Hartford Retreat

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Hartford Retreat
Hartford Retreat
Established 1823
Current Status Active
Building Style Pre-1854 Plans
Location Hartford, CT
Alternate Names
  • Connecticut Retreat for the Insane
  • The Institute of Living


From the time it opened for patients in 1824 to about 1843, the Hartford Retreat was a small, semi-public institution that focused on using a moral curative approach. This included creating a tranquil, kind environment to pacify patients and allow a respite from the hectic pace of the era’s social, political, and economic changes. Caregivers perceived that through conversation, exercise, relaxation, and above all kindness, patients could be soothed into becoming productive members of society once more.

This approach was a precursor to modern psychotherapy and recognized the potential for psychogenetic mental illness. In other words, shifts in medical thought allowed that mental disorders might well be psychological, and not merely physical, in origin. Under superintendants Todd and Amariah Brigham, MD, the Hartford Retreat strove to become a curative, rather than custodial, institution.

In its first 10 years, the Retreat boasted the highest cure rate in the nation and, possibly, the world. Such claims, however, were largely due to the fact that the definition of cured at the time meant a patient had progressed enough to be reintroduced into society; it did not necessarily indicate that a patient’s symptoms had ceased.

By 1843, when superintendant John S. Butler, MD, took control, the Hartford Retreat had already begun to change. Though the emphasis on moral treatment remained in place, the makeup of the patient population had shifted as the number of indigent insane in the state swelled due to the financial panic of 1837.

The number of individuals in Connecticut counted as insane tallied over 700 in 1838, and an increasing number of them were without adequate family care. Though efforts had been made to create a state-wide asylum for the insane poor, the political will was lacking until after the Civil War. In the short term, the Hartford Retreat, the only institution of its kind in the state, was expanded and began a much closer relationship with the state as it began to take state-subsidized insane poor as patients.

As the number of subsidized patients grew throughout the 1840s and ‘50s, the character of the Retreat changed, and so, too, did its financial state. The small, upper-class retreat with 50 beds that Eli Todd had known in the 1820s had become a sprawling institution by the time of the Civil War, and its curative focus had been replaced by a more custodial nature, as it housed an increasing number of chronically ill impoverished patients.

Butler spent much of his 30 year tenure at the Hartford Retreat trying to keep the facilities in line with Todd’s vision of kind care and tranquil surroundings, despite the institution’s ever worsening financial situation. Through charitable donations and some state aid, Butler was able to institute some recommended changes from Dorothea Dix, the noted mental healthcare reformer who had toured the facility in 1858. The improvements included more wings to ease overcrowding, a boiler to replace dangerous fireplaces throughout the facility, and gas lighting to brighten the halls. In 1860, the Hartford Retreat also hired Hartford native and renowned landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted to re-envision the hospital’s grounds.

The most important change for the Hartford Retreat came in 1868 when the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane opened in Middletown and took in the state’s chronically ill and impoverished insane. Relieved of being the sole institution able to assist this population, the Retreat quickly reverted back to an upper-class, resort-like facility. In the 20th century, the Hartford Retreat incorporated into Hartford Hospital as the Institute of Living and took on a more research-oriented and educational role in the now more advanced mental healthcare field.

Founded in 1822, The Institute of Living was one of the first mental health centers in the United States, and the first hospital of any kind on Connecticut. Located on 35 acres landscaped by Fredrick Law Olmstead, The Institute of Living lies near the center of Hartford, Connecticut.[1]


Main Image Gallery: Hartford Retreat


1822 - The Story of the Institute of Living, The Neuro-Psychiatric Institute of the Hartford Retreat

The Institute Of Living - The Hartford Retreat, Braceland, Francis J.

Mad Yankees - The Hartford Retreat For The Insane And Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry, Goodheart, Lawrence B.

The Architecture of Madness-Insane Asylums in the United States, Yanni, Carla, University of Minnesota Press (2007)