I had a great meeting at the Edith B. Ford Library in Ovid, NY to talk about the possibility of working on an oral history project with former Willard employees. Peter Carroll and I drove up from Ithaca this morning and met with Shannon O’Connor and Monica Kelly who both are doing amazing things at the library. Monica is building an archive of Willard materials, and if anyone who reads this has any records or photographs related to the asylum, you should really contact her.
Afterwards Pete and I drove to the Holy Cross Cemetery on Gilbert Road.
Recently, a local group raised funds and erected a monument to Willard folks who died at the institution and are buried at Holy Cross. I am not exactly sure what the problem is, but some people have objected to it, and so the monument has been covered up since just after it was unveiled. The issue of naming former patients and staff continues to come up, and is still a problem on many levels. I’ll be eager to find out what really happened here.
After leaving Holy Cross, we drove over to the Willard Cemetery which is down the road and across the street from the asylum. This is such an indescribably moving place for me. It was a really beautiful late Winter day and the idea that 5,776 former patients are buried here in unmarked graves always touches me deeply.
The site is very well looked after, and the area around some of the few remaining numbered cast iron markers has recently been cleared of brush.
And it is always nice to see the monument to Lawrence Mocha, who as a patient, dug by hand over 1500 of the graves.
I found out today that I have been invited to Waco, Texas to be the keynote speaker at the annual NAMI Waco dinner and gala. The event is the evening of Thursday, 18th May and if you live anywhere nearby, I would love to meet you.
The visit to WUNC went really well. Frank Stasio was a great interviewer and it was fun to chat with him and Rose Hoban, whose interest in the suitcases brought me to Raleigh for the Lives on the Hill event. Here is a link to the broadcast.
I am staying with my friends Eric and Gail Vaughn and yesterday they drove me over the Dix grounds so I could get my bearings. I saw this marker for the cemetery and we stopped to walk around.
I was actually shocked to see that the grave markers used names instead of numbers as New York State does. And it made me both sad and angry that New York still refuses to allow former patients to be identified.
It would seem such an easy thing to change, but New York State OMH has no interest in doing so.
Please go to Lin Stuhler’s site and read her goodbye post. She has said it much better than I ever could.
Tonight is the reception at The Mahler Fine Art gallery in Raleigh and tomorrow is the big public event. If you are in the area please come by. Thanks for following.
I just got word that the governor of New York State has signed Senate Bill S840A. Here is the summary of the bill; “(Senate Bill S840A ) relates to patients interred at state mental health hospital cemeteries; directs the release of the name, birthdate and date of death of certain patients 50 years after the date of death”. I am not totally clear about what “certain patients” means, and to whom this information may be released, but this is certainly good news. Here is a link to two earlier posts I did about the cemetery and the whole issue of names. Click on Coleen Spellecy’s and Lin Stuhler’s links to read about the two people who did the most to get this bill through the legislature. And thanks to Joe Robach for being persistent in getting the bill passed and signed into law.
The issue of not being allowed to name the owners of the suitcases has always bothered me. I have been expressly told by both the New York State Museum and the New York Office of Mental Health that due to state law, I am forbidden to use the surnames of the patients when I publish the photographs, even though some of those names have already been mentioned in local newspapers and in other sources. I feel that not using surnames continues to dehumanize the folks who were already stigmatized just by being patients at Willard. Due to this new law, it might be possible, in some instances, to begin using full names. All in all, this is a pretty exciting development.
Thanks for following and check out the suitcases site to see the latest.
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.
I made this corn chowder recipe tonight. Perfect for a cold Sunday. I always buy extra ears of sweet corn during the summer and freeze what we don’t eat for days like this. Very nice; give it a try sometime.
One of the great things about the suitcases project is hearing from people who find other work that is related to institutionalization. Charlie Seton sent me this link today. What an interesting project. Thanks Charlie. And my great buddy Hank who has been following the suitcases from the beginning sent this link about Letchworth Village in Rockland County. It is interesting to me that surnames are used on the commemorative plaque.
I know some of you know a lot about plants. I started seeing these guys in the early Autumn. I don’t think they are plants that lost their leaves; I am quite sure that this is the whole deal.
And I have discovered some new trails above the house. Before the snow last week I saw a few of these evergreen-like plants that I have never seen before. If any of you can help identify them, I would love to know.
Sorry the top is out of focus. I only had my phone with me and as this little guy was only a few inches long, there wasn’t much depth of field.
Wishing you all a great week, my dear online friends.