Jon Crispin's Notebook

Willard Suitcase #15

Posted in History, Willard Suitcases by joncrispin on 24/05/2012

It has been too long since I have posted a suitcase here.  I have been very busy shooting and have also been feeling a bit rushed about mailing out the rewards for the kickstarter backers.  It has been a long and interesting process, and helps me feel the connection that I have with all of you who have supported the project.

This suitcase belonged to Thelma R.

She had a very interesting collection of items.

Many of them were of a religious nature.

I especially like to come across miniature dogs and Thelma had three.  I really like the way these Scotties looked up at me while I was working.

There is usually one anomalous item in each case and in this one it was this small figurine.  It didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of her things.

One of the envelopes was full of photographic negatives.  There were no prints but most of the shots were of friends and I presume, family.

This is one of several small banks that I have seen.  I like the lock painted on the front; the real access to the money was from the bottom.

I wasn’t sure what was contained in these envelopes as they were all sealed, but the word curl makes it a bit obvious.  I held one up to my lights and it looked  and felt like a lock of hair.  Thelma’s surname was not Sullivan, but that name appeared in most of the papers and books in her suitcase.

This is the only recording that I have found in a suitcase.  I really like the design of the label, and the record seemed in perfect condition.

I have obscured the last several letters of her name here.  This piece of paper was in one of her notebooks, and tells a bit of a story about her origins.

 The post mark on this card looks to be 1943 or 1945.  One of the labels in the case says that she came to Willard on 9 July, 1946, so she would have been in her early 20s when she received this.

Many of the cases have day books or diaries, but in every instance but one, they all have only a few entries.  On the first day of the new year Thelma found a penny in Camillus and wrote about it.

Her next comment came almost 3 weeks later, and only one more entry followed this one.

Thanks again to Craig Williams and the New York State Museum for granting me access to the suitcases, and thank you all for following this project.

26 Responses

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  1. charlotte cooperstein said, on 24/05/2012 at 5:54 pm

    I find it interesting that peoples handwriting during that time was so similar….my grandmother wrote the same way

    • elkkid said, on 24/05/2012 at 5:57 pm

      They certainly were drilled in handwriting a lot more than people are today! You’re right: it reminds me of my grandmother’s and mother’s hand-writing, too.

  2. elkkid said, on 24/05/2012 at 5:55 pm

    This was a particularly poignant one. Thank you!

  3. Barbara S. said, on 24/05/2012 at 6:26 pm

    Very interesting array of items! So personal. I am going to research the song on Youtube. Each item in her suitcase seemed so “personal” in one way or another. She packed very carefully and I imagine each item was a memory for her I think. Did any of the “religious” material have publication addresses or signature in the cover?

  4. Allison said, on 24/05/2012 at 6:27 pm

    I am a kickstart backer and received my award shot, which I think is great. There is so much going on and so much history and mystery, it is a wonderful piece. I am so happy to be a part of a project that remembers and honors people who were “lost” in place and time. I think about how scary it must have been for many of them and the wide variety of reasons people were committed. I think about what it would be like to pack what is precious to you, leaving on a journey you might not even understand and maybe never see those things again.

    • charlotte cooperstein said, on 24/05/2012 at 9:55 pm

      When I first became a nurse I worked in a psych. hospital in upstate new York. At the time it was thought that the institutions like Willard were dehumanizing and they built small psych. Centers and placed Willard patients in them. They thought that they would try to place them close to where they lived before.Sad to say many of these people had been admitted to mental hospitals because they were new immigrants and didn’t understand American culture. I remember a questionnaire that asked things like name the 5 largest rivers in America or all the state capitals,etc. As staff we wouldn’t have passed. Another theory was the 1918 flu epidemic killed lots of family members and the survivors were suffering from depression,ptsd and couldn’t speak English well enough to explain and writing their symptoms down just wasn’t done.Willard was a unique place and had vegetable gardens, a diary and many of the patients I cared for had lived there 30 years or more. Willard was the only home they could recall……Looking back I guess the idea looked good on paper to deinstitutionalize these poor people but in theory it didn’t work to well for the older residents.I so glad that this project is bringing beauty and dignity to these peoples memory.

      • joncrispin said, on 25/05/2012 at 9:21 am

        Charlotte, great comment and thanks for your interest. I really agree with your post; Willard was an amazing place in its own way and the staff seemed to care greatly for the patients. The whole issue is of course very complex and there are no easy answers. Thanks for your input. Jon

  5. Rachael U said, on 24/05/2012 at 6:41 pm

    After listening to Frank Sinatra’s version of the song on the record Thelma brought with her, it almost seemed sort of autobiographical. Like her life was mirrored by the song; since she was now at the asylum, she would just have to “dream the rest” of her life. So sad. She was only in her twenties.

    • Dan said, on 24/05/2012 at 9:49 pm

      Unless its changed in recent months, Tony Martin is STILL ALIVE! He is approaching 100, and has supposedly recorded as recently as ten years ago!

