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.
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.
It was interesting to me to find out that it was OMH itself that tracked down Lawrence Mocha’s distant relatives. According to Mr. Allen, his office used every means possible to locate Lawrence’s family in order to get permission to release his surname, which in turn allowed his full name to be used on the plaque on the cemetery grounds. In my conversation with Mr Allen, he explicitly said that surnames could be released if a representative of the family could vouch that there was no objection to releasing that name. OMH would send documents that would need to be signed in order to guarantee family acceptance, but as in the case of Lawrence’s family, it would not need to be a direct descendent who signs those papers. (Lawrence did not appear to have any children.) This is a huge development for any family members who seek information about relatives that lived in state Psychiatric Centers. Again, massive credit goes to Colleen Spellecy and her group for getting OMH to move on this. It would be naive for anyone to think that any of this would have ever happened without her hard work. What was especially amazing to me was that towards the end of the ceremony, members of the committee read the actual names of over 100 patients who were buried at Willard. And Colleen has a list of 500 more families that have agreed to the release of names.
After the ceremony I had a very nice chat with Anna Kern, whose father’s mother’s maiden name was Mocha, and if I am correct ,was a cousin of Lawrence. She and her husband travelled from Minnesota to be at the ceremony, and Anna was genuinely moved by the fact that people were acknowledging her long forgotten family member. I was also able to introduce myself to Darby Penny whose work on the suitcases preceded my own access to the collection. It was an interesting conversation, as our goals differ greatly, and I believe we have a fundamental disagreement about the role the state played in the treatment of people with conditions that led them to a life at Willard. I think it is very obvious to anyone who views my work vis a vis hers what those differences are. Darby’s book and site are worth checking out if you want to get an idea of her approach to the suitcases.
I was going to write a bit about my feelings of seeing so much attention focused on Willard, but I think I’ll save it for later, as I am still sorting it all out. But I did want to mention something really great that happened as I was leaving to drive home. Several weeks ago I was contacted by Clarissa B‘s niece Christine. She was moved to get in touch after she stumbled across this site and realized that Clarissa was actually her aunt. Somewhere in the comments on that post, someone wrote that it was a shame that people like Clarissa were forgotten. Chris wanted to correct that idea. What she told me was that even as a patient at Willard, Aunt Clarissa spent quite a lot of time visiting her family, especially during holidays. As a child, Chris enjoyed seeing her, and it was important to her to let people know that she was decidedly not forgotten. So just before getting into my car to head home, I read an email from Chris that she had taken the tour and was herself about to leave. We managed to meet on the side of route 132A and have a lovely conversation.
One last thing I want to mention. I am just a photographer who has been given an incredible opportunity to document the Willard Suitcases. Though I have developed strong opinions about what Willard was all about, I work very hard to separate those feelings from my work as a photographer. Mental illness is a hugely complex issue, and ultimately I have no interest in using my work to make a point about what the state did or didn’t do in regards to the people who lived at Willard. I just hope that my photographs can give a little bit of life back to those folks, and allow them to be defined as something more than just people with a mental illness. Thanks to all of you for following along, and giving me such incredible motivation and support.
I am often asked about the annual tour of the Willard grounds, and I now have some tentative information about this year’s event. It is a fundraiser for the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Children’s Center, which is on the grounds of the old asylum. Here is a link to their Facebook page, where they will post details. It is tentatively set for the 16th of May. If you plan to attend, get there early as it is usually very crowded.
Additionally, the Willard Cemetery Memorial project is holding an event that same day in honor of Lawrence Mocha. Here is a link to a Finger Lakes Times article that includes some details.
I hope to attend each event, and would be happy to see any of you who can make it. Thanks to Mark for the tip about the Lawrence Mocha event.
The above picture is one I took in May of 1984 on my first visit to photograph inside Chapin House on the Willard grounds.
Peggy and I are were back shooting last week, and found John H’s case to be really interesting. More cutlery and lots of tools and knives.
I wanted to mention that I have been asked to participate in a TEDx event on Martha’s Vineyard on the 19th of August. Details here. I am very excited about this as I will be showing prints and getting the chance to meet some very interesting people. If any of you are able to make it, I’d be happy to see you.
There is a very interesting article in today’s Finger Lakes Times. Here is the link. It brings up the whole issue of names and honoring those who lived and worked at Willard, and is well worth the read.
