Jon Crispin's Notebook

Willard Asylum Suitcase

Posted in Clothing, History, People by joncrispin on 18/03/2011

I’m not sure yet where I am going with this project, but I wanted to post some shots for feedback.  /  In 1995, the New York State Museum staff were moving items out of The Willard Psychiatric Center.  It was being closed by the State Office of Mental Health, and would eventually become a state run drug rehabilitation center.  Craig Williams was made aware of an attic full of suitcases in the pathology lab building.  The cases were put into storage when their owners were admitted to Willard, and since the facility was set up to help people with chronic mental illness, these folks never left.

The Museum made arrangements to have the suitcases moved to the Rotterdam storage facility, where staff have catalogued each one, and have carefully wrapped and preserved their contents.

An exhibit of a selection of the cases was produced by the Museum and was on display in Albany in 2003 or 2004. It has also traveled around New York State.   It was very moving to read the stories of these people, and to see artifacts from their lives before they became residents of the Asylum.

This particular case belonged to Freda B…..(I would really like to use her whole name here, but there is a massive debate going on as to whether people who have been at Willard and other psyc centers need to be protected by privacy laws.  I come down strongly on the side that it is dehumanizing and stigmatizing to pretend that she doesn’t have a surname.)

I am so interested in these cases.  I like the idea of documenting the care and energy that the Museum has put into them.  And I am totally wigged out by being able to photograph a representation of the lives of people who struggled so much to make it in a very stressful and confusing world.

It is still early days, and I am struggling a bit as to how I should approach this.  The cases have been photographed before, but in a totally different manner.  The first hurdle seems to be cleared; I have access.  The next is time, which I think I can manage.  The big one is funding, which is something on which I need to work.  And finally, what could come out of the project.  An exhibit would be nice, or maybe a book.

I have been working on some ideas with Dr Karen Miller, a writer and psychiatrist.  She has also been spending time with the cases, and doing research on the lives of people who were at Willard.  We’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, feel free to send this link around to anyone who might be interested.  And any feedback would be appreciated.

125 Responses

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  1. Colleen said, on 18/05/2011 at 4:58 pm

    I have undertaken a campaign to memorialize the 5,776 people buried at the Willard Cemetery. Our first stem is to get the cemetery mowed and then we have begun a fund to get historical markers for the 3 cemeteries in the area that have patients buried there (Ovid Union Cemetery and Holy Cross Cemetery as well as the huge unnamed unmarked final resting place at Willard)
    If you would like to donate you can do so at Romulus Historical Society.

  2. [...] was back in Rotterdam last week to photograph more suitcases from Willard Asylum.  Check this out for the background of the [...]

  3. L.S. Stuhler said, on 05/10/2011 at 9:33 am

    Good Luck to you, Jon! I have posted your video on my facebook page but I’m not sure how to post it on my wordpress blog. You have done a beautiful job! Thank you! Lin Stuhler

  4. -k- said, on 28/10/2011 at 4:01 pm

    Fascinating but more than that, heartbreaking.

  5. Brandie said, on 28/10/2011 at 4:22 pm

    I find your project incredibly touching. I was moved to tears upon viewing the case shown here. I cannot wait to see the final product. It is a wonderful tribute to those whose lives I can only imagine were very difficult given the time and lack of information on mental challenges. Good luck to you.
    Be well,
    Brandie

  6. GILLIAN GORDON said, on 28/10/2011 at 9:20 pm

    hi
    I think this is fascinating. I would be very interested in seeing a beautiful big book of your photographs with the stories of the owners alongside them. You are doing important work along the lines of Prinzhorn. Our collective memory regarding mental health institutions always needs an insightful jog. Please keep me up to date on you progress. I am a psychotherapist and a film-maker. You touch on my two worlds so eloquently. Thanks.

    • joncrispin said, on 28/10/2011 at 9:35 pm

      Gillian, thank you so much. Funny you should mention Prinzhorn. I lived in Ithaca for a bit in the 80s and the Johnson museum at Cornell had a major Prinzhorn exhibit. I bought the catalogue because I was so moved by the art. Amazing and thanks again for your interest and encouragement. Jon

  7. Acosta said, on 28/10/2011 at 10:18 pm

    How hauntingly lovely. This is powerful subject matter. The women of the 1950’s did not travel without a full compliment of their Toilet’ and grooming brushes. As a child, I was given a “vanity set” containing very similar pieces: (matching) Hand mirror, brush and comb set, etc.. In the same jade color. How very moving that she thought to retain her treasures of feminity although moving into a space where she would soon be losing a level of her individuality. Very touching.

  8. Laura Moraco said, on 28/10/2011 at 11:33 pm

    What a fascinating find! There are so many stories to be found here. With so many people whos lives were spent in sadness, for whatever reason, and to find their personal things, so many years later, things that they put into their suitcases knowing where they were going, probably. It makes you very curious as to why and how they got there…..Their personal items put away into storage…..as soon as they enter the gates…their lives, no longer as they knew them, what happened? Find their stories, write the book and make the movie. It will be a winner.

  9. K said, on 29/10/2011 at 4:38 am

    I am not sure that it is wise or fair to disturb the suitcases. Why are they interesting? Because they were the property of the ill? Is it so surprising that these people had possessions? Or is it poignant because these were the last of the private things belonging to people who likely found little privacy afterwards? Maybe private should be left private?
    I don’t know.

    • Darby Penney said, on 02/11/2011 at 3:49 pm

      Why are the suitcases interesting? Because the contents of the suitcases and the life stories of the people who owned them are a moving testament to the humanity, diversity, and complexity of their owners, in stark contrast to the terrible stereotyping of people with psychiatric labels which is still rampant in our culture. The documentation of their lives and belongings is crucial to developing a social history that includes these people and others like them as full human beings who were contributing members of society who were horribly wronged by the mental health system. They deserve to be memorialized, not to remain hidden.

