Abandoned Suitcases Reveal Private Lives of Insane Asylum Patients

November 5th, 2012

If you were committed to a psychiatric institution, unsure if you’d ever return to the life you knew before, what would you take with you? That sobering question hovers like an apparition over each of the Willard Asylum suitcases. From the 1910s through the 1960s, many patients at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane left suitcases behind when they passed away, with nobody to claim them. Upon the center’s closure in 1995, employees found hundreds of these time capsules stored in a locked attic. Working with the New York State Museum, former Willard staffers were able to preserve the hidden cache of luggage as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

“There were many patients in these asylums who were probably not unlike friends you and I have now.”

Photographer Jon Crispin has long been drawn to the ghostly remains of abandoned psychiatric institutions. After learning of the Willard suitcases, Crispin sought the museum’s permission to document each case and its contents. In 2011, Crispin completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first phase of the project, which he recently finished. (Crispin’s current Kickstarter campaign would help him to finish the project entirely.) Next spring, a selection of his photos will accompany the inaugural exhibit at the San Francisco Exploratorium’s new location.

Crispin’s photographs restore a bit of dignity to the individuals who spent their lives within Willard’s walls. Curiously, the identities of these patients are still concealed by the state of New York, denied even to living relatives. Each suitcase offers a glimpse into the life of a unique individual, living in an era when those with mental disorders and disabilities were not only stigmatized but also isolated from society. (All photos by Jon Crispin.)

Thelma's suitcase.

Thelma’s suitcase.

Collectors Weekly: How did you come across this collection?

Jon Crispin: I’ve worked as a freelance photographer my whole life. In addition to doing work for clients, I’ve always kept my eye out for projects that interest me. In the ’80s, I came across some abandoned insane asylums in New York State, and thought, wow, I’d really like to get in these buildings and photograph them.

So I applied for a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, got it, and spent a couple of years photographing the interiors and exteriors of these buildings. When the psychiatric programs moved out and shut things down, they basically just closed the doors and walked away. They left all kinds of amazing objects inside these buildings, including patient records in leather-bound volumes.

The exterior of Chapin House, Willard’s central building that was demolished in the 1980s.

In the mid-’90s, I heard that at Willard—one of the asylums in which I spent a lot of time photographing—the employees had saved all the patient suitcases that belonged to people who came to Willard and died there. Starting around 1910, they never threw them out.

“I don’t really care if they were psychotic; I care that this woman did beautiful needlework.”

Craig Williams at the New York State Museum fights an ongoing battle to bring objects like these into the collection, and that’s what happened. Willard was being closed as a psych center and converted to a treatment facility for criminals with drug problems. So the New York State Museum received this collection of suitcases, and displayed a few of the cases in 2004. I asked Craig if I could photograph these things, and he said, “Go right ahead.”

Forgotten band instruments at the Utica state facility.

Collectors Weekly: Why do you think the suitcases survived so well?

Crispin: Willard is this tiny town where multiple generations of people worked in the asylum, like a father would work there and then his daughter would be a nurse there, and so on. I have a theory that the relationship between the patients and the staff was so close, that the staff couldn’t just throw these possessions away when they died. There’s a cemetery on the grounds, and most of these patients were buried right there. And they kept storing their suitcases and moving them around as certain buildings were closed. Then, of course, with de-institutionalization huge numbers of patients were basically turned out onto the street.

Collectors Weekly: Why were the suitcases left untouched for so long?

Crispin: Willard was a facility for people with chronic mental illness. Originally, doctors thought that all you had to do was remove people from the stresses and strains of society, give them a couple of years to get their life together, and they’d get better. Eventually people realized they needed facilities where patients could come and never leave. There’s some question as to whether or not the patients themselves packed their suitcases, or if their families did it for them. But the suitcases sent along with them generally contained whatever the incoming patient wanted or thought they might need.

Clarissa's suitcase.

Clarissa’s suitcase.

Collectors Weekly: What makes you think the patients had access to their suitcases after they arrived?

