I have volunteered to do some work for the Pelham Historical Commission in documenting the Pelham Town Hall. This is the second floor of the building, which was originally built in 1743 (this floor was added later). Pelham is historically significant as it was the home of Daniel Shays, leader of Shays Rebellion.
I was in the building for a short visit last week, and will plan on spending a lot more time there over the next month. Should be fun.
It was interesting to me to find out that it was OMH itself that tracked down Lawrence Mocha’s distant relatives. According to Mr. Allen, his office used every means possible to locate Lawrence’s family in order to get permission to release his surname, which in turn allowed his full name to be used on the plaque on the cemetery grounds. In my conversation with Mr Allen, he explicitly said that surnames could be released if a representative of the family could vouch that there was no objection to releasing that name. OMH would send documents that would need to be signed in order to guarantee family acceptance, but as in the case of Lawrence’s family, it would not need to be a direct descendent who signs those papers. (Lawrence did not appear to have any children.) This is a huge development for any family members who seek information about relatives that lived in state Psychiatric Centers. Again, massive credit goes to Colleen Spellecy and her group for getting OMH to move on this. It would be naive for anyone to think that any of this would have ever happened without her hard work. What was especially amazing to me was that towards the end of the ceremony, members of the committee read the actual names of over 100 patients who were buried at Willard. And Colleen has a list of 500 more families that have agreed to the release of names.
After the ceremony I had a very nice chat with Anna Kern, whose father’s mother’s maiden name was Mocha, and if I am correct ,was a cousin of Lawrence. She and her husband travelled from Minnesota to be at the ceremony, and Anna was genuinely moved by the fact that people were acknowledging her long forgotten family member. I was also able to introduce myself to Darby Penny whose work on the suitcases preceded my own access to the collection. It was an interesting conversation, as our goals differ greatly, and I believe we have a fundamental disagreement about the role the state played in the treatment of people with conditions that led them to a life at Willard. I think it is very obvious to anyone who views my work vis a vis hers what those differences are. Darby’s book and site are worth checking out if you want to get an idea of her approach to the suitcases.
I was going to write a bit about my feelings of seeing so much attention focused on Willard, but I think I’ll save it for later, as I am still sorting it all out. But I did want to mention something really great that happened as I was leaving to drive home. Several weeks ago I was contacted by Clarissa B‘s niece Christine. She was moved to get in touch after she stumbled across this site and realized that Clarissa was actually her aunt. Somewhere in the comments on that post, someone wrote that it was a shame that people like Clarissa were forgotten. Chris wanted to correct that idea. What she told me was that even as a patient at Willard, Aunt Clarissa spent quite a lot of time visiting her family, especially during holidays. As a child, Chris enjoyed seeing her, and it was important to her to let people know that she was decidedly not forgotten. So just before getting into my car to head home, I read an email from Chris that she had taken the tour and was herself about to leave. We managed to meet on the side of route 132A and have a lovely conversation.
One last thing I want to mention. I am just a photographer who has been given an incredible opportunity to document the Willard Suitcases. Though I have developed strong opinions about what Willard was all about, I work very hard to separate those feelings from my work as a photographer. Mental illness is a hugely complex issue, and ultimately I have no interest in using my work to make a point about what the state did or didn’t do in regards to the people who lived at Willard. I just hope that my photographs can give a little bit of life back to those folks, and allow them to be defined as something more than just people with a mental illness. Thanks to all of you for following along, and giving me such incredible motivation and support.
This year’s tour of the former Willard Psychiatric Center was overwhelming in many ways. (See my post about 2014.) It was clear that the crowds would be large when, about a mile from the site, traffic was completely stopped on Route 96A. I ended up parking in the Grandview lot. Those of you who are familiar with Willard will know where that is in relation to the facility. Someone mentioned that social media might have had something to do with the crowds as there were a lot of Facebook posts going around. There has never been this kind of turnout for a tour.
I had hoped to meet up with some folks who follow this site, but the crowds made it nearly impossible.
My main reason for being there was to attend the ceremony honoring the gravedigger and former patient Lawrence Mocha.
Colleen Spellecy’s group has done an amazing job, not just in pressuring the New York State Office of Mental Health to allow Lawrence’s surname to be used, but in cleaning up the site and uncovering the markers placed in lieu of headstones. Here is a link to her group’s site. I can’t stress enough how her drive and dedication to honor the folks buried at the cemetery made this happen. There is currently a bill before the legislature (S840 / A6386) to allow the release of names of patients, and if you live in New York State, Colleen has made it easy to contact your local representative. Here is a link to the page on her site where you can click to send a message to your rep.
