Norwich State Hospital for the Insane
Norwich, CT

There are many good histories of Norwich, so in that respect I will be brief. Instead, I want to tell a story.

Norwich State Hospital had many curtains.

They covered windows where the glass was broken, were stretched over floors under leaking roofs, and masqueraded as walls when proper rooms were full. In such days, hallways and common rooms were turned into cramped dorms.

On the left is a bathroom, which is why it has the wire mesh over the door; so it could be locked and still be ventilated. On the right side are small double-bed rooms, which still have their heavy wooden doors. More attractive than jail cell doors, but serving the same purpose.
On the left is a bathroom, which is why it has the wire mesh over the door; so it could be locked and still be ventilated. On the right side are small double-bed rooms, which still have their heavy wooden doors. More attractive than jail cell doors, but serving the same purpose.

The little Westinghouse fan over the door frame would keep the air moving through the asylum ward on hot days, but only barely so.

Wednesday was the lucky day, and the patients who could, counted down to it. On that day, it was their turn to take the walk to the recreation hall. Unlike Middlebury, they would walk outside in the fresh air.

If the breeze blew the right direction, the smell of the Thames River would blow over the hospital. It would remind some of the patients of the ocean, which most of them had seen, and many would never see again.

The view into one of the asylum rooms of Norwich Hospital. A long time ago, a window broke, letting the vines crawling up the bricks outside to move indoors and across the floor.
The view into one of the asylum rooms of Norwich Hospital.

Nurses and doctors would see the ocean sometimes, on the weekends. Although many of their patients were beyond the scope of the medicine and care available, they did what they thought was best, more often than not.

When they put on their costumes—white lab coats for this act. When the stage lights were on in the lobotomy suite. When the contorted faces of the audience were smashed up against the tiny windows of their rooms… the nurses and doctors of Norwich knew their role and spoke their lines.

Norwich State Hospital had many curtains.

A swinging curtain to separate the beds.
A swinging curtain to separate the beds.

History of the Asylum at Norwich

Norwich State Hospital for the Insane, as it was called, was started in 1904, a year after the site was appropriated by Connecticut. It would serve as their second such asylum, following Middletown State Hospital.

Tower, After the Lightning Strike - (C)SUBSTREET
Fergus Falls State Hospital, Minnestoa

It was designed with separate wards rather than one large building. This makes it quite different than hospital like the famous Danvers or the less famous Fergus Falls State Hospital. The separated buildings were intended to encourage patients to exercise on the grounds, which originally included a large subsistence farm.

Postcard (Source: Asylumprojects.org)
Postcard (Source: Asylumprojects.org)

In addition to the farm, patients who qualified were allowed to participate in the hospital printing shop, where the hospital created its own periodical, and there was a carpentry house as well. For some time, much of the furniture at Norwich was built on site. None of these buildings remain today.

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.

Map of the grounds. (Source: NRHP Nomination Form)
Map of the grounds. (Source: NRHP Nomination Form)

When the hospital opened only one building stood to house its 95 patients. Development and the hospital population increased very rapidly. In 1930, over 2,400 patients were assigned to Norwich, which had more than 15 buildings then. It was also in this time that tuberculosis patients were treated here, to keep the disease isolated from the general population.

The private bathroom for the staff in this building was simple. As blue paint peels away from the yellow undercoat, islands emerge and grow.
The private bathroom for the staff in this building was simple. As blue paint peels away from the yellow undercoat, islands emerge and grow.

By 1940s, reports of extreme patient treatment were becoming public knowledge. In one month in 1942, 26 patients spent an average of 18 hours a day in solitary confinement and 9 hours in canvas restraints. This came after a 1941 lawsuit where a patient was beaten to death and four other injured at another state hospital.

Every floor of the main hospital buildings had its own bathrooms. They often make obvious the fact that these buildings were intentionally built as permanent structures. Even a century after they were built, and several decades of total neglect, they were in fabulous condition.
Every floor of the main hospital buildings had its own bathrooms. 

Norwich Hospital was the name of the hospital in 1966 when a new superintendent took control and made needed changes. By that time the population was in the low hundreds, and he made changes allowing the patients to more freely use the hospital campus.

With so few patients, the giant campus was becoming too much of a burden to tax payers. In October of 1996, Norwich closed.

Today, the buildings are being demolished as fast as funding will allow; the recent economic recession has slowed such progress significantly. Only the Administration building is to remain.