      • Carol Music said, on 13/06/2013 at 6:30 pm

        Darby, your comments closely align with my thoughts and I thank you for writing them. To NOT learn more about the HUMAN BEINGS behind these belongings would be a travesty I think, for two reasons. The first is to document who they were and why they were considered no longer ‘allowed’ to be free and the second and more important reason is that if the people behind these suitcases have living descendents they should have the right to claim these items and tell the stories as they might know them . . . if they wish,of course.I am deeply touched by this story as my maternal grandfather was placed in an asylum in WA state in the early 20’s and died there from the late stages of Syphilis. My mom would never tell me anymore than that because, even in the 1980’s, she found it to be ‘shameful’. Now that I am entering ‘the autumn of my years’, which I expect to be long, I’m finding a sense of urgency to document as much of my life and those of my ancestors as I can. Hopefully, this project will help propel other people to start doing the same with their families. If we don’t, our stories will be forever lost. Families no longer have regular big family get-togethers where these stories are shared down through the generations. Blessings to you and to Jon Crispin.

    • aristan said, on 01/12/2011 at 2:52 am

      I think they’re interesting as a snapshot in time, not because they were ill.

      When this person was going to the asylum, they most likely didn’t intend to go forever. They planned to pack everything back in this case and leave. They didn’t intend for their belongings to be packed away forever in an attic. It’s the ordinary choices these people made at an important point in their lives. These are things that they felt they’d need or that would remind them of home.

      I’d love to more about the stories behind the items.

      – Why would someone bring a broom with them?
      – Did Freda bring a school book because she was very young? Perhaps a parent or a teacher who assumed they were going away for a rest? (The book she carried is here: http://bit.ly/rtnROt)
      – The stockings suggest she was older, may she have been a slow adult rather than what we’d define as mentally ill these days?
      – There are items missing from her beauty set, was she allowed to keep them or did she leave them behind at home?
      – Who gave her the little dog? Was it to remember her own pet she’d left? How long did it take her to stop missing a small reminder of home?
      – What’s in the envelope? Was it a letter? One she’d written or one she’d received?

      To me, we’re not staring at the belongings of a Mental Patient. We’re interested in a human being. These things show us that Freda was a real person. She existed and one day she packed a bag.

      • Carol Music said, on 13/06/2013 at 6:35 pm

        A well written comment and I agree completely!! Your last sentence is truly a poignant one.

  10. Martina woulfe said, on 29/10/2011 at 5:01 am

    Poignant and heart rendering. And the hands who carefully and lovingly placed these items within these caes, holding memories and connections to a world that they were leaving perhaps for a short time perhaps for yeas, only in digging deeper do you get the whole story. My sense and feeling around the matter of naming the people is of absolute privacy. We have become a culture of shaming and naming and blaming. These people were private people not public figures and an appreciation and respect for their private pain must always always be at the heart of the matter My personal sense is that a Christian name as in first name and one initial from the surname is perfectl sufficient. This is very beautiful work and beautiful work must always be handled delicately lest it breaks. “tread softly as you thread on my heart”

  11. Martina woulfe said, on 29/10/2011 at 5:02 am

    Poignant and heart rendering. And the hands who carefully and lovingly placed these items within these caes, holding memories and connections to a world that they were leaving perhaps for a short time perhaps for yeas, only in digging deeper do you get the whole story. My sense and feeling around the matter of naming the people is of absolute privacy. We have become a culture of shaming and naming and blaming. These people were private people not public figures and an appreciation and respect for their private pain must always always be at the heart of the matter My personal sense is that a Christian name as in first name and one initial from the surname is perfectly sufficient. This is very beautiful work and beautiful work must always be handled delicately lest it breaks. “tread softly as you thread on my heart”

    • Elaine Eckert said, on 02/11/2011 at 7:20 pm

      I agree regarding privacy, confidentiality and respect. Our society still labels and stigmatizes individuals with mental illness over eighty years later. These individuals also had family and now probably living relatives. Giving one’s full name in addition to the very personal contents of the suitcases is too invasive, I feel.

      • Carol Music said, on 13/06/2013 at 6:38 pm

        Elaine, I would expect that the families, if there are any remaining, would have to give their consent to have the stories told. At the very least, those families should be found and be given the opportunity to either claim the suitcases or donate them to the project with or without an accompanying story.

  12. Sue said, on 31/10/2011 at 11:09 am

    I worked in a an old Victorian style British mental hospital and in those days many people were placed in mental insitutiions for their family’s convenience and left there; mental health care was barbaric and most people now with same illnesses are able to lead productive lives of recovery.
    It is so sad that their one suitcase of personal items were taken away from them. Heartbreaking and dehumanising.

  13. Kat said, on 31/10/2011 at 11:36 am

    This is astounding! I cant wait to see it in full!

  14. [...] am so interested in these cases,” he writes. “I like the idea of documenting the care and energy that the museum has put into them. And I [...]

  15. Melanie said, on 01/11/2011 at 7:02 pm

    From a nursing prospective I think this is fascinating. I deduct that this person was very concerned with her appearance with the personal items including whisk broom for her clothing and shoe polish. Also she was hard to awaken when sleeping and wanted to be on time by the alarm clock. Last but probably very important for her, she loved and may have owned a scotish terrier. Which gave her comfort in her illness unlike when her family/friends couldn’t understand what she was going through.
    Wow, what a find!!!!

  16. Fotografija.hr said, on 02/11/2011 at 2:15 am

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  17. [...] and their contents and post them on his website.  Some of these remarkable photographs can be seen here and here.  All told, these sites and images provide an unusual glimpse into the material culture [...]

