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Memories of an Asylum: A Look Back as Cleanup Resumes at Norwich Hospital

After more than a two-year delay, work recently resumed on cleanup of the nearly 400-acre former Norwich Hospital site in Preston in preparation for the property to be conveyed to the Mohegan Tribe. Plans for the tribe’s riverfront development include outdoor and indoor attractions, hotel and retail space, restaurants, housing, a marina, RV park and more.

The Norwich Hospital for the Insane opened to patients in 1904 and over the next decade the campus expanded to accommodate the growing number of patients. Through the first half of the century, new buildings went up to serve as staff and physician residences, laboratories, patient housing and farm buildings. After the hospital closed in 1996, many of the buildings fell into disrepair, were vandalized, burned or knocked down, and the campus was in ruins.

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

Her book is sold at local bookstores in the Norwich and New London areas and by online retailers, and signed copies may be purchased directly from Rockledge-Philips by messaging her through her Facebook page, facebook.com/norwichstatehospitalbook or via email, rox.christine@gmail.com.

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

A: The first time I ever laid eyes on the property was at the end of 1996, just a couple months after it closed. I was leaving Mohegan Sun Casino at 4 a.m. I saw the tops of the Administration Building, Salmon and Awl buildings in the darkness, backlit against the bright lights of the casino. One of the people I was with gestured toward the buildings and said something about it being 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’ve been there and spent time there, like myself, friends and, of course, former staff have—it’s something that’s nearly impossible to explain. I’ve had this conversation with so many friends and former staff that 100 percent agree with me—there is something about Norwich Hospital that grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let go.

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

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

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

Venture to the modern buildings such as Russell, Lodge, Kettle and Ribicoff, and it was apparent that those were in use right up to closing.

Q: What surprised you?

A: It was the way the campus was laid out. How beautiful and peaceful it was. The items left behind. How the contents of each building were like a time capsule. How I always felt relaxed and at peace there. How I always felt something that’s so hard to put into words but I’ve found over the years that I’m not the only one who felt that way. So many know exactly what I’m talking about. So many things made me come away with a million questions that I had to find the answers to.

Q: How did your research proceed?

A: Researching the hospital and getting the intimate answers I needed took about a decade. Internet searches were useless. All those brought up were a bunch of ghost stories and fabricated tales. I wanted actual historical fact. I spent a lot of time in archives. I found a large number of former staff and their family members who welcomed me into their homes and into their past and shared their memories to help me better understand the hospital, to bring it to life for me, and to help me piece everything together. I never expected to meet such generous, warm people whom I’m still friends with today. My twin daughters’ first birthday party was all Norwich Hospital alumni.

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

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

A: You are correct. I’ve always been an advocate for Norwich Hospital. At the start of my research, I was working with a man whose uncle had suffered from severe mental illness. This man and his family credit Norwich Hospital with treating his uncle compassionately and patiently, and finding the right combination of medication and outpatient therapy so he could rejoin society and live his life happily. This man’s uncle would barricade himself with cereal boxes at the kitchen table in a crippling state of paranoia. It took multiple inpatient visits and a variety of medication adjustments to help him with his illness, but his story is one of success, and it’s not the only success story I’ve heard from personal friends who had loved ones that were patients at Norwich Hospital.

It goes without saying that not every patient’s experience at Norwich Hospital was a positive one. I don’t see the hospital through rose-colored glasses. I never wanted to. In my research, I wanted the truth, which is both the good and the bad. I’ve spoken to many former patients that did not care to share their experiences with me beyond stating that their time there was not good or beneficial. I respect that.

Q: It’s not the typical response when the hospital is mentioned—that it’s haunted or spooky or creepy.

A: I’ve never been one for ghost stories and blitherings about psychiatric institutions being haunted from the start. It wasn’t until I started speaking with people, be it former staff, patients, family with connections to the hospital, etc., that I really took on a strong disdain for the talk about ghosts and hauntings. Yes, suicides did occur at Norwich Hospital, and they also did in every psychiatric institution across the country. Abuses of patients physically, mentally and sexually occurred there. I know some of the victims of abuses personally and I can’t even begin to fully understand how they are affected. These tragedies are to be respected. I personally feel that people who say psychiatric institutions are haunted and are filled with ghosts, who claim to have orbs in their photos and videos or claim to see some shadowy figure in a window and what have you, are disrespectful to the anguish those with mental illness 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 those involved, it’s hell.

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

A: No institution is perfect. Norwich Hospital was established with the intent to try to provide the best care possible and to try to succeed at restoring people to mental health and to help those afflicted live the best lives they could. Norwich Hospital ended on that same note. I feel like if history’s strides are not remembered and honored, we as a society won’t remember how we got to where we are today and what we can do to better in the future.

The system is broken. Especially at a time like this now—where I see articles in the news quite often about how the pandemic has affected the mental health of adults and children—not forgetting our past errors and faults to build a better system is crucially important. 

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