Jon Crispin's Notebook

Willard Suitcase #8

Posted in Willard Suitcases by joncrispin on 11/11/2011

I was able to photograph two cases at the museum on Wednesday.  It was a good day to go over, as I was able to see Karen Miller who was there looking at some of the materials.

Charles’ case was mostly empty, but was in quite good condition.  It appears that his time at Willard began in the 1930s.

In addition to the case was an archival box with his name that had some heft to it.

Inside was this instrument, which I believe is called a zither.  (Any help in identifying it is welcome.)

I love the decal with the notes.  Really beautiful.

I don’t believe this paddle has anything to do with the instrument.  It is clearly hand carved and though I can’t read the writing on the left side, one phrase on the right is pretty clear.

Inside the box were also two sheets of paper used to keep score for “Rumie pinochle”.

There was also a publication called “Glidden Brighter Home Magazine”.

53 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Oh, wow…. Such a tragic beauty. This to me is a short graphic novel. The sensitivity of the music instrument. The painfull exclamtion in pencil and then the haunting final question of this lost soul in a beautiful romantic looking paper piece: What is home?
    Thank you so much. I feel that alle forgotten souls will be grateful for the humble and respectful service you pay them, by acknowledging and noticing all this.

  2. nancy udell said, on 11/11/2011 at 9:39 am

    Yes, this is truly heartbreaking and wonderful that you are doing it. I wonder if you know of the book called The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. It’s about a woman who was put in a mental institution as a young girl (bringing a suitcase) and was released many years later when the institution was closed. It was what drew me to your project. I think you would find it moving, given the project you have embarked on. All the best to you.

  3. Marcia McDade said, on 11/11/2011 at 9:50 am


  4. Eric Huffman said, on 11/11/2011 at 10:06 am

    Unbelievable. So many layers to this one. My favorite so far.

  5. Erik said, on 11/11/2011 at 10:07 am

    Yes it is a Zither. a good looking one, at that.

  6. Theanne L Crossett said, on 11/11/2011 at 10:17 am

    A poignant reminder of the thin line between mentally normal and mentally abnormal. He loved this instrument, otherwise why would he bring it (why would someone pack it for him)…he did not want to be parted from it. And yet it appears that he was…did he have moments of coherency when he was allowed to touch the strings to strum them to hear the melodic sound or was that part of his life shut away in a suitcase forever…

    • teddy said, on 11/11/2011 at 4:39 pm

      My husband googled the patent date on the zither and found this website:

      It seems to be a chord-zither. I have no words to express my feelings on the contents of this suitcase ~ so many… Jon, once again, beautiful photos and words…While my stays on psychiatric wards were shorter than those of these individuals, Harry’s comment above has captured how I often felt about myself and my fellow-patients…a lost, broken soul… I thank you Jon.

      • joncrispin said, on 11/11/2011 at 9:25 pm

        Teddy. As always, it is so great to hear from you. Your support means so much to me. Jon

  7. Victoria Baker said, on 11/11/2011 at 11:12 am

    Always found the zither to be such a beautifully haunting instrument – I can now hear The Third Man music in my head! Great project, Jon.

  8. Jennifer Bowhey said, on 11/11/2011 at 11:17 am

    I suffer from depression and I marvel at how different treatments are to me in this era. As far as I know they still find shock treatment beneficial. What a amazing and strange world we live in. I feel blessed to witness the lives of these people and I would love to buy a follow up book with biographical chapters on them and an intro on the eras of medical care for them and the hospital they resided at and interviews with family. There lives are relevant and worthwhile to read about.

    • joncrispin said, on 11/11/2011 at 9:39 pm

      Jennifer. Thank you so much for your comment. Your ideas are great and I will follow up on them. Best. Jon

      • meetzorp said, on 30/11/2011 at 7:34 am

        Jennifer’s idea of a book with some biographical information (where available) would be completely fascinating. The objects themselves are fantastic time capsules, but with additional context, the collection would be transcendent.

    • Jub said, on 28/12/2011 at 6:03 am

      I’d like very much a book to be done with all those wonderfull and emotive pictures. I’m french, but I’ll buy it too !

      I’d like too to have pictures of those people, and everything it is possible to learn about them.

