Peggy and I have been making great strides in shooting the cases that were returned from the Exploratorium. Last week, we started in on Madeline C, and yesterday we worked on her books and papers.
Madeline’s life was very full before coming to Willard.
She was living in the New York City area, and taking classes at both Columbia and Hunter College. You can see her Hunter ID card in the photograph above.
Somehow, she became a patient at Central Islip Psychiatric Center, and it was pretty clear that it wasn’t a great place for her. We came across many letters that she wrote to doctors outside of the institution that were never mailed. This is something that we rarely found at Willard.
Peg and I were both very moved by Madeline’s possessions. She was highly educated, completely bi-lingual in French and English (the original spelling of her name was Madeleine, so we assume she was born in France), and lived a very stimulating life before she was institutionalized.
This is just a tiny selection of her papers and books. I could easily post 50 photographs of her things; something I will get to when I upload her to the willardsuitcases.com site. Which given the sheer volume of images, might be a while.
Thanks to all of you for hanging in there with me on this. I really think that I will be done with shooting in the next few weeks, and will move to spending at least a few days a week editing and uploading. I am hoping to find some sort of artist’s retreat where I could spend a month just working on the project. Any suggestions would be welcome.
Here is another example of a complication in one’s life that could possibly lead to time spent at Willard. It has not been unusual to find evidence of language problems in the lives of people who were patients there. Obviously, there must have been other factors in Michael’s situation that led him to Willard, but we have never seen such a direct link to language issues. (Michael was born Michele B in Italy.) The pink note should be readable, but if not, here is the text. “Please give this man something for his ear as he can not talk much english [sic] to make you understand what he wants.” Very sad, and I wonder what the writer meant by “something for his ear”. My first thought upon reading this was a reference to the Babel Fish which is featured in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide series of books.
Yesterday, we also photographed Lawrence Mocha’s suitcase. I will do a longer post about him in the next few days.
Thanks for following.
This is what is left of the handle on one side of Michael’s large trunk. Sadly, there is only a tiny remnant of the original Willard tag attached to a string, so there is no information about the date he arrived. But there is a ton of very interesting material in the collection, which I am really looking forward to photographing next Tuesday.
I will be doing a longer post with lots of photos next week. Until then, thanks for following.
Rodrigo was a reader. His collection of books was extensive and interesting.
He was also a bit of a writer. Below is a novel that he wrote that was part of his library.
It is interesting how he changed the dedication.
He must have been working with some sort of editor or teacher, as there are lots of corrections in red ink.
Some of his books were from his days at Salt Lake High School. The collected issues of the school publication “Red and Black” were among his books.
This was the only evidence of his byline that I could find.
Frustrating to have to obscure his surname.
There is so much amazing material here, and I have to keep reminding myself that I am just documenting the collection as a photographer, and not as a social historian. The temptation is to photograph everything that made his life so interesting, but I reckon I would never finish.
Peggy was especially helpful is setting up and organizing our work yesterday. Here is a shot of her cheerful presence in front of a setup for which she was largely responsible. Thanks Peg.
Peg and I started in on the returned Exploratorium cases yesterday, and it was great to get back to shooting.
Herman’s case was particularly interesting to me as most of his things related to photography. It will be somewhat difficult to read this label on a computer monitor, but it reveals quite a bit about him. He had been living in Sonyea, NY at the Craig Colony for Epileptics. Lin Stuhler’s site has a good description of Craig here. There is a note on this label stating “List of ??? [artifacts, contents?, I can’t quite read it] on reverse side of this cover”.
And here is that list. You can see Herman’s signature on the top sheet that acknowledges receipt.
There were three lenses in the case, including this lovely Bausch and Lomb Tessar.
This was the 1930s idea of a light meter.
The collection includes quite a bit of correspondence from The American School of Photography in Chicago. It seemed to be a well organized “learn at home” way of becoming a photographer. Since all of the envelopes that contained the promotional materials were addressed to Herman in Sonyea, NY, I have to assume that he was learning to be a photographer while living at the Craig Colony.
For me, Herman’s story is particularly touching, and not just because of the photography connection. I purposely don’t include too much of myself on this site, but sometimes I feel the need to open up a bit about the emotional impact of shooting these cases. Our son Peter is an amazing guy. He was a preemie, and spent months in the hospital after he was born. He has cerebral palsy and a history of epilepsy. He lives independently in DC and is a truly remarkable and inspirational person. I simply can’t imagine what his life would have been like had he been born in the 1920s, and when I think of Herman and his life in institutions, it breaks my heart.
I have just uploaded Frank C’s cases to the willardsuitcases.com site. His things are among the most important in the collection. There is so much to be learned from what he chose to bring with him to Willard, and from the letters he received while there. And he was such a handsome gentleman. Go to the site and click on “The Cases” and scroll down to the bottom of the page. Click on “Frank C” and make sure you click “view all” to see the photos.
I am so happy that the suitcases that were part of the Exploratorium exhibit have just arrived back at the storage facility. Among them are the last of the cases to be photographed. Yesterday Peg and I, along with museum staff, spent part of the day taking a look at the shipping containers and getting organized.
It has been a very emotional few weeks for me, as we are down to just 6 people left to photograph. It will be the end of over 4 years of shooting, and while in some ways, it is just the beginning of what will happen with the project, I am feeling a strong sense of change and loss.
Thanks for following the project, and for all the support that I receive from this fantastic virtual community.
I’ll be back in Rotterdam tomorrow, and am looking forward to shooting again. We are hoping to finish up with Margaret D’s things soon, and once the Exploratorium cases are back from California, that will just about do it.
I have just uploaded Flora T’s photos to the willardsuitcases.com site and it is worth checking out. She had some amazing possessions. When you go to the site, click on “The Cases”, select Flora T, and be sure to select view “all” at the bottom of the page.
I hope to post some images from tomorrow when I get home in the evening. Thanks for following.
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.