Crispin: There were many levels of mental illness in these places. Some people were in really bad shape, and sometimes had to be restrained, completely unable to function in any kind of society or environment. Those people probably did not have access to their suitcases.

“It wasn’t some hellhole where people were chained to the walls.”

But a large number of people at the asylum were ambulatory. They were out and about; they worked at the farm; they did artwork. Some of these places even had their own dance bands. The Utica State Hospital had a literary journal. There were many patients in these asylums who were probably not unlike friends you and I have now. The reasons why people were put in these facilities ranged from everything to serious psychoses and delusions to people who couldn’t get over the death of a parent or a spouse. Other people were institutionalized just because they were gay.

Freda's suitcase.

Freda’s suitcase.

Initially, my idea was to pair the suitcase photographs with some indication of why these people were in Willard. As the project evolved, I found I wasn’t that interested in such a literal connection. The suitcases themselves tell me everything I want to know about these people. I don’t really care if they were psychotic; I care that this woman did beautiful needlework. I’m much more interested in the objects themselves and what people thought was important to have with them when they were sent away.

Some people at Willard definitely had access to the things they brought with them. For example, one case was filled with what look to be leather-working tools, and it’s pretty clear that this person used those tools because these facilities had time allotted for arts and crafts. The suitcases also contain lots of letters received by people while living at Willard, and there were lots of letters that were written at the asylum but never mailed. There were also examples of things written by people who were obsessive-compulsive, like the guy who wrote down the name of every railroad station in the United States on page after page of his notebooks.

Anna's suitcase.

Anna’s suitcase.

Collectors Weekly: Can each suitcase be traced to an individual patient?

Crispin: I have access to all the names, and New York State has the medical records for anyone admitted to these hospitals since the 1850s, so their histories are well-documented. I would like to use their full names in the photographs, but because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the laws about medical records and privacy, there’s some question as to whether or not I could be vulnerable to a lawsuit by the state.

Anna's suitcase contained an inventory of her glamorous clothing.

Anna’s suitcase contained an inventory of her glamorous clothing.

Here’s a weird story: When I do the shooting, my digital photographs are labeled with what’s called IPTC information. It’s all the camera metadata stored with each photo, and you can add whatever you want. I typically add my copyright information, and also the names of the Willard patients for my own records. But when I upload photos to my blog, I strip that out.

For one person’s suitcase, I forgot to delete their name. Two days later, I got a call from someone who’s desperate, saying, “Do you have the objects of —?” and she gave the name of the person. And she said, “That is my grandmother. We didn’t know anything about her.” She had Googled her grandmother’s name and came across the Willard suitcases on my site. But even in this situation, the woman had to prove to the state that she was not only the granddaughter of this person, but that she was legally the recipient of her estate. So, in other words, if the grandmother had willed her estate to the other side of the family, this woman would not have been able to get access to her things.

One of Eleanor's five storage containers.

One of Eleanor’s five storage containers.

I’m still trying to figure out how I can name these people, because I think it dehumanizes them even more not to. People who’ve been in mental institutions themselves have said, “Your project is very moving to me, but I’m very disappointed that you have to obscure names.” I think the stigma of mental illness has evolved from something shameful to something that’s much more medical and much more accepted. It just happens to people. But I’ve been very careful at this point in obscuring names, because there are many documents within the cases with names on them. I’m not showing their medical records; I’m only talking about the fact that they lived at Willard.

Collectors Weekly: Why weren’t these suitcases returned to family members when these people died?

Crispin: They tried, and again, the issue had to do with HIPAA laws. Contacting people with the information that their suitcases were in possession of the state was complicated by HIPAA. But the other problem was that a good number of these people were basically abandoned by their families, and their relatives showed very little interest in receiving their things after they died.

A detail of Eleanor's sewing supplies.

A detailed view of Eleanor’s sewing supplies.

Collectors Weekly: What was the process like to shoot the suitcases?

Crispin: Well, when I originally shot the asylums, I would walk into a building or into a room, and I wouldn’t move anything. I prefer being honest in documenting what was already there. But in this situation, you might have a suitcase filled with 30 individually wrapped items that I had to unwrap and position.