      • Rachael U said, on 24/05/2012 at 10:56 pm

        That’s amazing! I had no idea. I was just so moved by the story the song tells and how it seemed to mirror Thelma’s life in a way.

  6. endora said, on 24/05/2012 at 6:43 pm

    heartbreaking and beautiful.

  7. Rachael U said, on 24/05/2012 at 6:44 pm

    This case reminds me of a special I saw on television once, entitled ‘She’s Been Away’, about a girl in her twenties who was committed to an asylum because she wouldn’t obey her stepmother. She was kept there until her 70s or 80s when someone in her family finally came to get her or something. It was one of the most sad, yet inspiring movies I think I’ve ever seen, but I’ve never been able to find it. I would love to see it again. Has anyone else seen this program (it was a made-for-t.v.-movie) or know what I’m talking about?

    • Barbara S. said, on 24/05/2012 at 6:58 pm

      I remember a movie like that too. It has been a long time since I saw it. I will research on google to see if I can find more about it.

  8. Barbara S. said, on 24/05/2012 at 6:55 pm

    Hi, John…I noticed a church name on one of the pamphlets in the photos. It is Camillus Baptist Church. I found a photo of it on Wickipedia. It is registered as a historical sight. Doing some more research. Maybe Thelma attended there or was a “member” of the congregation and may have a record of her attendance or membership? I am really fascinated by this suitcase contents. Would love to know more about the pamphlets you found. I have one of those Gospel’s of John that belonged to my Grandpa. I think it has been republished over the years. I got one back in 1960’s. Gideons?

    • joncrispin said, on 25/05/2012 at 9:16 am

      Barbara, thanks for your comment and research on the church. Isn’t the internet great for finding out details like this? I didn’t have time to pore through the pamphlets; it always seems like I need to keep taking pictures although I could easily get side-tracked and start reading. Thelma was clearly from a religious family and her items were obviously well used but cared for. All the best and thanks, jon

  9. theresa said, on 25/05/2012 at 9:45 am

    Thank you for doing these. I appreciate how you are very gentle and respectful with their things. It reminds me that that was a person who probably desperately needed help but still and foremost a person. Your pictures in opening their lives to us shows us what was important to them. I am also given the sense of history since all these items are from different eras. I enjoy that too.

    I thank you for that. I have seen all of them and look forward to the next one.

    • joncrispin said, on 25/05/2012 at 9:59 am

      Theresa, thank you so much for your kind words. I appreciate it that you understand my main goal of this project, which is to humanize the people who owned the cases. Best, Jon

      • Deena Hoblit said, on 20/04/2013 at 7:54 am

        Most people here in the states can’t truly grasp the concept of dehumanization. The word carries weight, but they can’t relate it to themselves in any real way. The reality of it is more like a loss of self, and I don’t think it ever leaves. The secret to the asylum was after, a while, they don’t need walls or restraints. Mr. Crispin, the media and a deeply disturbing therapeutic nihilism perpetuates assumptions about the mentally ill. It also justifies the general public’s urge to look away. The institutions they died in shouldn’t be the most important aspect to their lives. Your photos allow people to empathize and understand what was lost.

      • joncrispin said, on 20/04/2013 at 10:02 am

        Thank you Deena. I appreciate your take on the project. I do want to humanize the residents of Willard and yes, I want the public to LOOK. Best, Jon

  10. Mrs. Lewis said, on 25/05/2012 at 3:14 pm

    It’s hard not to make up stories in my head about the Willard patients’ histories. Seeing the pamphlet “A Primer on RACE” and the various religious items, and given Thelma’s young age, I imagine her having been in love with someone of another race, creating chaos in her family. Perhaps she was reading all of the literature in her suitcase seeking validation that her love wasn’t wrong. Maybe she was committed to Willard because she wouldn’t renounce her relationship. Obviously I’ll never know the real story, but I can’t help imagining…

  11. Mimi said, on 26/05/2012 at 10:18 am

    would love to read the “Primer on Race” that had to be heady reading. Those negatives made me salivate. one of the things I do is make positives out of old family negatives, to the delight of many in the family. Too bad those negatives can’t be printed.

    Thanks for doing this.

    • Barbara S. said, on 26/05/2012 at 10:26 pm

      Mimi…I too would love to see this little booklet along with the other religious writings. I am going to google this and see if there is anything on line. If you find out anything, would you please post it to me? I googled the Camillus Baptist Church that handed out one of the booklets. I may contact them to see if they have any record of booklets having been passed out.

  12. [...] 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 [...]

  13. Scarlett said, on 13/08/2013 at 1:13 pm

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpR3O8OStZI Glen Miller – I Guess I’ll Have to Dream the Rest

  14. […] a carefully transcribed list of her stylish clothing, some of which remained in the suitcase.  Thelma’s fascinating suitcase included a collection of religious literature, dog figurines, the Tony […]


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