I shot Theresa’s case recently and it contained some interesting articles. If anyone out there can tell me for what “Banana Liquid” was used, I’ll send you a postcard. Reply in comments and I will get in touch and ask for a mailing address.
I wasn’t sure I would go to the Willard tour this past weekend until I was recently contacted by Ken Paddock. When Ken told me the story of his aunt Helen who died at a very young age as a patient at Willard, I really wanted to meet him. His family had kept an amazing collection of documents and artifacts related to her death in 1928 at the age of 17. She had contracted a disease (possibly scarlet fever) at a young age which caused blindness and other problems, and she was sent by the family to The Syracuse State School for Mental Defectives. She was transferred to Willard when the State School could no longer control her. The collection contains letters written to the family about her situation, including a letter from the head of the State School advising the family why she would be moved. Ken’s mother rarely talked about her older sister, and it wasn’t until just before her death in 2001 that details about Helen’s institutionalization started to come out. It is amazing to me that these artifacts were saved by the family, especially since it seemed that no one spoke much about her for such a long time. I met Ken, his wife Kathy, and their cousin Carol at the Taughannock Falls overlook on Saturday morning and was shown a binder full of artifacts. They encouraged me to talk about her life, and are graciously allowing me to photograph the collection, which I hope to do later this summer. It is great to be able to use her full name as this collection is in private hands and does not come under the state’s control. So, here’s a kind thought for Helen W. Howden, and thanks to Ken’s family for sharing her story.
We got up to Willard at around 12.45 and were organized into groups for the tour. The first stop was Brookside, which is where the medical director and his family lived. It is a lovely early 20th Century house and situated right on the shore of Seneca Lake. As usual I was drawn to one of the three kitchens and took a few shots before I headed downstairs.
This device was used when the family wanted to request something from the staff. When Craig Williams and I were looking at it, the buzzer sounded when another member of the tour pushed a button in one of the upstairs rooms.
Next stop was the game room in the basement. I am not sure which director’s family would have used this foosball table, but it was most likely Dr. Anthony Mustille’s children.
Since I had already been in several of the buildings on the tour, Peggy Ellsworth suggested I come over to the morgue when it was between groups. She is one of the main boosters of Willard’s past, and spends a great deal of her energy keeping the spirit of the place alive. She told me an amazing story of her first day on the job after she had graduated from the nursing school. It involved her first autopsy when she was standing right where she is in this photograph.
It constantly astounds me that evidence of how these rooms were used is still in place decades after Willard’s closing.
The morgue building is a tiny little brick edifice that I had never been able to get into on my earlier visits.
So many interesting aspects to this room.
This is the faucet at the head of the autopsy table.
And who knows why this retractor was left behind?
It is really quite a space, and reminds me a bit of the autopsy room at Ellis Island that I photographed a few years ago. After I left the morgue I headed over to Elliot Hall which was built in 1931.
It reminds me of several of the other state hospitals I have visited; long corridors with day rooms at the end of hallways.
And the stairwells are very similar to ones I have photographed at other institutions.
Before leaving to head home, I stopped by the cemetery where the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project folks arranged this nice remembrance of Lawrence Marek (unfortunately not his real surname) who while a patient at Willard dug over 900 graves for those who died while living at the institution.
The next tour of Willard should take place again next May. It is a great opportunity to meet former staff and see first hand what an amazing place it was, and in many respects, still is.
Last February, Craig Williams and I were at Willard shooting the attic where the suitcases were “rediscovered. (Here’s a link to an earlier post) There aren’t many of these upright metal markers left.
After we were done, we walked across the road to the cemetery. It is always very moving to see the field where many of the Willard patients are buried in numbered graves. And interesting to note that starting in the late 1930s, and ending just before he died 1968, a patient named Lawrence M was the primary gravedigger. Amazing.
Thanks for all the tremendous response to my “appeal” post the other night. We are at $14,000 on the Kickstarter appeal, and I am feeling very positive.
Gordon K was admitted to Willard in September of 1962. The inner lining of his small grip was different than most we have seen. More like flannel than anything else.
This morning Cris was reading the news on her computer and forwarded this story to me. I couldn’t help but think about the Willard cemetery, and the work that Colleen Spellecy is doing at the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project and that Lin Stuhler is doing at her Inmates of Willard site. After watching the piece, I was curious about how the group was able to get names from the state.