The museum had three interns go through every case to catalog the contents and preserve them, essentially taking things that were floating around loose inside the cases, wrapping them, documenting them, and then put them back in the cases. So when I open a case, I’m also recording the way the museum did this, unwrapping the items, photographing them, and then putting it all back.

Crispin also documents the way each suitcase and its objects are wrapped and protected by the museum.

Crispin also documents the way each item is wrapped and protected by the museum.

It’s a little hard for me because I don’t like to spend a lot of time laying things out, so I basically try to put the objects in a situation that looks as natural as possible. Especially hard were the suitcases filled with clothing. I’m not one of those studio guys who loves to set stuff up and get the lights perfect; I would’ve preferred opening up the case and photographing the inside exactly as I saw it, but that wasn’t possible.

Floyd's empty suitcase.

Floyd’s empty suitcase.

There are still empty cases that I haven’t photographed, but even those are interesting to me just as suitcases, and there’s a whole group of people that love old suitcases. I think one of the reasons the project has been so successful is because it appeals to people in very different areas. It appeals to people who had family members in psych centers or who worked in psych centers or who are interested in old Greek-revival architecture. I was posting a lot on my blog, and I got messages from people interested in fabric or needlepoint and ephemera like toothpaste tubes and stuff from the ’20s and ’30s that doesn’t exist anymore.

Collectors Weekly: Was there any single suitcase that stuck with you?

Crispin: One of the last cases I shot was from a guy named Frank who was in the military. His story was particularly sad. He was a black man, and I later found out he was gay. He was eating in a diner and felt that the waiter or waitress disrespected him, and he just went nuts. He completely melted down, smashed some plates, and got arrested. His objects were particularly touching because he had a lot of photo booth pictures of himself and his friends. Frank looks very dapper, and there are all these beautiful women from the ’30s and ’40s in his little photo booth pictures. That really affected me.

Frank's suitcase included much military-related ephemera.

Frank’s suitcase included much military-related ephemera.

Dmytre’s suitcase is another that I really like, it’s the last case I did. Dmytre was very moving. He was Ukrainian and clearly brilliant. He had notebooks filled with drawings of sine waves and mathematical things like that. There’s a wedding picture of Dmytre and his wife, and she’s holding a bouquet of fake flowers, which were also in the case.

Dmytre was interesting because he got arrested by the Secret Service because he went to Washington, D.C. and said that he was actually married to President Truman’s daughter, Margaret Truman. And what’s great is there’s a little Washington monument thermometer in the case, so clearly he bought a little tchotchke on his trip to D.C. and then later got arrested for saying that he was Margaret Truman’s husband.

Frank's suitcase.

Some of the objects in Frank’s suitcase.

Obviously, some of the cases were a lot more mundane than others. There was one that had syringes in it that were so beautiful and old, and small drug packets with pills still in them. There were combs, books, bibles, clocks, and an incredible Westclox Big Ben alarm clock in its original box that’s unbelievably pristine.

There was lots of expensive stuff, like perfume bottles from Paris that were worth tons of money. People wonder, how is it that a woman who’s committed to Willard has a bottle of perfume, which even at the time was super expensive? Mental illness doesn’t target any one particular group of people; it takes all kinds.

Dmytre's suitcase contained his wedding photo and the silk flowers carried by his wife.

Dmytre’s suitcase contained his wedding photo and the flowers carried by his wife.

Collectors Weekly: Did stories often emerge from the objects you found inside each case?

Crispin: You could tell a lot about a person by what was in their case. One of the most touching letters I read was written to a woman who had been in another asylum and then released and finally sent to Willard. There was a letter from her sister, saying, “You could come back to Erie, but I don’t want you living in the YMCA because they’re still really upset with you for trying to stab that girl.” That one letter tells you a ton about what this woman’s life was like.

Souvenirs and scientific notes found in Dmytre’s suitcase.

