Jon Crispin's Notebook

Willard Asylum Suitcase #2

Posted in Art, History, People, Shoes, Uncategorized, Work by joncrispin on 24/07/2011

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

I am slowly beginning to formulate a plan for how to proceed.

Even though an inventory of each case has been prepared by the museum, I prefer not to know the contents before I begin taking pictures.

There is something about being surprised by what’s inside that helps me connect with the person.

And I want the connection because I am trying to say something about the lives they lived before arriving at the asylum.

Anna’s first case contained mostly clothes.

I believe the inventory was done just as she arrived at Willard.

The museum is very careful about caring for each individual item.

Anna had some really beautiful clothes.

Just about all of her clothes had nametags, which I have to assume were sewn in before her time at Willard.

Below is the second of her cases.

This one had fewer clothes and more personal items.

For some reason, I really like the paper that the museum uses to protect the cases and their contents.

I especially like the design of this one.

When I photographed the abandoned buildings on the earlier project, I tried never to move items that I came across.  This is so different for me as I need to lay the items out in order to photograph, but I don’t want to make the arrangements look too studied.  I actually work very fast when I am shooting.

This case contained several hats, and an incredible pair of shoes.

There were also some indications of her life before Willard.

The hair pin packaging is beautiful.

I am not sure if the residents of Willard had access to their possessions during the time they were living there, but somehow I think not.  So this letter would probably have been received before she arrived.

And since it was not addressed to Anna, I wonder about its importance to her.

Thanks so much to Craig Williams at the New York State Museum for allowing me access.  As I mentioned in the earlier post, I would really appreciate any feedback.  I still don’t have an outlet for this work, and no funds to jump into it in any concerted manner, but I hope to keep chipping away.  There is alot of information about the people attached to these suitcases and should I go much further with the project, I would like to be able to include some biographical background to accompany the photos.

30 Responses

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  1. faridafleming said, on 27/07/2011 at 4:57 pm

    This is wonderful work, Jon: profound subject matter – history of institutionalisation and madness – and the physical detailing of another era. The suitcase with the hairbrushes and mirrors with green backing and silk interior and fasteners is exquisite. And the care that is now being taken with the suitcases – with wrapping and tagging – is a counterpoint to how the people themselves were probably treated in their lifetimes.

    You make me think of two books – ‘Opening Skinner’s Box: Great pshycological experiments of the Twentieth Century’, by Lauren Slater and ‘The shaking woman’, by Siri Hustvedt. Both writers personalise mental illness and show how treatment has everything to do with the history of the time. This seems to be the direction of your work too. I’d recommend both books as great reading and also perhaps as links to other people working in the area – they may have ideas about funding too.

    I think Lauren Slater is local, here is her website: and reference to her work on wikipedia: and Siri Hustvedt is, of course, based in New York. Here is her website:

  2. joncrispin said, on 27/07/2011 at 5:35 pm

    Farida, thanks so much for looking at these and I appreciate your thoughts. Best, Jon

  3. L.S. Stuhler said, on 28/07/2011 at 7:18 am

    Hi Jon, I enjoyed looking at your photos. I have a blog on wordpress called The Inmates of Willard – A Genealogy Resource, that will explain to you why you probably will not be allowed to get the information you are looking for. Sadly, The Office of Mental Health has the information locked up. I found your blog using the “tag surfer.” I couldn’t get my great-grandmother’s medical record or photos. It really makes me wonder what they are hiding. I have transcribed the U.S. Federal Censuses for Willard for the years 1870, 1880, 1900 and 1920 to help descendants find their ancestors. I hope you will take a look at my blog and I will subscribe to yours so I can see if you’ve made any progress. Good Luck!! Sincerely, Linda S. Stuhler at

  4. Manon said, on 29/10/2011 at 5:08 am

    What a wonderful project. I cant find a word to describe how it feels to be allowed to 9even online) see these items of meaning and value to people. Collected before embarking on a (1way?) journey..leaving ‘normal life’, going into a mental institution. I wonder to what extent personal identity of the ‘patients’ got room to exist..
    Things are ‘just’ things until filled with life through personal meaning and energy given to them. I can almost not begin to imagine the stories that come into life with such an opened up suitcase.
    Much luck and success with this beautiful project!
    sincerely, Manon

  5. Deborah Davila said, on 29/10/2011 at 11:11 am

    Dear Mr. Crispin, this strikes me as a wonderful and facinating look into the himan psyche that is much richer than any that has ever been analyzed. Being able to view and analyze the items that these people valued most may prove to be insightful and offer a hope of shedding some light on the mysteries of mental illness that no one could have anticipated. How I wish I were a psychological profiler just so I could be able to see those photos and piece together a personality of an individual who lived and loved and stuggled with mental health rather than the vague and often depicted image of a blank, inhumane “crazy” that is so commonly associated with the mentally disabled. I can’t wait to see what comes of this project! Thank you for having this novel idea and for your willingness to share it with us.

  6. Margaret said, on 31/10/2011 at 12:27 pm

    Heart breaking and poignant, I can’t help but try to recall what my own Mom packed in her suitcase when after 5 suicide attempts she was finally admitted to a psychiatric ward. I’m sure I helped her pack. I was 18 years old, the eldest of five daughters, the one who discovered Mom’s crumpled body on the kitchen floor after another over dose. Much more than the history of madness or The Willard Asylum, each suitcase and its contents represents a life. These people were loved: a daughter, a mother, maybe your neighbor. They suffered in a world that struggled to understand them, a world that often treated them like second class citizens. To bring their stories to life through the contents of these cases may just help us drop the word “mental” and all it’s ugly meanings like insane, crazy, looney. Those were hurtful words that shamed the patients who never chose to wear them. I applaud this amazing project and the reverence you have shown for the tender souls whose lives were lost to their illness.

    • joncrispin said, on 31/10/2011 at 1:01 pm

      Margaret, thank you so much for your story and comment. It means so much to me that this project is resonating with people. What you said about the people who owned these cases is exactly what I feel and a major reason I am doing this work. I am so grateful for your support and encouragement. Jon

  7. Margaret said, on 31/10/2011 at 1:09 pm

    BTW – I’m a writer and am finishing my memoir about being raised by a parent with both personality and mood disorders – Mom had her first series of electro shock therapy treatments as an out patient in 1958 when I was six. if you end up looking for personal stories to support this work, I’d love to contribute. Much luck to you and this wonderful project!

  8. Candace Pearce said, on 02/11/2011 at 6:34 pm

    Hello Jon,
    Came across your story on the npr site today. I am amazed by the thought and care that both you and the Museum have had with these suitcases of such personal items that are a glimpse into each owner’s lives at that particular time and place. I will follow your project and hope it does grow into a book. But your photos are a statement enough as they are. I wondered if some of these suitcases were packed by family members for the individuals.

    A comment on your comment regarding Anna’s envelope,…”since it was not addressed to Anna, I wonder about its importance to her.” The outside of her first suitcase is marked with the initials “MLG”, who could be the Max Gordon addressed on the envelope. (Her father, brother, uncle?) The address in Chicago is a building that is still there today. The blank envelope from the New Hotel Randolph in Milwaukee Wisconsin, I assume was empty? The New Hotel Randolph was built in 1927 and demolished in 1985. So she could have been from the Chicago-Milwaukee area. And how did she end up in New York?! The name labels on her clothes do look institutional. They are such beautiful clothes and those shoes! I always wonder how different their lives would have been if they had their own personal things with them each day, instead of their things being taken away and separated from them the whole time they were there. Or the whole rest of their lives. Amazing lives with amazing stories. Your photos and this project have really touched me and I thank you for your work.

    Has anyone mentioned to you that there is a book, The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, in which suitcases were found that had been packed by families before they were sent away to the Japanese Internment Camps during WWII and these suitcases were never claimed.

    Best regards,

    • Candace said, on 03/11/2011 at 12:46 pm

      The book, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, is fiction.

      Through a little more searching on the internet, I came upon the site for the Willard Suitcase Exhibit OnLine. The traveling Exhibit is currently in Muskegon, Michigan through November 2011. I live in Michigan and plan to go see it. Before yesterday, I had never heard of Willard Asylum and the Willard Suitcases!! Thank you so much.

      Best regards,

  9. Edna Porter said, on 02/11/2011 at 11:52 pm

    This is a most remarkable project. You seem to be treating each item – and each life represented – very tenderly, with honor and respect. I would love to see your photos and notes in book-form some day. There must be grants available to fund your project. It deserves to be completed, whether exhibited or published. And the patients deserve to be acknowledged as individuals and as human beings. Good luck to you.

  10. Candace said, on 03/11/2011 at 12:38 pm


  11. Susan R.O.P. said, on 03/11/2011 at 12:39 pm

    Jon,modeling a suitcase, this was such a beautiful opening of lives closed, due to a diagnosis of mental illness. Thank you for your carefull and loving description of the photos and their subjects. I have a set of suitcases that belonged to my paternal English grandmother, brought over just after WW1 when she married a ‘yank’ that are just like that belonging to Freda B with the hairbrus & toiletry containers. She also enjoyed creating needlpoint items like you found in Mary’s (#5). I have a suggestion for the tools/items found in Maude Ketcham’s (#6) suitcase. I believe she created leather goods. The tools reflect those used by designers of fine leather items, belts, purses, perhaps even shoes. They would be used to carve, punch, create grommet holes, etc.

  12. Toby Dorr said, on 12/03/2012 at 2:36 pm

    I find myself fascinated by this project. Especially after I read the book The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Jon you should really read this book – I had no idea how routine it was for mental hospitals to swallow up people a century ago. When I look at these photographs, I wonder why the woman had toothbrushes in her suitcase – don’t you think she might have needed them and could have used them???