  18. Jose Leiva said, on 02/11/2011 at 6:58 pm

    I’m 19 years old and just bought my very first Nikon N4004S at an estate sale.
    I was very scared of it, to be honest, because to raise a camera to one’s eye, I think, is to capture the entire world for an entire moment.
    What power your pictures have!

    I’ll have you know this, Mr. Crispin, I am VERY inspired by your work and hope to someday have such a beautiful career. Thank you for your art.

  19. Shelly said, on 02/11/2011 at 7:18 pm

    This is just awesome! You’re so fortunate to be able to have this opportunity to photograph pieces of our dark history that is usually kept hidden. I”m anxious to see more! Must be really exciting for you, congratulations on this photo-op.

  20. Kate W said, on 02/11/2011 at 7:40 pm

    Maude’s suitcase. A lot of those look like old leather working tools. My grandmother ran a leather working shop when she was younger. (middle aged) We have a lot of tools lying around that belonged to her that look very similar.

    • lizyp said, on 30/11/2011 at 12:55 pm

      Yes, I was going to say the same thing regarding the tools. I have done some leather work and these tools look familiar.

    • Linda Griffiths said, on 24/07/2012 at 9:43 am

      I agree, I was given a suitcase of old leather worker’s tools some time ago. They appear to be from the same period and many of the items are similar.

  21. Judi England said, on 02/11/2011 at 8:06 pm

    So intimate…By the way, the “tweezer” you refer to in the artists supplies is actually a compass. My Grandfather who did drafting work has a very similar one.

  22. Lynda Carroll said, on 02/11/2011 at 8:07 pm

    Saw a post about this on NPR’s page.

    I am really interested in this project! Thank you for sharing it, and getting these images out to the public. I am also very interested in the materiality of Asylums, as an archaeologist. We usually don’t get to see the kinds of material culture you have here, so this is fascinating.

    A few years ago, we did an archaeological study at Pilgrim State Hospital, on Long Island. What was most fascinating to me were the remains of murals on the walls of basements of old demolished buildings. I am sure they are no longer there, since they haven’t been preserved. If I recall, Leo Polaski’s book “The Farm Colonies” has some good documentation.

    Thanks to you, and NYS Museum, for preserving this!

  23. james said, on 02/11/2011 at 8:21 pm

    What you thought were tweezers in Maude K’s suitcase was actually a compass. It is used for scribbing a circle on whatever medium was being used at the time.

  24. Megan Roe said, on 02/11/2011 at 8:24 pm

    This is so fascinating and yet so terribly sad. I’m a social worker in a 24 hour residential facility for the mentally ill (not to be mistaken with an institution or asylum – my clients have their own apartments in the facility and are free to come and go as they please as long as they are back by curfew) and to look at these photos… I’m not sure there are words to describe how they make me feel. The thought of these poor people bringing their suitcases and more likely than not never having access to the items in them (from the photos, many of the items would be considered dangerous for the extremely mentally ill) saddens me to no end.
    I think an exhibit of your photos would be an excellent idea, but I think a book would capture a larger audience. I would certainly buy it. Your photos are beautiful and tell a fascinating story of the the folks who owned the cases. I wish you the best of luck in continuing your work and look forward to seeing more of it.

  25. Celine Havard said, on 02/11/2011 at 8:26 pm

    What a rich find! These pictures speak a thousand words — they are like time capsules, memories frozen in amber. I find the emotions that flow from them render me speechless and yet I know the images will haunt me!

  26. Joann J said, on 02/11/2011 at 8:27 pm

    I thought the potographs were beautiful and quite touching yet sad. To think of the stories within the cases…..

  27. Lisa said, on 02/11/2011 at 8:30 pm

    You had a suitcase from someone who went to Willard from Rockland. My grandmother used to work at Rockland County Hospital back in the 60s. I believe it had a ward for the mentally ill when she worked there. It was near Pearl River, NY. I vaguely remember stories. I love your photographs~

  28. thomasinaaquinas said, on 02/11/2011 at 8:32 pm

    Oh wow… that suitcase is so telling. The little Scottie dog made me tear up a bit. The basics that a young lady would need for a very short stay combined with elements that indicate uncertainty of said stay. Just wow… what a great yet sad tale.

  29. DS said, on 02/11/2011 at 8:44 pm

    Not tweezers, calipers-for measuring distances on maps.

  30. Kat said, on 02/11/2011 at 9:10 pm

    I think this project is a worthy one, poignant and heartbreaking and necessary. As others have noted, so often people with mental disorders were put away because they were “embarrassing” or “inconvenient” to their families. These simple objects humanize the people and turn them back into individuals, real persons with their own lives, instead of untidy bothersome creatures to be hidden.

  31. Vera Lane said, on 02/11/2011 at 9:21 pm

    I look forward to watching this work develop. I’m particularly drawn to the idiosyncratic nature of the packed suitcase; especially one that’s packed with the intention of accompanying its owner to an asylum. I’m currently employed as a photographer, but I’m not doing anything nearly this interesting. Any chance you could use an assistant?

  32. chrissie russo said, on 02/11/2011 at 9:22 pm

    How does this NOT break confidentiality laws??? I would find it very disturbing if a family member had been hospitalized there and you were now disclosing that information through this project, no matter how interesting it might be.

  33. meetzorp said, on 02/11/2011 at 9:24 pm

    That Scottie dog is just the cutest little thing. That little green pomade box is lovely, too.

    It surprises me that the Willard Hospital folks didn’t try to get these effects back to the families of these patients.

  34. wivey@austin.rr.com said, on 02/11/2011 at 9:42 pm

    Fascinating

    Re Suitcase #6 (Maude’s). The “tweezers” are dividers, used to transfer measurements as in drafting, sculpting, etc. Next to the thumbtacks box is a drafting penpoint from a compass (I’ve actually used that type). Above the thumbtacks are some leather punches – could be used to punch other materials, but given some of the other tools I suspect leather work was one of Maude’s major activities.