But every case was different; I was constantly blown away. It was very important to me not to carelessly rifle through these things and forget that they were somebody’s personal belongings. And I really have a lot of respect for these people as well as the nurses and doctors who worked at the facility. I came away from all of this and the asylum work I did in the ’80s thinking that the state was actually trying to help people. It wasn’t some hellhole where people were chained to the walls. They tried to help, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind.

While I was reverent, I tried not to be overly serious. I actually laughed a lot. If you’re ever around people in psych centers or even psychiatrists and nurses, a lot of their experiences are funny. Some of the items were amusing, but some made your heart ache, and others made you go, holy shit, what is this about? I was constantly affected by the items, and that’s my goal with photographs.

Flora's trunk.

Flora’s trunk.

All photos by Jon Crispin.

144 comments so far

  1. Michelle Says:

    This story fascinates me as I have always have had feelings of sadness thinking of people who were put into Asylums. Especially the ones who were just forgotten. I have also wondered about where the people go when an Asylum closes its doors.

  2. Mary Says:

    I really like the collection. In the section about Frank I would like to point out that using the phrase “went nuts” may be a little insensitive, especially in this context.

  3. Mary Says:

    What a wonderful find and many thanks to Crispin for sharing this with the world. I had a relative who was committed to an asylum in California in the 20s, but in researching for genealogy, there were no records available for her. It’s as if she never existed and that is so unfair. Through the family rumor mill it was said she lost her only child and never recovered. I can understand how that would send a mother into the vortex of insanity. Bless her and all of those who found that turning inward was easier than what humanity had to offer.

  4. dvh Says:

    Obviously, those people were really artists….

  5. R.B. Says:

    Excellent images! Thank you for sharing this story!

  6. E.D.B. Says:

    Utterly fascinating. I wish I had seen this project on Kickstarter, it would have been an honor to support it.

  7. Val Champagne Says:

    So many lives. So much pain. So many stories. This is a beautiful and meaningful project thank you so much. The photographs do these souls some justice.

  8. ron Says:

    and if you dig deep you will see how these people were cared for.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics

  9. Lisa Says:

    Beautiful and haunting at the same time. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and taking the time to tell the story behind the photos. The shots are excellent and the humanity connected with them makes the images all the more fascinating.

  10. Mike Franklin Says:

    A very moving read. Thanks so much for sharing.

  11. Denise McLoughlin Says:

    Thank you for giving us a glimpse into such a fascinating and misunderstood arena.

  12. Valerie Says:

    Can clearly see the name ”Anna Gordon” in one picture. So much for being careful about revealing identities…

  13. john allen Says:

    empathy for these poor people is almost overwhelming. i wonder how many of them knew they would never again be able to go where and when they pleased or would never see freinds and loved ones sad our treatment of these poor people it has gotten but very little better either

  14. Fat Al Says:

    There’s also the “Lives they Left Behind” project / photography, which was published a while back.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Lives-They-Left-Behind/dp/1934137146/ref=pd_sim_b_3

    Different Asylum, similar concept.

    Also, if you think this is amazing, look for David Maisel’s “Library of Dust” cans, which I find amazingly moving. ( http://www.davidmaisel.com/works/lod.asp )

  15. Hunter Says:

    Hi Fat Al,

    The “Lives The Left Behind” was actually a book published with the New York State Museum’s original exhibition of the Willard Suitcases. Thanks for your note!

    Hunter

  16. Melissa Says:

    It is such a sad state of affairs how misunderstood mental disorders actually are. What is even more sad is the closing of so many mental institutions due to the stupid movement of “deinstitutionalization.” These institutions were safe havens for people who needed help and support. It gave them a safe place to express themselves and be with like-minded people. It is such a shame that people now have nowhere to go but the streets, where they are left to fend for themselves and never obtain the treatment they may need.

  17. Bill Betts Says:

    I’m so grateful that Jon Crispin took the time to document in such a compelling manner this glimpse of a facet of our society, and a way of dealing with people and illnesses that were really not well understood, which would otherwise have been lost forever. It truly is a fitting memorial to those who lived and died in Willard. I do hope that the belongings will eventually be reunited with the families of these individuals – they are part of their family histories, and may be the only remaining connections to those family members.