      You have to hurry, because I think the generation that can bring information is disappearing.

  9. Bonnie Southcott said, on 11/11/2011 at 11:38 am

    I am so happy to be a Kickstarter supporter of your remarkable work, Jon. It’s moving in a way that is difficult to describe. It touches on that hope, one we all share, that we will not be forgotten when we are gone. The marginalized have rarely had such a good advocate. Thank you for sharing your remarkable eye and sensitive approach to this project.

  10. Christine said, on 11/11/2011 at 3:23 pm

    Wow, so beautifully sad… I’m new to your blog, I love seeing your amazing work every day. Thanks for sharing this glimpse into the lives of otherwise forgotten souls…

  11. Della Badart said, on 11/11/2011 at 4:30 pm

    Thank you, I am very excited to see every new case.


  12. luiz said, on 11/11/2011 at 5:01 pm

    I think that wooden paddle says “Nelson Nauer” at the top– he turns up on as being an “inmate” of the Rome State School in 1920 but I don’t know where he would have been by the 1930s– he doesn’t turn up in any other census listings. That “cottage or castle” article’s a heartbreaker…

    • joncrispin said, on 11/11/2011 at 9:22 pm

      Luiz. Amazing that you found this. He must have been at Rome and was then moved to Willard, which is about two hours away. Thank you for your help. Jon

      • luiz said, on 03/12/2011 at 8:47 pm

        Or, if the paddle was in Charles’ luggage when he came to Willard, had he previously been a resident at the Rome State School too, and gotten it from Nelson there? If he got it from Nelson there at Willard, I wouldn’t think it would be packed in his suitcase. I didn’t think the residents had access to their luggage once they got to Willard…

      • joncrispin said, on 04/12/2011 at 12:12 pm


        About access, I think they could use these items while at Willard.



  13. natashaluxe (@natashaluxe) said, on 11/11/2011 at 7:41 pm

    your photos of these artifacts make my heart ache.

  14. Nicolette Boaz said, on 11/11/2011 at 7:51 pm

    I am a musician and the image of that beautiful instrument makes me cry for his sorrow- along with his picture perfect magazine image of ‘Home’ and his ‘f**k off exclamation and attempt to retain his spirit. Glad that I am supporting your project as it is a sign of respect to these forgotten souls….

  15. Dawn said, on 12/11/2011 at 11:30 pm

    Your photo’s are such poignant images! I find them a compelling testament for those whose voices were not often really heard in life. Ironically, some of these individuals suffered hearing voices that they couldn’t stop. I too would love to find out more about the treatment and lives of these people. It’s so wonderful that Luiz was able to find additional info on Nelson Nauer. Just incredible work! I’m new to this site, I joined when I saw your work elsewhere. I truly enjoy your work and like the Kickstart concept. I’ll be donating as well as telling others about you. Looking forward to what’s next.
    Thank you and keep them coming!

  16. Chloe said, on 16/11/2011 at 7:21 pm

    Is the instrument a Dulcimer of some sort?? Good luck identifying it & keep the amazing work coming!

  17. Dese'Rae L. Stage said, on 30/11/2011 at 12:34 pm


    I’ve been following this project since I first saw it on Kickstarter, but I’ve never said hello. So: hello. This project is so intriguing to me. I really love this post, in particular. I’m also appreciating the occasional glances back to the asylum itself that come to us in the KS updates. Thanks for this. It’s really, really cool.

    • joncrispin said, on 30/11/2011 at 12:42 pm

      Dese’Rae, Thanks for your comment and hello from me. I can’t begin to tell people just how much I appreciate all the response to the suitcases photos. Thanks for being a part of it. Jon

  18. Karen M. said, on 30/11/2011 at 6:26 pm


    In January 1980 through the end of April 1980 I was an occupational therapy student at Willard. I lived on the grounds in a building called North Home during that time, along with a few other students and staff members. Your suitcase project has touched me deeply. I spent many hours in the sheltered workshop, never dreaming that such a treasure trove existed right above my head. Throughout all of the years that have passed since then I have never forgotten that place. The people are etched in my memory. This was long before HIPAA, and I still have drawings and writings that were given to me by my “clients” as well as a daily journal that I was required to keep.