  35. Shi said, on 03/11/2011 at 12:01 am

    Such a beautiful project.

    I understand we must be incredibly sensitive regarding the identity of people who receive(d) psychiatric care. However, so many lost their identities simply by being placed in the asylum–a point made pretty clear, I believe, by the very existence of these cases containing personal belongings. As a genealogist, I find more often than not, very few are even given the dignity of having their names on their grave stones when they pass, if they have grave stones at all. These souls deserve to be memorialized. I don’t have words for how amazing this project is.

  36. Lin said, on 03/11/2011 at 12:03 am

    As someone who loves doing genealogy and finding stories about my ancestors, I would think their names should be made public. It is so fulfilling to piece together the bits of information I find about those relatives I have never had the opportunity of meeting. Sometimes it helps to explain why “so and so” was this way, or that, and why that gr grandparent had such struggles, etc.. It seems to me, it would help to humanize them after they had most likely been very dehumanized at one time. Such a sad thing to have their possessions taken away from them. More than sad.

  37. Laura said, on 03/11/2011 at 12:31 am

    What a lovely example of a fitted case! It looks brand new, as if she got it as a going-away present. All the more tragic if she couldn’t use it.

    Interestingly, Google Books has a copy of Primary Seat Work available for free reading. It looks as if she may have been a teacher, or interested in teaching:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=XpTfAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false

  38. [...] that caught my eye, and sent me spinning through the web tonight, go to John Crispin’s Willard Asylum Suitcase [...]

  39. drew fox said, on 03/11/2011 at 5:58 am

    Working in end of life & palliative care for the elderly with mental illness I regularly encounter an entire life in a case and it never fails to move me to tears. I’m so happy to see this project being approached with the care, understanding and respect that the owners of these possessions deserve.

  40. Deborah Stone-Richard said, on 03/11/2011 at 7:16 am

    Your photography is remarkable. I was totally in two worlds when I viewed the photos. The first was as an observer of your skill in presenting of the objects. The second was of deep sadness, even tears, in recognizing the innocence and suffering of each individual. How personal the contents! How interesting to see what each person deemed important during their stay. I have never been so moved by photojournalism. Thank you for your dedication to this work.

  41. Patricia Brandt said, on 03/11/2011 at 8:22 am

    Thank you for your blog, giving substance to each individual and honoring life tragically lost. My emotions are particularly touched because my paternal grandmother died in an Iowa mental institution in the 1930’s. I’m prompted to wonder what she brought with her when she was admitted. How had she chosen from among her possessions the few items allowed. Perhaps something to make her stay more comfortable, or what had been part of her typical daily routine. Or perhaps precious items that said, maybe shouted, “this is who I really am at the core of my existence, and what God willing I will be able to be again.” I’ve cried more than once for my grandmother.The family never talked about her, only whispered around corners when I was a child, so I was never given the opportunity to know who she was, REALLY was. At least I know she wasn’t completely forgotten, as she’s buried in the family plot, unlike the unfortunates at Willard.

    • M DEBhulbh said, on 03/11/2011 at 9:37 am

      Many brilliant artistic, creative, sensitive, people all through the ages, misunderstood and deemed to be ‘different’ (perhaps different is better, these special people more in touch with their heart and with their own humanity) were locked away by a community unwilling to or incapable of providing them with better care. (perhaps your grandmother was a writer, a poet, an artist,a creative, person who was simply not allowed to be) And it continues today, mental institutions the world over lock away our fellowmen and women, ply them with drugs and fail them and their families over and over. Failing to recognize their true humanity. The world can be such a harsh place for a sensitive heart-centered soul, which if we truly take a moment is everyone in the world and one cannot make too much of a distinction. Most people are sensitive, heart centered souls or need to get back in touch with that if we have lost sight of that true fact (not allowing the media and all the negativity to invade our sensitive souls, avoiding violent movies and violent video games and such) What is required is sensitivity and an appreciation for the pain and suffering that these poor souls face, that all of us face. Lets do more to be good and kind to each other and not lock out, lock away, lock, those who need more help, our help, all our fellow citizens.
      Thank you.
      May god help all families who have sensitive souls to care for.

      • Julie said, on 30/11/2011 at 1:03 pm

        Very beautiful comments. Thank you.

    • M DEBhulbh said, on 03/11/2011 at 9:38 am

      Many brilliant artistic, creative, sensitive, people all through the ages, misunderstood and deemed to be ‘different’ (perhaps different is better, these special people more in touch with their heart and with their own humanity) were locked away by a community unwilling to or incapable of providing them with better care. (perhaps your grandmother was a writer, a poet, an artist,a creative, person who was simply not allowed to be) And it continues today, mental institutions the world over lock away our fellowmen and women, ply them with drugs and fail them and their families over and over. Failing to recognize their true humanity. The world can be such a harsh place for a sensitive heart-centered soul, which if we truly take a moment is everyone in the world and one cannot make too much of a distinction. Most people are sensitive, heart centered souls or need to get back in touch with that if we have lost sight of that true fact (not allowing the media and all the negativity to invade our sensitive souls, avoiding violent movies and violent video games and such) What is required is sensitivity and an appreciation for the pain and suffering that these poor souls face, that all of us face. Lets do more to be good and kind to each other and not lock out, lock away, lock up, those who need more help, our help, all our fellow citizens.
      Thank you.
      May god help all families who have sensitive souls to care for.

  42. Matt H said, on 03/11/2011 at 9:39 am

    Those tweezers are actually a compass.

  43. Kelsey said, on 03/11/2011 at 9:56 am

    This is so beautiful. Thank you for taking time to commemorate people that would have otherwise been forgotten. I would love to see more of this!

