I am especially taken by the labels that we find in the suitcases. These small bits of paper and string give us quite a bit of information about the patient as they were brought to Willard. In this case, W (we only have an initial) S (not allowed to use her surname) came to the institution on 16 November 1938. This is a rare case where the label is ripped, but even so, I have had to obscure part of her name.
I am aware that there is an active debate about this, but I come down firmly on the side that would have me able to include the patient’s full names with their possessions. The reason I am forbidden from naming patients has to do with specific New York State law about the privacy of people who were wards of the state. This law supersedes even the Federal HIIPA regulations, which state that 50 years after death, records are available to the public. In fact, many other states use full names in talking about former patients at asylums and psychiatric centers. I won’t go into all the reasons why I feel it is respectful to name the suitcase owners, as I am not so good at putting this kind of argument in writing. But someone contacted me last week who is really good at it.
Here is a link to a post on her site. I am grateful for all the nice things she said about me, but I am especially pleased that she was able to put into words something that I think about often; which is how to show respect to people who at one time in their lives were patients at Willard. So Nelly, thank you so much for your openness about your own situation and the clarity with which you expressed your feelings. I really appreciate it.
I have spent quite a bit of time over the past few days working on Irma’s photographs in order to upload them to the willardsuitcases.com site. Included in her things were several professionally done portraits of her, as well as many indications of what her life was like before coming to Willard. If you would like to check out the collection, go to the site, then “The Cases”, scroll down to the bottom of the page and you will see her name. Make sure you click on “View: ALL”, so as to see all of the photos. It is well worth having a look.
I have set up the site so that you can order prints from the project. It is a fairly simple procedure. When you click on an image in a collection, you will see an “Add to Cart +” button. Click it and from there you will have 3 sizes from which to choose. Just follow the directions about payment, and I will be notified. I’ll then make the print in my studio, sign it, and ship it off. Couldn’t be easier, and it will help the project tremendously. Thanks so much.
On Thursday, I made the trip from Western Massachusetts to Ovid, NY for my talk about the suitcases. I arrived late in the afternoon and the light was nice on the front of this lovely early 1960s building.
It is so great to see a library from this era that hasn’t been messed up by continuous “updating”.
The crowd of about 50 people who attended the event was fantastic. At the beginning of my talk I asked how many in the audience had been employees at Willard, and up went at least 10 hands. I always learn so much by being able to talk to folks who were intimately connected with the place. In fact, two very important facts came out during the question and answer. The first was that while the patients were at Willard, their suitcases and possessions were kept in storage on the same floor as their rooms. And they absolutely had access to their things. I get asked about this regularly; I think most people who see the project assume that once they came to the institution they were stripped of their belongings, which I now know not to be the case.
The other bit of information that I had never understood has to do with why the suitcases were kept by the institution. When a patient died, the State of New York contacted the families and were given two options. Send money to cover shipping costs or come to Willard and pick up the suitcases. We now know that neither of these things happened to approximately 400 deceased patients, which is why the collection exists today. Amazing. Thanks so much to the wonderful Peggy Ellsworth for clearing this up.
Before the Friday noon brown bag lunch at the library, I had the chance to go to the cemetery and walk around for a bit. It is always something I do when in the area, and connects me to the place in a very real way.
Recently I have been in contact with a nice gentleman who expressed an interest in Frank C. He was concerned that as a veteran, Frank was not accorded the proper respect in his burial. This brought up the subject of the section of the cemetery that contains the headstones of veterans who were patients at Willard. As you can see by the flags, there is someone making sure that this section is well tended. What is most interesting is that this is the only part of the cemetery where the patients are named, and headstones placed over the graves.
I hope to be updating the willardsuitcases.com site quite a bit this week, so check it out if you get the chance. Thanks for following.
One of the cool things for me about Madeline’s collection is that she had the negatives for many of her photographs. The museum did a fantastic job in conserving and co-ordinating the negatives with the prints.
When I turned over this particular postcard, I was thrilled to see that she had stayed at the Prince George Hotel in New York City. I have overnighted there twice, and both were memorable. The first time I had just turned 16 and I, along with my friends Jeff, Jay, and Dennis drove to the city from Meadville and were there for a few nights. The other occasion was sometime in the early 1980s. That one got a bit weird.
Tomorrow I drive to Ovid for my talk at the public library. Edith B. Ford Library, 7pm. Hope to see you. I also expect to be there on Friday at noon for a brown bag lunch.
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.