    I like to think that during the time I spent there that the people were treated with caring; at least that is what I observed. But many of them had been there for decades and many should not even have been admitted in the first place. I vividly remember attending the funeral of a man who participated in occupational therapy for about a month before he suddenly passed away. He had been there for years and years, yet I remember how normal he appeared to be. It haunts me to think of how he was buried in the Willard cemetery with just a number on a marker. I have since heard that all of the cemetery markers were pulled out and now the graves are completely unmarked.

    I am guessing that many of the suitcase owners are buried in that cemetery. Your project has succeeded in bringing them back to life in a sense and has given a glimpse of who they were and what they might have been had they not lived out their lives at Willard. The beauty of your photographs brought tears to my eyes, for you are treating their possessions with a dignity that their owners might not have experienced in life or even in death.

    • joncrispin said, on 30/11/2011 at 6:32 pm


      Thank you so much for your note. It is so interesting that you worked at Willard, and that your memories are so vivid. I have met and photographed many of the retired employees and my impression is the same as yours; the people who worked there really cared for the patients. I communicate best through the photographs, as writing doesn’t come easy to me. What you said in your note is exactly what I am attempting to convey in the photos. With my very best wishes and thanks. Jon

  19. Terry Garahan said, on 02/12/2011 at 2:46 pm

    Karen, Go to the Willard Suitcase Project website, go to institution and the audio recollections. Listen to all of them, but most especially “blitz” The last sentence is stunning.

    • Karen M. said, on 27/12/2011 at 5:51 pm

      Terry, I listened to the recollections as you suggested, especially “Blitz”. I am still trying to reconcile the fact that N. C. says that she never saw anyone mistreated after she talks about people being put into their rooms naked and being lined up like cattle to receive shock treatments. Perhaps her definition of mistreatment means that she never saw anyone being hit or pushed around by a staff member, in which case it is very stunning that in 30 years she never saw that happen.

      I have a vivid account in the journal that I kept while I was a student at Willard of the shock treatment that I witnessed. Nobody was lined up and a sedative was given, so thankfully times have changed. I was able to talk to the “client”
      before she received the shock. She was looking forward to it, as she had received shock treatments in the past and thought that they were a very effective part of her treatment. Restraints were not used; the staff held the client down on the table while the shock was delivered. They were very to her and very comforting during the whole process. Although I was only there for 3 months, this kindness was exactly what I witnessed time and time again.

      In one instance I witnessed the staff uniting against a psychiatrist who they felt was trying to implement a far too aggressive and unreasonable treatment program. They lobbied against his plan relentlessly, until he finally gave up and left the very regressed client alone. They cared about that person deeply and it showed. They were willing to risk their jobs for his sake.

    • Marie said, on 12/06/2013 at 10:43 am

      When you say “the Willard Suitcase Project website”, what exactly do you mean? I can’t find it. The only one I can find ( is under construction, apparently, and does not allow one past the front page, sadly. Can you provide a link? I am very interested in listening to these audo recollections!

  20. Bergman said, on 11/12/2011 at 5:07 pm

    If it’s a zither, then the paddles seem oddly out of place, with no purpose. But could it instead be a dulcimer, with hand-carved hammers? The paddles would make more sense in that case. The two sticks pictured next to the paddles would make considerable sense in that light as well, they’d be a differently-shaped set of hand-carved hammers.

  21. Grace Gramajo said, on 01/01/2012 at 7:50 pm

    I find your suitcase project so touching; it is amazing that you are doing this.

  22. doug said, on 10/08/2012 at 10:07 am

    My office mate who created says he believes the paddles are used to dust between the zither strings. They’re definitely not used in playing.

  23. […] link to some of the earlier updates.  So here we go: Dmytre, Frank, Flora, and some earlier ones: Charles, and the first one I ever shot which explains the genesis of the project, Frieda.  For those of […]

  24. […] y aseado baúl con útiles de costura y bordado, un espejito art déco, dos jeringas…), Karen Miller (una cítara), Freda B. (un bello juego de […]

  25. stephanie said, on 05/02/2013 at 9:42 pm

    Jon, your work is haunting me.