I also want to mention Lin Stuhler’s hard work in pressuring legislators to introduce a bill that would release the names of patients buried in psych center cemeteries. Here is a link to Lin’s site. Anyone interested in her work should buy her book, The Inmates of Willard, which you can order through her site or on Amazon. She could really use your support, as dealing with the state bureaucracy can be a draining experience, and she has really hung in there to move this ahead.
Lawrence’s grave marker was identified by someone who knew its location, so the committee was able to have an exact location of his burial. It was lovely to see groups of people standing near the spot and honoring his memory. Just how this all happened is still amazing, really. I won’t go into a long summary here, as I am not familiar with all the ins and outs. But in a nutshell, Colleen had been working for years to get Lawrence’s name made public. It wasn’t until an article appeared in The New York Times last November that OMH felt compelled to cooperate with her.
This whole naming thing is something that has been frustrating to me and others. I am able to see both sides of the argument, but I am still strongly favor being able to use surnames when talking about the patients. I understand the idea that some shame is attached to those who have suffered from a mental illness, but I feel it is dehumanizing to not identify them. And for families that want to learn more about their ancestors, it is important to be able to access records. I get contacted almost daily by relatives asking if I have photographed a suitcase belonging to a family member.
That being said, it seems that OMH is apparently now more open to providing information about former patients. John B. Allen, Jr, who is Special Assistant to the Commissioner, told me explicitly to post his name and contact information so that family members can learn more about their relatives. The telephone number is 518 473 6579 and his email is John.Allen@omh.ny.gov.
I want to write so much more about this, but I have to run out to check out the historic Pelham Town Hall building, which I will be photographing soon. So I will post this now, and continue with part two in a few hours. I haven’t had time to proof read this, so pardon any typos. I will catch them later.
We are still working on Margaret D’s cases. This is the second batch of nursing uniforms that we have photographed. She worked in various hospitals in Upstate New York before coming to Willard as a patient.
All of her things are in good condition, and these garments are all clean and moderately starched.
As I grew up in Meadville, PA (home of Talon Zippers!), I always look at any that are in the collection. It was by far the most popular of all zippers throughout most of the 20th Century. Many of my friend’s parents worked for the company.
I leave tomorrow for the open house that takes place at Willard on Saturday. I will be spending time at the cemetery, and hanging out at the Romulus Historical Society building with Peggy Ellsworth, who is a former Willard employee and trustee of the historical society. If you are attending the event, please track me down and introduce yourselves. I hope to see you there.
One of the loveliest aspects of my work on the suitcases is connecting with wonderful, smart, and knowledgable people. After this morning’s post, I received a comment from Dhyan about the photograph. You can read her comment here. (Scroll down to see it.) She seemed to know so much about the subject that I emailed her a full resolution image of this wider shot. Here is her response. I am sure she won’t mind me reprinting it.
I enlarged the picture to 500% and took a really close look at it. Here are some other things I notice.
Top Right: I believe that band was probably done as “draw work” Some of the threads are selectively pulled out and the rest are used to make the patterns using an embroidery thread to hold them in place.
Did you notice how beautifully woven the folded fabric on the right is? You don’t see THAT any more. My grandmothers had some table cloths that looked like that. How they could ever bring themselves to put them on the table with grandkids around is a mystery to me! I do believe they were heavier handed with Clorox in those days!
I noticed at the bottom there is a line that says “Royal Society No 5….” That probably means that she bought this piece of fabric from an embroidery fabric company. Probably the zig zag line was already on the fabric when she bought it but the pattern she would have filled in is above it and probably on other parts of the fabric as well.
The blue edging is crochet. Because the pattern is penciled in or stamped on, I wonder if that was already on the piece when she bought it but maybe not. Still I think I would have done the pattern first and the edging last so maybe it was on there already. She may have been bringing pieces of uncompleted work to do at the asylum.
One more thing. The piece between the blue edging and the left edge piece, that looks like a lace border, maybe the top of a camisole, is tatting. I have actually never seen tatting done but I know you have a kind of spindle that looks a bit like a guitar pick and by going over and under and around the through you make those edgings. Look at the VERY edge that is not crochet which is why I think it is tatting.
The only thing that is a bit bothersome if the green embroidery with the colored flowers. That is not up to the quality of the rest of her work. Wonder what the story is with that?
Anyway, thank you so much for showing it to me. I loved looking at it. People don’t know much about embroidery these days. I once had the opportunity to look at a very, several-hundreds-of-years old embroidered Chinese jacket and spend about an hour pointing out details to the owners. It was silk, Jon, with tinier stitches than I had ever seen.