  18. r.ortiz Says:

    this was very touching, because these were people like any of us who lived and the possesions they carried which meant so much to them, i hope that these tresured items can be returned to the families.

  19. Sergio Zaragoza Says:

    Wow! loved this story.. thanks for taking the time to photograph such great memories of people…

  20. hotandbothered Says:

    You want to see the true sad state off affairs then come to Michigan. John Engler hurt our state more than you can possibly know. He closed down facilities (asylums) that helped people cope with their disorders. He put people who truly needed to be cared for 24/7 and put them out on the street. We have people who are schizophrenic and bi-polar who are living under bridges! (no joke!) and hanging around gas stations begging for pennies so they have enough money for food! May Engler have a special place in Hades for his horrid action toward the mentally ill.

  21. Marie Says:

    Reading these stories made me wonder about my grandmother in Ireland. Did she have a suitcase like this and where is it now? After her 7th child was born she developed what we would probably be described today as Post Natal depression, and did not remember actually giving birth to my father. The grandfather took off to England and deserted the family. The girls were sent to a convent, the boys to an uncle and the baby was fostered to a family and told his mother was dead. She was actually still in the asylum when two years later they sent for grandfather to pick her up and take her home. He refused. So she stayed there, and became institutionalised until she died at the age of 86. The whole family went to visit her on many occasions but still didn’t tell my father she was alive or that they existed. His foster parents relinquished him at the age of 12 as they were ordered by the Government to return to Northern Ireland and he was a Southern Citizen.so he lost the only parents he had ever known and was introduced to his 3 sisters and two brothers ( one boy died in childhood). what a shock this must have been to this little boy. My father was never told that his mother was alive until he was in his 30′s when he felt ill equipped to deal with meeting a mother who , for all his life, he had thought was dead and buried. So much sadness. So many unanswered questions. Now my father has early Altzeimers and I dread that he is going back to relive those years of upheaval and sadness. Wouldn’t it be lovely to find a suitcase to describe who Grandmother actually once was.

  22. S. Inman Says:

    Thank you for sharing these photos and stories.

  23. ViperRT10Matt Says:

    “I have also wondered about where the people go when an Asylum closes its doors.”

    They’re called “the homeless”.

  24. D L Says:

    As a person that has lived with a mental illness most of my life I found this especially moving. The visual story speaks volumes, it showed that the staff truly respected these patients & their belongings.
    If one was only to see the photo’s & not know where the suitcases came from, you could imagine that they were left by ordinary people at train stations or hotels.
    It shows they could have led a normal life if not for the illness & stigma.
    Thank you for presenting this story.

  25. Catherine Blain Says:

    I can tell you what happens to people and where they go when an asylum closes. In the mid-1800s, in the town where I was born and grew up, there was an asylum very much like Willard. When it closed, the patients were simply turned out on their own, and many of them settled in the town, went to work, married, made lives and in actuality, founded the town. Growing up, we always knew who these families were, and we respected them as valued members of the community. Every school classroom contained two or three people who might not have been able to tie their shoes or write their name, but could tell you instantly what day of the week November 12th, AD 1589 fell on, or who could play any Mozart piano concerto after having heard it once. I never realised that not everyone had this sort of upbringing until I had moved away and become immersed in another place, another reality. I feel privileged to have known the descendants of our own Willard residents..

  26. martha schuetz Says:

    To Marie, thank you for sharing your story!

  27. valentino Says:

    What a beautiful tribute to the patients and the staff who kept their personal items intact all these years. Thank you for showing me something I never would have imagined. It is very sad but so beautiful.

  28. Rachel Goforth Says:

    This is fascinating to me. These poor individuals packed things that meant so much only to have them put in a locked room for them never to see again. Wonderful article!