  44. Kristin said, on 03/11/2011 at 10:55 am

    A friend of mine sent me this message when I shared your blog on Facebook. Referencing the Maude K suitcase….Crispin asks for any information as to what the tools were used for. If you look closely, a couple of the tools have the engraving C.S. Osborne & Co. This company is still in existence and are the manufacturer of leather working tools & equipment. The inks & dyes were also used in leatherwork. The Glycerine was used to soften & preseve (to a degree) the leather.

  45. Katherine Smith said, on 03/11/2011 at 12:54 pm

    Your work is beautiful and indeed delicately done. I have always been fascinated by the lives of those that were forgotten, and by places I’m not allowed to go. It is saddening that these objects may be the only mementos left behind by these people. The history of those with mental illness has been shrouded by misconceptions and fear. And it makes me cringe to think that the owners of these suit cases were unable to get to the few things that they were able to keep with them, the few things that may have kept them whole. I hope for a future that is open and understanding of all people and all of their differences.

  46. BLissed-Out Grandma said, on 03/11/2011 at 5:04 pm

    Your work on this project is noteworthy. I especially liked the photos of the first suitcase showing some of the items in more detail. I do understand that you need to keep your posts somewhat concise, and that you need to save some of the best for the ultimate project. Good luck in finding sponsorship.

  47. Nancy Pagé said, on 03/11/2011 at 5:52 pm

    Fascinating yet truly heartbreaking.
    I too cried when I saw these images.
    Beautiful.

    • joncrispin said, on 03/11/2011 at 5:59 pm

      Nancy, thank you for your comment. I understand how people get emotional when looking at these photos; it is what I try for in making pictures, and this particular project is quite intense. For me there is also an element of honoring the people who owned the cases, and therefore humanizing them, which I see as very positive and uplifting. It is all very exciting for me, and I am grateful for your comment and support. Best, Jon

  48. [...] in 1995 by New York State Museum staff and are now a profound subject of interest for photographer Jon Crispin. Thought to have belonged to patients that never left the asylum, Crispin photographs and archives [...]

  49. Eugenia said, on 04/11/2011 at 8:45 am

    Jon, I applaud your project for its sensitivity and exposure. Not only is your work beautifully composed, sequenced and lighted, this is an incredible individualized portrayal of our history with the treatment of mental illness. You might see if Bellevue Literary Review would be interested in publishing some of your photographs, or if a collaboration could be made on some level. http://blr.med.nyu.edu/

  50. John L said, on 05/11/2011 at 8:32 am

    Photographs were interesting seeing that I worked in “The Pines” building (Willard) from 1970 to 1979. The written portion of this presentation is incorrect. Construction of Willard began in 1865. The reason it was built was because “of the chronic the pauper insane in the poor houses of the state was most deplorable” There was a need for relief and better care. It opened in 1869 the daily number of patients were 1835. It closed in 1995.

    • joncrispin said, on 05/11/2011 at 3:43 pm

      Hi John L, thanks for your comment. I am not sure what part of the written presentation you are referring to is wrong. Could you enlighten me. Thanks.

      • JohnL said, on 05/11/2011 at 7:08 pm

        John maybe it wasnt your mistake but when you go to this link http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2011/10/suitcases-from-the-willard-asylum-for-the-chronic-insane/
        then after a few pics there is this dialog. “The Willard Asylum for the Insane was an institution in Willard, New York designed help people with chronic mental illness, and was in operation from 1910 through the 1960s before being closed by the state.”

        Have you made a trip to Willard? I can get you a tour! I’d send you a pick of the pines where I worked, But cant unless we did so on reg email…. are you on facebook?- John

      • joncrispin said, on 05/11/2011 at 7:25 pm

        Ah John. It is amazing how people repost items and then change the facts. This guy got it totally wrong. I think what he was refering to is the fact that these specific suitcases date from about 1910 to the 1960s. / I first visited Willard in the 1980s and have been there on and off since then. Last year I spent several days meeting and photographing area residents who worked at the psych center, and I really enjoyed spending time talking to them. I have a very high regard for the folks who worked there. Thanks for your interest and offer. If you look at my Kickstarter project page, you will see my other websites and you can contact me directly through them. I’d love to chat next time I am in Willard. Best and thanks, jon

      • JohnL said, on 05/11/2011 at 8:23 pm

        Yes I just look at your posted pics on your posted note book . I see that you have been there! Your photos are great! I live outside of Albany. I left Willard in 1979 and transfered to Capital District Psy Center. 40 years of service and now retired! I have a lots of friends and family who worked at WPC. Still travel back a lot. Brother lives in Lodi.

  51. Jorge said, on 05/11/2011 at 8:41 pm

    I couldn’t help noticing that both suitcases belonged to two women, which makes me wonder how many women were institutionalized against their own will.
    Someone very dear to me has battled mental illnes for a long time and at one point was committed to a mental institution. I have a copy of the manuscript that she wrote detailing those experiences. Truly amazing and heart breaking.
    Thank you for sharing those pictures with us.

    • joncrispin said, on 06/11/2011 at 1:28 pm

      Jorge, thanks for your comment. I am not aware of the ratio of men to women at Willard, but it is something I’ll try to find out. Best, Jon

  52. Nikki Soppelsa said, on 07/11/2011 at 12:23 pm

    I am so reminded of http://www.threadsoffeeling.com/
    Fragments, mystery … lives that were held captive and ended so.
    These photographs are quite beautiful in their own darkly way.
    How touching to bring remembrance to souls once likely forgotten.

    • joncrispin said, on 07/11/2011 at 1:19 pm

      Nikki, thanks for the link. What an amazing project, and I had never heard of it. Thank you so much. Jon

    • Carol M. said, on 23/07/2013 at 1:41 am

      Hello Nikki,I just came across your post and went to the website you listed. It, too, is also very poignant and very sad to me. So many children were placed in institutions back in the days when poor families or families who had lost the child’s mother to illness or disease. I had no idea of the extent of it though and the samples of the clothing that came with each child nearly brought me to tears. Nothing was said about what kind of care the foundlings received but I can only pray it was as humane as possible given the time. Thank you for listing this site. I even chose a cup with a with a required good deed and will be fulfilling it very soon. I would love to have received a real cup because I am a story-teller and collector at heart, but just following the cup’s directions will work well too! Blessings.

