to honor the people who worked there, the patients and their families. Her co-worker at Manchester Hospital told how he and his brother visited their uncle as youths. They would sit outside the Salmon Building, and patients inside would yell out from windows asking for cigarettes. The boys came to know staff members and always felt safe at the hospital.

“He spoke so fondly of Norwich Hospital, because without Norwich Hospital, his uncle would never have been able to lead a normal life,” she said.

DePolito said Rockledge accurately captured the feeling that Norwich Hospital was an extended family home with children of employees romping through the grounds, mingling with patients and staff at picnics, sporting events and visits.

A 1955 photo in the book showed hospital staff dressed as clowns. The Elks Club sponsored a fall carnival for the more than 2,000 patients. 

Rockledge wrote: “Streamers hung between the buildings, bingo booths and other games where patients won prizes, took part in outdoor races and enjoyed refreshments.”

In the Russell Building, she found a newspaper clipping “in a pile of junk in a room.” The photo was the dedication of the John Lodge Building on Dec. 28, 1956, with former Gov. John Davis Lodge posing beneath the sign.

On another day, she reached down to uncover a scrap of paper buried in dust and paint chips. The hand-written note read: “NEVER ENDS MUSIC NEVER ENDS GOD NEVER ENDS MAYOCK.” Patient Peter Mayock had become a local celebrity as “Prophet Peter” in news stories for repeatedly appealing to state court for his release. He was fictionalized in best-selling author Wally Lamb’s novel, “I Know This Much is True.”

She was disappointed she couldn’t find a photo of Jimmy John on his tractor. The groundskeeper would mow the expansive lawn wearing a suit and tie. But she met John’s daughter, Jacki John, who provided three photos of John at his retirement party in 1987 and one of John with his maintenance staff.

“She gave me a huge photo album,” Rockledge said. “You can’t have a book about Norwich Hospital without Jimmy John!”

Rockledge didn’t exclude the more somber aspects of Norwich Hospital. She recounted superintendents’ repeated lobbying to address “continuing challenges of staff shortages, the ongoing increase in patient population and the inadequate security at the hospital’s criminally insane building.”

Two photos, provided by Patti Daniels, daughter of former Norwich Hospital Police Capt. George McGowan, showed weapons fashioned from everyday items by inmates in the Salmon Building, which housed the criminally insane. A bar of soap carved into the shape of a gun, butter knives sharpened “to a fine, deadly point,” she wrote, and tools smuggled into the wards from industrial shops.

In a caption for a photo of Superintendent Dr. Ronald Kettle and Gov. John Dempsey circa 1961, Rockledge wrote that Dempsey had praised Kettle for modernizing the hospital. Gov. Abraham Ribicoff, who succeeded Dempsey later in 1961, changed the name to “Norwich Hospital,” removing an “unpleasant connotation,” she wrote.

Rockledge’s home in Manchester is like a Norwich Hospital museum, with signs on walls, artifacts in display cases and even a 1940s-'50s era purple #70 NSH basketball jersey, given to her by the Preston Historical Society president. Someone anonymously sent the society several sports shirts, Rockledge said.

Rockledge's twin 5-year-old daughters, Sara and Victoria, are growing up with an understanding and respect for the hospital they will never see. The girls practiced their letters using a "massive" sign: “EUGENE T. BONESKI TREATMENT CENTER.” Sara helped her mother sort photos for the book, one time telling her mother: “Use these, they have more people in them.”

Rockledge said she told the girls Norwich Hospital was a place for people with “broken brains," like going to a regular hospital for a broken arm or leg. When the girls asked if their brains could be fixed, she responded:

“Sometimes they can’t be fixed, but doctors can help them to live with the portions of their brains that are not working,” Rockledge told them.

c.bessette@theday.com

In 2017, Christine Rockledge, shown here in front of a large safe inside the building, received permission from Mohegan tribal leaders to enter the Administration Building, which the tribe hopes to preserve in its campus development plan. (Photo courtesy Christine Rockledge)
In 2017, Christine Rockledge, shown here in front of a large safe inside the building, received permission from Mohegan tribal leaders to enter the Administration Building, which the tribe hopes to preserve in its campus development plan. (Photo courtesy Christine Rockledge)

If You Go

What: Author Christine Rockledge will sign her book, "Images of America: Norwich State Hospital"

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24

Where: Otis Library in Norwich

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