  29. Keith E. Greene Says:

    I had no idea that a facility like Willard would store, so very carefully, the suitcases of its patients. And what gorgeous suitcases they are! Each one with its own story to tell and each so beautifully photographed. So glad this collection has been preserved. I do find it a shame that the names of the suitcase owners, and their stories, have to be kept private. Yes, I do understand privacy considerations, but in the event that the person is deceased, it just seems a bit much to me. If the story of each person could be linked to each suitcase, it would help to de-stigmatize mental disorders.

    In any case (pardon the wretched pun) these are beautiful photographs with a great story to tell.

  30. Tap Says:

    Well Done

  31. Dawn Nelson Steckmesser Says:

    As a former Nurse who worked in a facility taking care of people with Developmental Disabilities…and now being a collector and seller of vintage clothing and accessories…I found this article not only fascinating, but so moving as well. How wonderful of the employees to save the suitcases all these years. It showed they truly cared and saw these people as human beings that deserved to be treated with kindness and respect. Thank you for all the work you have done with photographing all of these items and letting all of us in on this truly remarkeable piece of history. In a time where so many old buildings are being torn down and old items being thrown away, it warms my heart to know these items have been preserved and taken care of in a respectful manner. I wish more people were as passionate about history. Thank you.

  32. Transplant Says:

    Marie, you should write a book about your father. What a tragic and moving story. Bless him, I wish you both happiness.

  33. Bryan Says:

    It’s difficult to know how to regard our barbaric ancestors, who imprisoned the mentally ill in asylums. As an American, I can’t easily express my gratitude thatI live in an enlightened society that allows such unfortunates to roam the streets, sleep freely in door ways, beg for alms, and eat from garbage cans.

  34. Virgina Says:

    This is a comment to those who may be looking for someone that has/is in a mental hospital.
    I was doing some research trying to locate an aunt that died before I was born.
    Had the town and state she died in. I had to pay to get a copy of her death certificate because she had died in a mental hospital. Went through Ancestry.
    Crispin has done a marvelous job. I so enjoyed this.

  35. Virginia Says:

    Great photos but so sad the treatments these people went through. I follow “Kingston Lounge” and he has amazing pics as well. I am kind of obsessed with the insane asylums and the history.

  36. heather Says:

    Wow Marie – that is such a poignant story. I wonder if there is any way you can glean more information about your grandmother – perhaps through relatives or even workers at the institution she was in. It would be such a gift. My father’s family has some mystery in its past as well. He was a young boy living in London during WWII, was evacuated to Wales. He would never really reveal much about his childhood. He is gone now, with my unanswered questions. Best of luck.

  37. Susan Clark Says:

    Last Fall after dropping off a sick horse at the Cornell animal hospital my husband and I experienced something very disturbing. It may have something to do with the now closed Willard Asylum. As we drove north on 96A just out of Ovid, N.Y. we sighted what appeared to be a body in a blue plaid shirt in the middle of the road. It was raining cats and dogs. The wipers turned up max could not keep up with the down pour. At the first opportunity I turned the rig around. When we got to the sight the body was gone! We saw a parked car with the interior dome light on. I told my husband to go ask if the occupant had seen anything. I got a your crazy response. We discussed calling the state police, but to report what? Has anyone seen anything similar on this stretch of road. Could this have been a apparition having to do with the Willard Asylum?

  38. chris Says:

    This story really captured my heart and I found myself not wanting the article to end. Thank you for en lighting my spirit

  39. Beverley Says:

    This is so very sad, those poor people, thank God we have a little more understanding now as to what they went through.

  40. Dean Purple Says:

    Being put in an asylum is worse than going to jail, for the average jail time comes with a sentence, whereas people who are institutionalised in such places could be there for a year, two, five, ten or more and that’s the worst part, the not knowing and what is also worse is when you are sane; a sane person in a place for the insane is worse than an innocent person being surrounded by the guilty, because people move on from prison sentences, but being branded with some sort of mental illness is something you can never just shrug off.