  53. [...] in 1995 by New York State Museum staff and are now a profound subject of interest for photographer Jon Crispin. Thought to have belonged to patients that never left the asylum, Crispin photographs and archives [...]

  54. geri degruy said, on 10/11/2011 at 7:41 pm

    These photographs are so touching and wrenching. What an amazing project you are doing. How are you dealing with the emotions it brings up in you?

    Thank you. Geri

    • joncrispin said, on 10/11/2011 at 8:01 pm

      Geri, it’s a great question. I have been a photographer my whole adult life, and sometimes I am in situations that are very intense. The camera often acts as a bit of a shield to what’s going on around me. In some situations, like these suitcases, I actually put my camera down and make a conscious effort to break that barrier. This is what’s going on here. When I am shooting, I am thinking about the images, the lighting, the composition, etc. But I stop from time to time to appreciate the remarkable access I have to the lives of these people. And I really feel that it helps me make pictures that convey an emotional connection when people see them. Best, and thanks for your insightful question. Jon

  55. Brie said, on 10/11/2011 at 11:15 pm

    I would love to see this project become a book. It would help people connect with the patients through the contents of their suitcases as well as put a more “human face” (for lack of a better way to express a feeling) on mental illness.

    Seeing the personal effects helps people connect to the patient and if the photos are presented with maybe a small paragrap of bio of the patient, it would really add a history of the person to them photos. You could understand who they were before they were in the asylum and what they valued in their lives before/as illness overtook them.

    As a lover of history, I think this project is veyr important.

  56. ashley said, on 11/11/2011 at 1:26 pm

    I stumbled across this project today and have been scanning through the photos; speechless. This is a beautiful project. Your heart and desire to connect with the people comes through in your photographs.

    I agree with you that removing their names seems too clinical. What a better way to honor these people than to have their names and their stories next to the photos of the suitcases.

    Very much looking forward to the book.
    a.

  57. leatherdykeuk said, on 12/11/2011 at 4:20 am

    Re Suitcase #6 (Maude’s).I think she made stained glass. It would account for all the tools and supplies.

  58. [...] Jon Crispin has found these incredible suitcases belonging to mentally ill patients from back in [...]

  59. eveellis74 said, on 15/11/2011 at 10:34 pm

    amazing work and fascinating subject matter. each case, when closed, is like a person, and when opened, it is like loooking into the very soul of often troubled people. this really capivated me.

  60. Shann said, on 23/11/2011 at 9:05 am

    Heartbreaking, yet endearing and mesmerising. I can’t thank you enough for taking on such a hugely important project. Giving a breath of life to those who spent (at least) the end of their actual lives confined away from the world.

    This is truly fascinating and beautiful. I wish you all the best for the funding and future of this project; I can’t wait to see the future posts.
    Kindest,
    Shann,
    Canberra, Australia

  61. Susan Lasoff said, on 28/11/2011 at 3:59 pm

    I think of the victims of the Holocaust, who were forced to leave their homes and pack everything in suitcases, only to have them taken from them. I hope that any public ‘exhibit’ of individual lives would include man’s inhumanity to man that has occurred in this country.

  62. JohnL said, on 28/11/2011 at 10:34 pm

    Susan I think that is very extreme thinking! I worked there for 9 years . There was a lot of respect and empthy at willard.

  63. Kristin said, on 30/11/2011 at 2:29 pm

    Your photos truly fascinate me. My daughter’s grandparents met through their work at Willard and married. I have heard stories from the time they worked there. I am also a photographer, and must say this is an amazing project. A friend of mine who I shared your photographs with said she believed that the tools were used in leather making. The name on the tools is a company that is still in business. Another friend said that he thought that shoe making was at one time used as a therapy at Willard. He had a Great Uncle who was at Willard and actually was released and opened a shoe making business. (He knows this relative was at Willard, but has been unable to find official records of his stay) I am looking forward to more of your work.

    • JohnL said, on 30/11/2011 at 11:55 pm

      There was a shoe shop there. At one time Willard made their own shoes for the clients. They were self efficient bringing in coal and fish. My cousins husband bought all the leather equipment that was sold at auction from there

  64. joncrispin said, on 30/11/2011 at 2:33 pm

    Kristin, from what I have been able to find out, Willard was an exceptional place. Several generations of families worked at the facility. I have photographed many retired employees and they are great people who in my opinion really cared for the patients. Thanks for your interest, Jon

    • Paul Fleischmann said, on 09/07/2013 at 9:53 pm

      Hi Jon,
      Amazing photos and commentary!
      Suitcase #6, Maude K., certainly looks like leather working tools. An item you referred to as tweezers is really called dividers, used to make equally divided spaces on a workpiece.
      Thanks for your dedication!
      Paul

      • joncrispin said, on 11/07/2013 at 9:15 pm

        Paul, thanks for your comment and interest. Jon

  65. Coleen said, on 30/11/2011 at 4:41 pm

    These are great. You asked for input on what Maude K’s supplies may have been for and those appear to be carving tools, probably wood since there were many sticks of what looks like wood in there. It looks like she may have been some kind of small scale sculptor/artisan/hobbyist.

  66. [...] fascinating — preserved suitcases of former patients of The Willard Psychiatric Center: Willard Asylum Suitcase: In 1995, the New York State Museum staff were moving items out of The Willard Psychiatric Center. [...]