Anyway, thank you again for a lovely half hour of procrastination! J
Dhyan, I am not sure if you were aware of her history, but Margaret was Scottish by birth and didn’t come to the States until she was a young adult. I would guess that she acquired her skills with the needle before arriving here.
It is a good time for me to thank all of you who are following this project. I really do feel close to those of you who comment, and pay so much attention to this unique collection. Cheers, Jon
Yesterday Peg noticed some of Margaret D’s handiwork with a needle. And here is one of those needles, still in place where she last used it. I have no idea what this process is called, but it looks quite intricate.
The annual public tour of Willard is on for Saturday the 16th of May. It is a fundraiser for the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Children’s Center. Here is a link to their Facebook page. I would advise getting there very early, as this is a wildly popular event. Tours are run at 9.00 am and 1.00 pm. And if you have never experienced a central New York State chicken bbq, I would advise you to get some tickets for it. Also that day, a memorial service will be held at the cemetery across the street honoring Lawrence Mocha, who as a patient dug many of the graves. That event takes place at 11.00 am and should be interesting.
I will be there for much of the day, and would be most happy if those of you who follow this project would come up and say hello. If former Willard employee Peggy Ellsworth is in charge at the morgue again this year, I will probably hang out with her much of the time.
I drove back home from Ithaca yesterday and stopped a few times to take some photographs. / I first noticed this collection of portable toilets in Lisle, NY back when I lived in Ithaca and my friend Alex and I would drive around while he “looked for color”. What began as a mild interest turned into a decades long obsession with these practical objects. I even had a long mostly one-sided correspondence with the Portable Sanitation Association. After they moved their offices from Washington, DC to Minnesota I sort of lost interest in sending them postcards.
I always assumed that the company that owned these went out of business, but when I stopped in the antique shop next door, the woman working there said that it was still a going concern.
I often notice this abandoned diner when I am on my way to shoot the suitcases. Yesterday I finally stopped to photograph it. It is in the village of Coeymans and while searching for information about it on the web, I came across this post. (I spent a little time reading this fellow’s blog and it is worth checking out if you live in the Albany area.)
It is always sad for me to see once useful buildings like this be left to rot. I find myself imagining what it would have been like to sit down for breakfast during the time that it was a busy operation. But I suppose the point is that it eventually stopped being busy, and the owners couldn’t afford to keep it going. The Thruway killed the diner.
I am often asked if I have a favorite suitcase or photo from the project. I don’t, really. But one recurring theme is the idea of knots. It started initially with the string that the museum used to secure the archival paper that helps to preserve each case. But soon I started to see them in the possessions of the patients, especially the clothing. Peg and I worked on more of Margaret D’s things yesterday, and this shot of a beautiful camisole shows a lovely little knot tied near one of the straps.
Here is an example from the outside of Eleanor G’s case.
I have been uploading more case to the willardsuitcases.com site. Check it out if you haven’t been there lately.
Peter and I were hoping for some cherry blossom action today, but it was about a week too early. It was a beautiful day for a stroll, and the crowds were out. As we were starting to walk around the Tidal Basin I asked him if he knew anything about Fanne Fox and Wilbur Mills and the famous incident that happened in 1974. I was hoping for a “History Happened Here” plaque, but no such luck so we sat on a bench overlooking the water and read about it on my phone. What a great story, and the amazing thing is that Mills won his next reelection campaign in spite of it all.
As I mentioned, the blossoms were just about ready to pop.
The only ones that were out were on this tree, and there was a queue to get the shot.
When I was a kid, I used to love playing around with cherry tree sap. I haven’t thought about doing that for ages.
We were thrilled to stumble across the new Martin Luther King Jr. monument. It is really powerful, with lots of King quotes sprinkled about.
We kept on walking around the tidal basin and soon came to the FDR Memorial, which we had also never seen. I love this sign for the restrooms. Kind of surprising that they didn’t include an ideogram of someone in a wheelchair.
I am often asked about the annual tour of the Willard grounds, and I now have some tentative information about this year’s event. It is a fundraiser for the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Children’s Center, which is on the grounds of the old asylum. Here is a link to their Facebook page, where they will post details. It is tentatively set for the 16th of May. If you plan to attend, get there early as it is usually very crowded.
Additionally, the Willard Cemetery Memorial project is holding an event that same day in honor of Lawrence Mocha. Here is a link to a Finger Lakes Times article that includes some details.
I hope to attend each event, and would be happy to see any of you who can make it. Thanks to Mark for the tip about the Lawrence Mocha event.
The above picture is one I took in May of 1984 on my first visit to photograph inside Chapin House on the Willard grounds.