  41. blingiton1948 Says:

    How exciting is this!! I am enthralled at all the contents and stories of these forgotten souls. How sad too. Very neat idea to put this together. Love it!! blingiton1948

  42. Teri E Says:

    What a beautiful tribute. Thank you

  43. Lucy Says:

    Wonderful expose of one aspect. I myself was “institutionalized” once in NYC. As a single, immigrant 20-something Oriental woman “fresh off the boat”, with no money and no English skills, heavily stressed and burdened with my new-found “freedom”, just about everyone was cheating me and stealing from me. It seemed I was a target for every abuser and scammer in town. As I tried to rent an apartment, buy food, find work, and find a safe place to “start over” in America, everything crashed down on me.

    There were no social services I knew of. Men were in charge of everything. They tried to negotiate for sex, for anything I needed. That moved quickly from “offer to trade” to attempt to extort, to abuse, and attempt to rape. Nothing was straight-foward; everything was a trick, and I was intended to be the victim. I fought constantly, and now see I suffered from PTSD-like syndrome as a result, living in constant stressful readiness to battle, to survive. One day I stood up to a woman who was angry with me for her husband’s advances (my landlord). After a loud public altercation, I stood my ground to keep my apartment, and she got into her car and actually ran over me, saying she would kill me. While I lay on the street unconscious, she emptied the apartment, piling all of my things on the sidewalk around me and on top of me. Neighbors didn’t help me.. instead they shopped my things, and took everything of value, leaving me on the sidewalk. When I a woke, it was dark, and an ambulance team was taking me away. I was hospitalized but refused to speak to anyone. Within a week I was sent to Bellevue. I was there 2 weeks, silent and in shock, heavily medicated, with healing broken bones and bruises. I thought constantly, with deep concentration, about my situation, my travels, and every detail of everything that had happened to me since I defected. I didn’t understand why things went so wrong. I studied, in my head, every detail of my behavior and interactions with the citizens who seemed to be so evil, as if I were in their eyes a weak prey they were justified in taking advantage of. I needed to understand because as it seemed, people were evil. I studied these things in silence all day until I was exhausted. To the doctors, I was crazy.

    I was visited once by a “sister”… another immigrant who knew of me from casual interactions at a local immigrant shop where I had been living. She had helped me find some things I needed, but we had not become friends yet. When I had “disappeared” she asked about me, learned what happened, and found me.

    She didn’t show any sympathy – I remember that. She told me what was happening. She told me why they kept me there, and that they would soon “throw away the key” if I didn’t “do something”. She just told me to be strong and get moving. Stop accepting medicines. Don’t listen to their opinions, just speak up, say you want out, and nicely but firmly insist on your freedom until they let you go. It worked. I was out within a few days of her visit.

    30 years later, I’ve seen American citizenship, two good children, a few husbands, many jobs, businesses, a graduate degree (not as far as I wanted, but still a graduate degree!), many cycles of boom and bust, and I’ve lived in 4 cities of this great country (so far). Go ahead, call me crazy, but don’t try to institutionalize me ever again!

  44. karen Says:

    I work at a mental hospital, this article help me to respect the things patient take with them when they are admitted. Sometimes thats all they have. I have seen patient get upset just to loose things I use to call useless. Thanks for your article.

  45. Karen Says:

    My mother was committed in OK when I was a child. Her father, my grandfather, had suddenly passed, and she was unhappy with my father.
    She was taking diet pills that doctors prescribed back then, also. Which was speed.
    Mother was given shock treatment and who knows what else, and she was released after about a year. My sister and I felt odd for years because our mother was “crazy.” It took me years to understand that she was just unhappy and misunderstood. No one ever said she was “cured” or “normal”; we all sort of made fun of her, said that she was odd, etc.
    When I was about 50 I suddenly got it. She was just fine, and we were terrible for saying and thinking those things. My sister and father never quite got there. After she died ( 8 wks before my father died, fall 2011), suddenly they both loved and missed her so much. I wish they had understood and treated her nicely before she died.

  46. Karen Says:

    I also want to say appreciate your awareness and sensitivity that led you to photograph and write about this. This is powerful; it makes people THINK instead of make judgments about others. It promotes healing thought, healing for all. Thank you, thank you.

