Jon Crispin's Notebook

Willard Suitcase # 20

Posted in History, Jon Crispin, Willard Asylum, Willard Suitcases by joncrispin on 10/07/2013

This past Monday I began documenting the Willard suitcases again after not having done so since last September.  I had stopped shooting at that time to prepare for the Exploratorium exhibit.  The New York State Museum has given me permission to continue the project and it is both exciting and daunting, as there are still over 300 cases to photograph.

Craig Williams thought that Irma M.’s cases would be a good place to start, and so after getting set up, Peg and I began shooting in the late morning.  Irma had several cases, and most of her possessions were in museum boxes.

There wasn’t much in the brown suitcase, but I liked the design of the fabric liner.

She was initially placed in Ward 3, South West

This large trunk had a couple of nice labels on the outside.

I appears that this trunk was shipped to Willard in 1933.

Irma led a very interesting life and it is clear that she spent time in both Europe and North America.

We had the usual problem with deciding what to shoot, as one of the museum boxes was completely full of sheet music.

It appears from her papers that she taught both music and languages in New York City after she moved to the US from Europe.

It is interesting that the composer Jack Bauer signed this one with such a nice dedication.

In addition to all the sheet music, there was a large collection of books and diaries from her travels.  This Panama Canal book is incredible.

As is this sweet little booklet honoring George Washington.

I appears to be written for children what with the large illustrations and the somewhat dodgy history of his time with Native Americans.

Some of the books were in pretty rough shape, as was the interior of the trunk.

This illustrated dictionary caught our attention.

 Peggy is a fluent French speaker and I asked her what her favorite word was.

She responded immediately with “pépinière” and “pépiniériste”.

I especially liked this representation of flags with annotations for the colors.

We were not able to get through all of Irma’s things and I hope to finish her up next week.  This was our last set-up of the day.

The umbrella handle is so delicate.

I was able to find a link to Dr Charles Flesh Food.

This small diary contained some interesting entries.

Whenever I see an address like this I can’t help but wonder who lives there now.  And what about Mrs George Covert?  What was her connection to Irma?

From her diary of 8 January, 1925.

If feels so good to get back to this project and I hope to have more updates soon.  Cheers,  Jon

25 Responses

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  1. ncdavid33 said, on 10/07/2013 at 12:07 pm

    I am glad you are back at the project again as well. This is amazing. All that music! You could find recordings of it and have people listen on headphones while they look at the contents of the suitcases. Again, amazing.

  2. Nancy Udell said, on 10/07/2013 at 12:10 pm

    This is incredible work.. and so incredibly sad.

  3. Nikki Soppelsa said, on 10/07/2013 at 12:14 pm

    Always fascinating and this suitcase with so much information to go on. I’ve been viewing various NYC locations online. Whatta world…she traveled it and I’m gazing at it via my computer screen. Her life seems one extraordinaire and gives new meaning to the word ephemera.
    I was also thinking that these suitcases contain more of a life than perhaps most of us will leave and most will ever know about. We should all leave a suitcase…
    Thank you for sharing … I’ve missed ‘the suitcases’

    • joncrispin said, on 10/07/2013 at 12:19 pm

      Nikki, it does feel really good to be back with the cases, and I am so glad you are following. I really appreciate your comment. best, Jon

  4. Kathy Perl said, on 10/07/2013 at 12:45 pm

    I am an avid follower and so happy to hear you’re back to opening new cases. Irma M.’s seems to be one of, or THE most extensive array of fascinating possessions yet! Your arrangements are so sensitive and beautiful. I just want to say how wonderful the Exploratorium display is, and I plan to return often to delve yet deeper into the feelings your work evokes.

    Thank you,

    Kathy Perl

    • joncrispin said, on 10/07/2013 at 1:27 pm

      Thanks for your kind words Kathy. I am glad you were able to see the Exploratorium exhibit. Best, Jon

  5. Laura Scavone said, on 10/07/2013 at 2:25 pm

    I wish someone could video you while you worked on these photographs — I LOVE your work and am so curious as to how you approach it. Also, I’m glad the people that left these suitcases behind have a voice through you.

    • joncrispin said, on 10/07/2013 at 2:32 pm

      Laura, that’s an interesting idea. My friend Peter Carroll made the video for my Kickstarter project. Maybe I can talk him into doing another, and i have some ideas as to how to get it out on the net. Could be fun. I am also considering another kickstarter campaign to raise more funds. This whole project is really growing; almost beyond my comprehension. Thanks for your interest and support. jon

  6. lsstuhler said, on 10/07/2013 at 4:00 pm

    I think this is my favorite of all the suitcases so far because you really get an insight as to what she was all about. It also shows that “mental illness” can happen to anyone, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. What life event or trauma pushed Irma over the edge? I wonder what her diagnoses was and what caused it.

  7. Liz said, on 10/07/2013 at 4:26 pm

    Truly incredible. Beautiful and heartbreaking, too. Very glad you are back with the cases, documenting them with such sensitivity.

  8. Leah Cabral said, on 10/07/2013 at 6:11 pm

    Thank you, the Willard project is beyond words, I get goosebumps when I go through the pictures an d you are right I also wonder who and where are the people now with those addresses even the thought if the building is still standing.

  9. lisa said, on 10/07/2013 at 6:34 pm

    I am so glad you were able to begin again.
    There are so many stories to be told here.

  10. Natalie said, on 10/07/2013 at 10:49 pm

    So glad to have the update. Best to you, may you find renewed energy for the long, however yet enriching journey you have before you. Yes, I am glad we get the be the see-ers of these suitcases. A new voice for those quieted before. Certainly a great premise for a lesson in history.

    • joncrispin said, on 11/07/2013 at 9:02 pm

      Natalie, thank you so much for your encouragement. Best, Jon

  11. naia sharane hickey said, on 11/07/2013 at 12:10 am

    beautiful!! I cant wait to see if you might have found my great grand dads suitcase Clinton O`dell or my Grand dad Leo Burton Hickeys suit case I am imensley interested in your project..Naia Hickey

  12. B. Swinney said, on 11/07/2013 at 3:28 am

    I am so glad that you can continue on with the suitcase project and bringing to us the stories of people probably long forgotten. You have brought back their lives to share. It is so interesting what was put into the suitcases. I have often thought too about what I would put in a suitcase to demonstrate “me” to others when I am gone. I love the books. Especially the children’s book. I wonder if Irma was a stage singer and that is why she traveled so much. I too wonder when people’s names are mentioned or an address is recorded just who they are and the connection or who lives there now. Thank you so much for bringing dignity and life to the owners of the suitcases.

  13. Brad said, on 11/07/2013 at 8:29 am

    You are right where you’re supposed to be.

  14. lyndarwh said, on 11/07/2013 at 1:33 pm

    Love the film idea. Great to see more suitcases- I wonder if Irma played in Willard. I hope she did.

  15. B. Swinney said, on 12/07/2013 at 10:47 pm

    Jon, have you seen these links? This one is from the Metroland Online at It is written by a Shawn Stone. It mentions the suitcase display and gives quite a bit of info on M Irma along with some others. Also there is a link written by a Patrick Williams at‎ ( you have to scroll down this article until you get to the names featured). Thought the read was interesting. I found them very interesting and have been trying to do some research and “googleling”

    • joncrispin said, on 13/07/2013 at 8:48 pm

      B., I am aware of the traveling exhibit and I have known about the Irma information being available on the web. Glad you found it and took the time to share. Her story is amazing. I am always torn about sharing what I know about the suitcase owners; on the one hand the real stories are very compelling. On the other, since I am only a photographer I really prefer to let the photos talk. But again, I am really glad you shared this. jon

      • B. Swinney said, on 14/07/2013 at 12:49 am

        Yes, the article was interesting, but I too enjoy looking at the photos you post on your site. The articles tell a lot about the “real” person and their true personality. The written accounts really are after all opinions and observations of those who met or worked with the people. And of course being human, we all have a “first hand” impression of someone that influences our thinking and reaction to that person. For instance, one account said that some did not believe that some of the patients heard “voices”..instead of having a open mind (because the voices were certainly real to the patient,) and would tend to dismiss this fact and seek other reasons that might make the patients react the way they did in certain situations. I do enjoy the suitcase photos. They certainly speak for themselves about the person that owned them. The research was just out of an interest to me. Some of the “observations” did not fit the personality of the cases. For instance, M Irma had a lot of sheets and books of music. This was important to Irma…but it was not pointed out in the article. Thank you again for bringing out the “real” person through your photos.

  16. B. Swinney said, on 12/07/2013 at 10:51 pm

    PS–addition to the last comment about some articles that I found on line. The articles mentioned “photo” displays with the suitcases. Who would have a post of the photos?

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