    Long ago, in the early 1980s, I was a new radiologic technologist whose first job was at (now long closed) Medical College of Pennsylvania Hospital (old Women’s Medical College Hospital), which was right down the road from Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Hospital. We rad techs from MCP had, as one of our weekly rotations, to take an old GE portable x-ray unit in a van down the street to EPPI to do portable x-rays on site for their patients (it was a contract between the two institutions – MCP provided certain on site medical care to EPPI patients). EVERY SINGLE RAD TECH at MCP shuddered when it became our turn to go to EPPI to do their portables; we couldn’t stand pushing (it had a motorized drive) our portable x-ray machine down those corridors with so many sad, unfortunate patients tied into chairs in the corridors (apparently for for the day?), reaching out to us… touching us… dragging their fingers and hands along our bodies as we passed by them… tugging on our sleeves and skirts… some moaned, others cried (sobbed), and others yet cried out and/or yelled after us – some spoken things were coherent, but for the most part, not. Please remember that we were x-ray technologists – not trained in any way to work with or around psychiatric patients! We absolutely *hated* that rotation; it came up for any one individual approx. one week in every six, if I recall that correctly. Maybe it was more weeks apart and it just seemed that often. I’m not sure about that, after all these years, and so many other jobs and another couple of careers later. We did everything possible to push off our turn at the EPPI rotation: made the newer techs do it for us; traded it for other distasteful rotations – like the operating room (surgeons were always screaming at and verbally abusing rad techs in the O.R. and few rad techs like working in the O.R., consequently) or the E.R. (similar to the O.R., the Emergency Room is high stress and often a rad tech is unhappy in that position)… or, at least, that’ how it used to be – but that may have changed by now. I have been retired from radiologic technology and as an EMT for the 21 years that I’ve been married. Being a newly hired tech AND being right out of school, I got more than my fair share of those portable x-ray rotations at EPPI. It was disastrous for me personally. Just over a year after being hired at this job, I stopped working in hospitals altogether and started working in private doctors’ offices for a number of years.

    I thought I’d buried that horror too deep, thought that it would never come back to my consciousness. I was wrong. Your photographs of these suitcases and their contents has brought all of this back, at once. I’m now in my early 50s, and I cry – literally – for these people who never managed to recover their freedom, who never managed to reconstruct their broken lives.

    Your work is beautiful. My own horror has nothing whatsoever to do with the beauty of your work; it is my own personal problem to deal with. Your photography certainly ‘speaks’ to me.

    By the way, that is indeed a zither. It is not a dulcimer, as some have suggested. My husband is a musician and we have autoharps, mountain dulcimers, hammered dulcimers, and many, many other musical instruments. if it has strings or you blow into it, hubby can play it. That is definitely not a hammered dulcimer, and besides – as well kept as this instrument was, it’s hammers would have been with it, had it been one. It certainly isn’t a mountain dulcimer. If it was an autoharp, it would have a bar or bars across its strings. While a zither is not normally played with paddles of that sort, I would like to point out respectfully that a guitar is also “not flipped and played backwards, in one’s left hand” either, but Elizabeth Cotton surely did play hers that way instead of restringing it the way we would expect a lefty to do. Perhaps Charles did something equally unexpectedly unusual with his zither… too bad that we shall never know that.

    • Nicolette Boaz said, on 05/02/2013 at 11:02 pm

      Beautifully spoken. Thank you for your description.

    • joncrispin said, on 06/02/2013 at 10:30 am

      Stephanie, thank you so much for your amazing comment. I was blown away. All I have ever wanted to do with this project is to help people open up a bit and think about mental illness and how our culture deals with it. Your perspective is a welcome contribution to the dialogue that has sprung up around the photographs. Your openness is so important to all of us who are involved in what I’m attempting to do here. And I would guess that in writing your comment you feel a bit more able to process your experiences back in the 80’s. Again, I can’t thank or praise you enough for taking the time to contribute to the project. I feel so touched that you have shared part of your life with me. All best, Jon

    • Sarah said, on 07/02/2013 at 8:35 am

      Stephanie thank you for sharing your story and it reminds me of my mom who has been an RN for 30 yrs up in NEPA. She said that during her training she had to do some time at one of the physc hospitals. She does not say much about it, except that it was the worst part of her training.