  67. Maria Kranidis said, on 30/11/2011 at 7:02 pm

    I have books from Central Islip Psychiatric center that closed down in the early 1980s.
    The books are documents of patients’ lives, three per book, I have a few, and am now working with acolleague of mine to create a play drafted from the doctors’ interviews of the patients on day of admition. It is a struggle-and it is also a pressur eto give these lives a different purpose and meaning. There was a book of collected stories about the patients at Willard. I read the book and visited Willard myself.

  68. Hart said, on 30/11/2011 at 7:25 pm

    Those are not tweezers, they are called dividers.
    Used for measuring, proportions etc. for wood/metal working, drafting, cartography, etc.

  69. Ashley said, on 01/12/2011 at 1:10 pm

    This is an absolutely beautiful and elegant method of memorializing people who struggled with their own lives. As much as they had to feel confined in the psychiatric ward, these photographs help expose them to a larger world, despite their current absence from it. We’re not only remembering them this way, but also giving them the recognition they so deserved. A beautiful endeavor.

  70. [...] dark, poignant story is a perfect illustration of the Venus/Pluto conjunction in Capricorn (exact [...]

  71. [...] Jon Crispin’s photos (and accompanying descriptions) of nearly-forgotten asylum suitcases have been on my mind for weeks. [...]

  72. NoName said, on 03/12/2011 at 10:56 pm

    I am horrified that patient privacy is up for debate. These suitcases belonged to people that received medical care and were promised their privacy would be protected. I do not believe there is a clause in HIPAA stating, “void upon death.” If so, every patient checking into a hospital should be concerned that their belongings will be photographed and personal stories told if they expire during their stay. Use the living to remove the stigma from psychiatric disorders, not the dead who can not speak for themselves.

  73. Nikki Soppelsa said, on 04/12/2011 at 8:50 am

    Every time I come to this page, I get stuck on Freda B.’s suitcase contents … specifically the alarm clock
    because it appears so contemporary against the 1930s? contents. I have a small collection of old alarm clocks and none resemble the whiteness of this ‘face’ or the combination of paint/brass/metal. Can you tell me the manufacturer?
    Thank you…

    • joncrispin said, on 04/12/2011 at 12:08 pm

      Nikki, I will look closer at some photos of the clock, but am not sure there is a manufacturer marked anywhere visible. Best, jon

  74. Beth Weinstein said, on 04/12/2011 at 8:57 am

    Am I right that they did not have access to these things they brought with them? I wonder why? If so, I wonder if they knew that was the way it was going to be..if they chose these items, and then were dismayed when their possesions were taken from them upon arrival. For some reason, I don’t know why..it reminds me of concentration camp victims. I’m not sure that’s a correct analogy..but, that’s what pops into my head.

    • joncrispin said, on 04/12/2011 at 12:06 pm

      Beth, it is my understanding that they had access to their things while at Willard. Craig Williams at the museum is pretty sure of this, and after seeing a lot of the cases, I tend to agree. It is something that I am still researching, and hope to have an answer in the next few months. I have a connection to some of the retired employees, and they should know. Thanks for your interest, Jon

  75. What do you think? said, on 05/12/2011 at 1:53 pm

    Wonderful project. But please do not feel you are “dehumanizing” them by not using a last name. First of all, we all know they HAVE a last name. Secondly, and most importantly, they did not give you the right to use their name. I think it is SO much more thoughtful NOT to use their full name – not to mention more appropriate legally. We can still feel who they were by their first names and the suitcase itself. In fact, there is something even more poetic by ONLY using their first names…. Think you should take away your comment about how strongly you felt against it if any of OUR comments made you feel differently about it.
    Anyway, great idea on photographing the suitcases. For titles, “Frozen in TIme” is good – but I happen to like “The Accidental Time Capsules” even better… way more intriguing and more appropriate to this particular story. Best of luck with it!!

    • joncrispin said, on 05/12/2011 at 5:04 pm

      Ceejay, thanks for your comments. I appreciate your feedback. At this point, I am keeping an open mind about the naming issue. I am really excited about the fact that a dialogue has been started through this project about this issue. I am glad to have your input and opinion. Jon

  76. Ingeli said, on 14/12/2011 at 4:25 am

    Hi Jon,

    I love this project! It is so many things at the same time. It is sad to see artefacts that belonged to people that couldn`t cope with the world in some or any way. It is beautiful to see those refined objects of times past. And is is intriguing to find out more about the individual and the choices they made (or where forced to make) to bring those specific things with them.
    I would love see a photo-book coming out of this all with a little detail (if possible) about the owners.
    Good luck, I am eager to find out what choices you are going to make!

    Ingeli

  77. [...] Willard Asylum Suitcases: In 1995, the New York State Museum staff were moving items out of The Willard Psychiatric Center. It was being closed by the State Office of Mental Health, and would eventually become a state run drug rehabilitation center. Craig Williams was made aware of an attic full of suitcases in the pathology lab building. The cases were put into storage when their owners were admitted to Willard, and since the facility was set up to help people with chronic mental illness, these folks never left. [...]

  78. [...] heading off to a psychiatric ward. This photograph is part of a project by Jon Crispin [obligatory link] and it fascinates me. I wonder what i'd pack, what would be in there… [...]

  79. [...] materials.  You can see the genesis of my approach to this documentation on my wordpress site, here. Share this:TwitterDiggFacebookLinkedInEmailRedditTumblrStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to [...]