    • joncrispin said, on 12/03/2012 at 4:16 pm

      Toby, thanks for the book suggestion. I have mentioned it before, but the patients did have access to their things while at Willard. These items were probably collected on her death and put back into her suitcase. Thanks again for your interest in the project. jon

  13. mizmaxgordon said, on 12/12/2012 at 10:52 am

    Jon, I actually like ALL the Willard photos, but my heart stopped at this one (not literally, fortunately). I came to your site because I was speaking this morning with my therapist about my father, who killed himself when I was 4, and I mentioned that there were gaps in our family photographs for the times when my dad was hospitalized. When she asked where and I answered Willard, I thought she’d have a stroke: she is friends with Karen Miller, who I understand is working with you on a book about the suitcases and the people behind the remnants—humanizing the patients. My father did not die AT Willard, so he would not have left a suitcase behind, but as I was scrolling through the photos I saw this note that appeared on first glance to have been penned to someone with my name, Max Gordon. (On closer inspection I think it may say Gooden, and in any case Max is a nickname and Gordon my married name, but still, that first glance…). Anyway, I thought I’d take this opportunity to say how intrigued I am by the project, not just because of the personal familial connection (my father would have been there off an on through the 1950s and early 1960s, so may have known some of these people), but because, as a writer myself, I am fascinated by people’s lives in general and those with “issues” in particular. I wanted to say thank you for doing this, and I hope to learn more about this project, to see the exhibit in person someday, and to read the book you and Dr. Miller are apparently doing.

    • joncrispin said, on 12/12/2012 at 11:01 am

      Max, thank you so much for taking the time to write and especially for sharing your story. I feel so fortunate that you were able to find the project and make a family connection. I have received numerous comments in a similar vein and each one helps to validate the project for me. I really like your phrase “humanizing the patients”. It is exactly what I am trying to accomplish. / I will be seeing Karen later today and will pass along your note. Best regards and please stay in touch. Jon

  14. Kate said, on 29/12/2013 at 5:28 pm

    I was looking at the pictures of abandoned places in the world, there was a picture of Willard, so I looked it up in google and found your project of suitcases.
    I am absolutely amazed by this story. I took a good look at every item on the picture to create an image of the person and their lives. I felt so sorry for the poor, lost souls. Can’t help to think that back in those days, some people were hospitalized in mental institutions just to “put them away” or to “get rid of them” . Makes me sad to see some suitcases packed as to go on a holiday….and never return. Every item tells a story, packed with care, something close to their heart, and they never saw their belongings again.
    Those pictures were very touchy and I’m glad that they were brought into daylight. Hopefully some relatives of those patients got some valuable information of what had been kept in secret for so long.
    Thank You for this “time travel” experience.

    Kind Regards

  15. […] Administration facility and never lived outside institutions before his death in 1984.  Anna died in Willard in 1987, leaving a suitcase with a carefully transcribed list of her stylish […]

  16. PaigeMarie said, on 07/05/2014 at 5:20 pm

    Absolutely intriguing. Love your work

  17. Kay said, on 01/01/2015 at 11:28 pm

    Just finished looking at all the suitcase pictures… A simply fascinating glimpse into the lives of these patients… i also enjoyed seeing the hotel hallways pictures …I spend lots of time traveling and staying at hotels thinking hotel hallways would make a great picture study …look forward to more suitcase pictures and hopefully a book a little less than the $500 selling for now …thanks for your dedication to this project

  18. Daphne said, on 30/01/2015 at 5:18 am

    I just saw this. oh my, I am so humbled for those who you make alive and human again. They were just like us in many ways. To be shrunk into ONE suitcase…is beyond me. I have a lifetime of mental illness in my family, and I have to say, they are just like us…all in all…as you show. Thank you.

  19. Edna Fainaru Peyrat said, on 22/04/2017 at 6:02 am

    HELLO! Your remarquable work only came to my knowledge yesterday, through Facebook ! Now I am looking for maybe a book on your story and picture to buy ! . I live in France in Paris Suburb (sorry for my poor english). I will keep looking . Thank you again .

  20. Natalie said, on 11/05/2020 at 5:32 pm

    I am so intrigued by all of this.
    All these patients have a story to tell and upon reading other stuff about the mental institutions back then,many of them were not mentally ill,which is heartbreaking.
    I hope you get the chance to keep going with this

    All the best

    • joncrispin said, on 11/05/2020 at 5:38 pm

      Dear Natalie. Thank you for the comment. I am always interested to know how you came across the project.

  21. RLM said, on 31/10/2020 at 8:28 pm

    Looking at your photos. Noticed her name is Anna, but the monogram on the suitcase is MLG. MG – matches the name in the letter: Max Goodman. Or some similar last name. Can’t make out the last syllable.

  22. joncrispin said, on 02/11/2020 at 9:53 am

    Dear RLM, Thanks for the sleuthing. I am always so pleased when folks look at the photos and figure things out that I might have missed. Thank you so much for following and for the comment. Wishing you all the very best,

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