In 1823, Dr. Eli Todd, a pioneer in the treatment of the mentally ill, spearheaded the establishment of the Hartford Retreat for the Insane — now the Institute of Living. But "he had a haunting family history," says Lawrence Goodheart, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut.
Mental maladies ran in Todd's family — including his sister Eunice, who grappled with repeated bouts of depression and eventually killed herself, and their father, who was deranged — and there is evidence, Goodheart said, that the acclaimed doctor feared a similar fate for himself.
The son of a New Haven merchant, Todd graduated from Yale in 1787 and after private studies and an apprenticeship in medicine, he practiced in Farmington for three decades, according to Goodheart's 2003 book, "Mad Yankees: The Hartford Retreat for the Insane and Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry."
In 1819 at about age 50, Todd moved to Hartford, where his brother-in-law reported that his practice was more extensive "by far than any other physician, and more perhaps than any physician in Hartford ever had."
At that time, Goodheart said, mental illness was demonized and people who suffered from it, particularly those prone to violence, often were chained and shut away.
Todd was dissatisfied with this callous treatment, and took a more humanitarian and optimistic view, rooted in "the idea that the world can be made anew, and that human nature was malleable," Goodheart said.
Todd's lasting impact stemmed from his belief that "people who are mentally ill should not be shunned, there should be no stigma, and they could be helped, and they could be treated fairly, decently, with all the knowledge and kindness that is possible. That is really his legacy," Goodheart said.
The Retreat, which cost $12,622.11 and opened its doors in April 1824, espoused a "law of kindness," treating mental illness with compassion and respect. The building, designed like a Georgian manor home, was on a bucolic 17-acre estate of walks and gardens, with broad vistas of fields — quite different from today's very urban hospital neighborhood.
The harmonious rural setting was deliberately chosen for what Goodheart calls "the tranquilizing tonic of nature... that would ease a troubled mind."
"The site has been selected as one pre-eminently calculated to attract and engage the attention and to soothe and appease the morbid fancies and feelings of the maniac," Todd said at the time.
The 1886 book, "The memorial history of Hartford, Connecticut, 1633-1884," quotes Todd explaining that upon admission to the Retreat, the patient "is treated with the greatest kindness, however violent his conduct may be, is allowed all the liberty his case admits of, and is made to understand, — if he is capable of reflection, — that so far from his having arrived at a mad-house where he is to be confined, he has come to a pleasant and peaceful residence, where all kindness and attention will be shown him, and where every means will be employed for the recovery of his health."
Poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who dedicated his poem "Moll Pitcher" to Todd, his doctor and friend, wrote: "There is no spot which we contemplate with greater pleasure than the beautiful retreat. ... We have felt the load of misanthropy lifted from our bosom by the evidence before us of angelic sympathy in the human character."
Todd was acclaimed for his gentle tactics. Goodheart relates that if possible, a violent patient's consent was asked before the use of the "strait-waist coat," and that Todd quieted a shrieking woman by calmly appealing to her "sense of courtesy."
"They adopt the general rule to vary as little as possible from the ordinary course of living: they let most of the lunatics use knives and forks at table," Goodheart quotes a Massachusetts visitor as having observed.
Unlike practitioners, including Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, "the father of American psychiatry," Todd minimized blood-letting and favored botanical remedies over the use of blue mercury pills and heavy metals, Goodheart said.
"He was more into what we would call talk therapy. ... He helped create in the ante-bellum period the view that insanity was just like a broken arm — that it's something that could be fixed, that it could be cured. The irony was that he never was able — nor could anyone — cure his sister."
"He was a psychiatrist who seemed to be very open with his patients at the Retreat and was noted for that ability — the anecdotes of him charming a violent man by playing his violin, that sort of thing — and yet he was unable to talk about his own fears, his own demons, and in many ways he put his sister at a distance when she needed his letters, when she was isolated in Vermont," Goodheart said.
Eunice's problems began in the early 1790s when, as a recent wife and mother, both her husband and then her young daughter died, and her mood swings and despondency continued for four decades. Her second husband, Samuel C. Crafts, was an ambitious Vermont farmer — who founded the town of Craftsbury with his brother and went on to prominence in politics, in Congress and as governor.
That meant Eunice was often alone, lonely and severely melancholy in northern Vermont. Goodheart quotes from her bitterly distraught letters to her brother: "Do you understand me — no, that's what you do not," and, berating him for his lack of correspondence, "...let me assure you, that in all my understandings, Heaven can witness, that a word, a look, a line from thy pen has brought sunshine upon my benighted soul."
The death of her son in 1824 sent Eunice into another downward spiral, characterized in a comment she made in a letter to Todd: "Out of Sight. Out of Mind." In 1829, a year after her husband began a two-year term as governor, Eunice killed herself by slitting her throat.
Goodheart said Todd wrote very little at all. "He was very reticent about exploring his own tensions, at least openly. We have a very opaque view of him. From people who did know him and did write about him, he seems to have been a very charismatic person. But there was this inner tension — his sister, his father, his own fears about himself."