  80. Joelle Morgan said, on 03/03/2012 at 7:03 am

    I worked as a counselor for unity house of Cayuga county for 8 yrs. During this time we got to see the traveling suit case display. My heart sunk after reading about the lives of those that were insane and even more so when reading about those that were tossed away for tb etc. the one that touched me the most was the man from NYC who house was on fire and when he flipped out screaming in Italian they thought he was crazy and they put him away. All because they couldn’t understand what he was saying. The museum in auburn ny put on a wonderful viewing of the different cases. The bead work that some did and other artistic items were beautiful. I hold this topic very close to heart after working so many years helping those that had mental issues. I had 2 residents that came from another institution together. They were both non verbal and fought for food 24 hrs a day. If you left anything out they would grab and run because that’s all they knew. They had to fight for food at the institution they came from. The conditions they lived in were horrible. Institutions back in the 60s and 70s were there for a quick dime and these poor ppl weren’t cared for properly what so ever. If you could send me more info on Willard I would greatly appreciate it. I’m very interested in this topic, and I would also love to explor this place. Your stories are interesting and I would love to be involved in anything you do. Thank you for posting this information!

    • JohnL said, on 03/03/2012 at 8:41 am

      Joelle- I worked in an institution back in the 70’s. Willard. I know for a fact that the wards I worked on that we in deed took excellent care of our consumers. The surrounding community was made up of care givers that were from good families. I was one of those from a family that worked there. When I started I was only paid $2500. a year. After 1979 I moved to Albany, NY to work in the Capital District Psychiatric Center until I retired in 2010. So my I ask what basis do you base your statement that “The conditions they lived in were horrible. Institutions back in the 60s and 70s were there for a quick dime and these poor ppl weren’t cared for properly what so ever” ?

  81. [...] earlier ones: Charles, and the first one I ever shot which explains the genesis of the project, Frieda.  For those of you new visitors who are adventurous and have some time on your hands, just click [...]

  82. [...] de costura y bordado, un espejito art déco, dos jeringas…), Karen Miller (una cítara), Freda B. (un bello juego de [...]

  83. rhea said, on 15/11/2012 at 10:43 am

    The plastics in Frank’s case are tips of an umbrella.

  84. Suitcases said, on 17/12/2012 at 7:22 am

    An interesting discussion is worth comment. I do think that you
    need to write more on this subject matter, it may not be a taboo
    subject but usually people do not speak about these
    topics. To the next! All the best!!

  85. [...] photography projects that used this approach; one of them documented suitcases left behind at an asylum, another  that looked at people’s collections of items they would choose to take if their [...]

  86. Sharon said, on 05/03/2013 at 12:58 pm

    I have just found this project and expect to read all of you posts. I find the imagery and bits of story fascinating, but I am wondering if any attempt was ever or will ever be made to return these items to family members rather than keep them as museum artifacts? At the time the we “surrendered” I sincerely doubt that the were intended as donations or display pieces. If no family member cared that says something also.

    • joncrispin said, on 05/03/2013 at 1:06 pm

      Sharon, thanks for your comment. I do respond to this question often. It is safe to say that unfortunately, many family members didn’t care. Think about mental illness in the 30’s, 40’s etc. But the real problem is that HIIPA regulations make it difficult for family to find out much about deceased relatives. For example I can not use surnames of the owner’s cases, so it is hard for anyone to even know who owned them. It is all quite complex, and my intention was not to use the objects as “display pieces”. I am just trying to give voice to people who otherwise would have been forgotten. Best, Jon

  87. Heidi said, on 05/03/2013 at 8:02 pm

    Each of these photos is like a short story – a haunting narrative of hope and loss. And so very touching. I found I immediately thought back to photos I’d seen of items taken from the inmates of WWII concentration camps – they seem haunted by sadness.

  88. [...] I’m researching something like this suitcase. Trying to figure out its age led me to the suitcase project on Jon Crispin’s blog; before I knew it, I’d spent more than an hour looking at all those [...]

  89. [...] Willard Suitcase #1, Willard Suitcase #2, Willard Suitcase #3, Willard Suitcase #4, Willard Suitcase #5, Willard Suitcase #6, Willard Suitcase #7, Willard Suitcase #8, Willard Suitcase #9, Willard Suitcase #10, Willard Suitcase #11, Willard Suitcase #12, Willard Suitcase #13, Willard Suitcase #14, Willard Suitcase #15, Willard Suitcase #16, Willard Suitcase #17, Willard Suitcase #18, Willard Suitcase #19 [...]

  90. [...] I’m researching something like this suitcase. Trying to figure out its age led me to the suitcase project on Jon Crispin’s blog; before I knew it, I’d spent more than an hour looking at all those [...]

  91. gypsysnail said, on 09/02/2014 at 2:34 am

    This is amazing! Thank you so much for sharing with us. I’m a visual artist from Australia and have been enjoying your posts. I came here via your previous kickstarter campaign and have a lot of interest in your project and can’t wait to see the next exhibition. I hope to fly to New York in the next year to see the asylum on tour and your exhibition

  92. Cuyler Page said, on 27/05/2014 at 11:16 am

    Thank You! The value of your project, photos and blog are enormous for me and incalculable in their power. My darling Grandmother was put in Willard as an elder, and lived her final years there while I was a child. It was a great mystery to me why we did not go to visit her, even though we drove past Willard many times a year. But, the family would not speak about it, and during those years, it was not uncommon for there to be certain topics that were simply not spoken of by the adults or askable by a child like me. I now work in the museum profession and am delighted to discover and learn through your work that a Museum resource exists that might be able to provide me with at least a little explanation and connection to dear Lena, who was a delight for me as a child with her sparkling eyes, constant farm-wife work ethic, and ever cheerful demeanor. To this day, she remains an inspiration for me of the best of joyful and humble humanity, yet her final years were shrouded in the mystery of disappearance.

    • imgrandmacarol said, on 29/05/2014 at 7:19 pm

      Hello Jon, thank you so much for the update. I’m so glad to know I’m still on your mailing list and I hope to stay there. Your project is extremely time consuming I know. Have you been able to find any living members of the people who were placed in Williard to die? I’m so hoping you will be able to produce an book on this remarkable voyage you’ve undertaken. Best wishes, Carol Music


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