  26. […] that they have to tell.  Late last night I got an email letting me know of a new comment on this post.  Scroll down toward the bottom of the comments section and read what Stephanie had to say. / […]

  27. Charlie Seton said, on 07/02/2013 at 12:49 am

    Stephanie’s beautifully written, heartrending and heartfelt comment is a fascinating counterpoint to your gorgeous, nostalgic and engaging photographs, Jon. There would’ve have been no collection like this without the horrors she describes. This conflict makes your project even more compelling.

  28. Jennifer said, on 07/02/2013 at 8:28 pm

    I’ve been following this mostly by subscription, but it was this project that caught my eye and made me subscribe. The comments say more than I ever could and say it much more eloquently. Those who deal with mental illness in any capacity, whether it is patient, family member, or (health) caregiver have a special view into a special world. Those who can catch a glimpse into it through something like this project, or Karen’s work study, are truly blessed.

  29. gorbud said, on 10/02/2013 at 1:36 pm

    I found your project on Kickstart and feel honored to be able to follow and view your work. The suitcases in and of themselves are interesting, compelling and beckon us to come closer.

    To me the power of your work, like all true art, lies in its’ ability to transform the viewer. Looking at and sometimes studying your work often opens a door to our own humanity and advances our emotional understanding of others loneliness, disconnection, and brokenness. By expanding ones own emotional range and consciousness of others distressed lives it may bring us closer to our own self understanding and enriches just what it is to be human.

  30. jacqueline said, on 13/02/2013 at 10:14 am

    i salute you, jon. Ur work is truly admirable.. the unveiling of each suitcase is just intriguing.. their belongings makes me ponder about the lives each patient lived.. Thank you for sharing.. I will share ur amazing work with my friends here in Asia.

  31. Meri West said, on 20/03/2013 at 6:27 pm

    I moved to Florida in 1991 and shortly after that, the state began closing some mental institutions and releasing patients into the community. I had a four bedroom house and was only using one at the time and a social worker I knew convinced me to take some patients into my home in a new Adult Family Care Home program. I would get a small stipend for letting them live with me and I would make sure they were fed and clothed. In theory, it sounded easy although exactly lucrative. After a scant 12 hour training about living with mentally ill people, I was assigned 4 women who quickly moved in. All they had was a plastic trash bag with some personal items–much like foster children who are removed from an abusive home in the middle of the night. Truly it was sad although touching to see what they had managed to hang onto for all those years as in in-patient. One crumbled up little notebook and a stub of a pencil. A vintage photograph with no frame tucked inside a Bible. Over the years, I had a few ladies come and go but in the end, four ended up living with me for over 10 years and then also dying with me when their bodies gave out. There was no interested family member to take their stuff and I still have it in memoriam for them. While they lived with me we worked on their Life Stories and I found old yearbook photos and news paper clippings about them or their family. It seemed like a whole life time was just lost or in bits and pieces.

    I think what one is able to or chooses to hang onto is telling and am glad to see Crispin’s work tell the otherwise unheard stories.

    Two years ago when my last child was 6 he was angry with me about something and wanted to leave. Run away. Sure I said. I made up a basket for food and let him pack up. I gave him privacy to pack as I was curious what he would choose in this frame of mind. Of course he never made it past the front gate but later I looked in the bag he packed and it makes me laugh so hard I cry. He had a toy dolphin, a bouncy ball, a plastic horse and a bale of fake hay for the horse and a medal he got for running a 2K race. He told me later the dolphin and the horse were to keep him company although he worried about having food for the dolphin. He would use the binoculars to scout for an ocean or body of water for the dolphin. The ball was to ward off boredom. And the medal was to remind him of his biggest accomplishment, to date. I have the original bag and all the items still tucked away for posterity and only wish I was talented enough to photograph it like these suitcases. Jon, thanks for the memories.

  32. […] Willard Suitcase #4, Willard Suitcase #5, Willard Suitcase #6, Willard Suitcase #7, Willard Suitcase #8, Willard Suitcase #9, Willard Suitcase #10, Willard Suitcase #11, Willard Suitcase #12, Willard […]

  33. Pennie Louise De Witt said, on 30/06/2013 at 12:07 pm

    Yes, that’s a zither. My mother had one when I was little.

Leave a Reply to Sarah Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: