Jon Crispin's Notebook

Willard Suitcase #21 / Irma M. (update)

Posted in Asylums, Willard Asylum, Willard Suitcases by joncrispin on 18/07/2013


My good friend Connie Frisbee Houde (who works with clothing and fabrics at the New York State Museum and is also a photographer) sent me some information about the shawl that was in yesterday’s post.  The technique is called assuit.  Very interesting, so click the link to read more.  She also mentioned that the garment with the purple lining is more likely a coat than a bathrobe.  She said sometimes these are referred to as opera cloaks.

9 Responses

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  1. Liz Hughes Wiley said, on 18/07/2013 at 9:23 am

    Connie is right — and I thank her for responding to all these. Irma gets more and more interesting all the time. What lovely taste and elegance she had.

  2. Ethan Boatner said, on 18/07/2013 at 9:42 am

    Such beautiful things…makes you wonder what landed Irma M in Willard…

  3. Prabhu said, on 21/07/2013 at 2:53 am

    Dear Jon,

    I happened to be at the Exploratorium with my toddler today and chanced upon the artifacts of people who had been at Willard. I was pretty fascinated to see objects of everyday use from the 1920s. My fascination turned to grave concern when I noticed that these were things that were likely taken away from their owners. I got on the internet when I got home to get more information and I have been looking at your photographs and website for the past couple hours.

    It is an hour past midnight and I need to sleep, but you Jon, are a very kind and noble person.

    • joncrispin said, on 21/07/2013 at 10:01 am

      Prabhu, I can’t thank you enough for your comment. I am aware that the nature of the exhibit is potentially troubling, but I do believe there is much of a positive nature that comes out of it. And one thing I learned earlier this summer when I gave a presentation at Willard is that the owners of the suitcases definitely had access to their possessions. I spoke with a gentleman who worked at the institution for over 30 years and for a time part of his job was to escort the residents to the attic where the cases were stored. Thank you again for your interest in the project. All best, Jon

      • Ethan Boatner said, on 21/07/2013 at 10:19 am

        I’m so glad to learn, John, that folks had access to their belongings. I’m thinking of one suitcase of a man who had many family photos – a soldier if I remember, and Irma M. One wonders what illnesses, if illnesses they were, these individuals had to justify their continued incarnation. Thinking of how the mentally ill HHave been treated over the centuries, this was probably the best they had at the time, yet still so inadequate. When I was a freshman in college in MA, I did some volunteer work on a men’s ward. Some of the fellows had had lobotomies … One pushed a broom back and forth, endlessly and would pause and hold his head and say, “They did something to me…” This was a little over 50 years ago, now and is still a vivid memory.

  4. trishinseattle said, on 21/07/2013 at 6:55 pm

    The inmates were allowed to visit their possessions, but not use them? Scant comfort that must have been! Especially since the contents look mostly totally benign…such as photographs of family or sheet music. I can just imagine how that ‘privilege’ was taken away, should an inmate prove too troublesome. Why werent they allowed to have these small tokens of comfort with them? And, if the relations between inmates and staff were so cordial, as was stated, why were these poor inmates buried without even the dignity of a name on their tombstones, only a number? That doesn’t bespeak of a very cordial relationship to me.

    • joncrispin said, on 21/07/2013 at 9:13 pm

      Trish, I don’t believe I ever said that the patients were not able to use their belongings, and I am very sorry that you misunderstood. In fact, they were able to in most cases. Obviously certain things were kept away from them. And you should remember,as I always do, that this was a state-run psychiatric hospital. Many of the folks at Willard didn’t deserve to be there and were only institutionalized due to societal misunderstanding and/or family pressure. The staff were basically working under the constraints of a large bureaucracy. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t treat the patients with respect and even love. I have spoken with former staff AND patients and as far as institutions like this go, Willard was a better place than most. And to the burial issue, it was state policy. The patients, as wards of the state, were not identified due mostly to medical privacy issues. And there are people right now who are working very hard to correct this. Not to state the obvious, but for me this project is about giving a voice, however small, to the people who lived at Willard.

  5. eventer79 said, on 27/07/2013 at 3:27 am

    Wow. I just found this project through a link on a link and I am fixated at 4 am.

    I carry my own shadows of mental illness and as I look at all your photographs, I am struck. The illnesses themselves (many suffers, like myself, have multiple disorders) work to steal away a part of yourself and a part of your life. Each of these people not only lost those precious bits of ephemera, but also their freedom and social interaction. Looking at each neatly preserved collection of items speaks to me of lives unlived, in whole or in part and I can feel the pain of isolation many patients must have felt, I know it all too well. Even when surrounded by friends, you can be blindsided by a jagged moment or day or year of agony. It is heartbreaking to think of those moments occurring in an institution, far from loved ones, with the tools to alleviate some of them still so far in the future.

    Thank you for undertaking this beautiful and poignant project and expressing each unique personality in moving captures. They do raise a lot of questions, but I think they also offer up a reminder that the human condition has its constants and while this past may seem far removed, these characters suffered and hoped and grieved and prayed and struggled and went misunderstood, carrying a social stigma, and that is unchanged all these years later and is what, to me, makes these pieces so intimately relate-able.

    I have definitely subscribed and hope that I will one day get to see these in person!

    • joncrispin said, on 29/07/2013 at 11:11 am

      Dear Solo, Thank you so much for your comment and for your insightful take on the suitcases project. It gives me so much energy to hear from folks like you and I appreciate that you took the time to respond. All best and cheers, Jon

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