  47. Julie Says:

    What I love about the Internet, is the ability to share such amazing stories, both from the comments & the photographs.

    Thank you for sharing the photographs & the stories they tell.

    Thank you to Lucy & Marie, who both used this post to share some very private things.

  48. Mara Says:

    Karen… as children, how would we ever know the depth of what occurred ? The luxury of hindsight is a blessing of further understanding in our later years. Peace

  49. Kevin Says:

    The pictures speak for themselves about the complexity of these individuals. As a therapist I can’t help but wonder about the extent of the residents’ “illnesses.” I think the people who collaborate on the DSM are probably much “crazier.” Fascinating piece, thanks.

  50. Rob Crowley Says:

    What a sincere human story! Thanks Hunter.

  51. Jeff Says:

    I remember seeing an exhibit of these belongings at the New York State Museum in Albany, NY several years ago. It was very moving and the museum took great care to give the background to the facility and the problems suffered there. The museum took great care in the presentation of the materials. It echoed the September 11th exhibit in a different area of the same museum: lives cut short by illness or death. The promise and hopes of every day people. I’m so glad you were able to give a part of the experience to a larger audience.

  52. Deborah Miller Says:

    Thank You for the great care you have shown in your photos. My grandfather passed away at Willard. Family history is that he just left home and never returned. My grandmother, also now deceased said he left in the early 1940′s and no one knew where he ended up. She remarried and moved on. He apparantly was not heard of or looked for again. I found him while doing genealogy, his death certificate has him suffering from epilepsy and heart conditions for many years. How can I find out if he left a suitcase behind? We have no photos of him and my mother and an aunt are the only survivors from his family. It would be interesting at least to me. Thank You again.

  53. KristaBella Farnsworth Says:

    This is amazing and so wonderful, I love it! As a very sentimental person and a
    A person who is intrigued by the allure of the stories these object tell; it
    Intrigues me even more so to wonder what each object meant to that particular person and the stories behind the objects. I have small things like random special gum wrappers that bring back a flood of energy in memories and I think the stories through these objects energies is just so cool. Thank you for your had work on this project and also thank you my Awesome Amazing cousin Sarah Anne StClair for sharing this article that I’m about to share as well. Good luck and best wishes in all of your future endeavors!!! Xoxo

  54. stbthreadworks Says:

    This story just blew me away. I am so grateful to people like Jon Crispin for taking such respectful, reverent care of things like this. The story is just so sad, I sat here with tears rolling down my face as I read … I would hate to think of anyone ending life this way, much less anyone near and dear to me.

  55. Angelabsurdist Says:

    The poignancy of human life shown through the contents of these suitcases is very moving to me. Thank you for recording and sharing these photographs.

  56. hadley scott Says:

    i was at sls (another ny state hospital that was closed by the state for inhumane treatment, and not having licenses for inpatient treatment…but i was there for 2 years& was there from 97-99 with 2 men who had been in this institution…this is an interesting article but brings up many bad memories for me….

  57. Jacqueline Says:

    This is a very touching collection to see. I would love to see it in person. My own mother, before her and my dad met, was instutuinalized by her parents because she got pregnant as a teenager. Sad.so very sad. She was later released and met my dad and had some happy years at least before she died of a drug overdose.

  58. Tom Says:

    Would you draw us a picture? When you are done, tell us what it means. We are going to show you a series of cards with pictures on them. As we show you each one, tell us what word comes into your mind. Do you have problems trusting others? Have you ever had the desire to hurt people or animals? What sex are you? Can you tell us your name? Do you get angry often. Do you cry at times for no reason?

    I ran across this article / exhibit by chance. It touches very close to home for me. I came from a Fatherless home with a Mother who was a drunk and a drug user. Four children were more than she wanted or could care for. I spent many years in and out of foster homes, 2 group homes, Buckner’s Children’s Home and CPCH. I was a regular at the Dallas Children’s Shelter. The worst part of this childhood adventure was the Insane Asylum I spent more than a year at. I was there because my Mother claimed I was trying to kill my siblings, which was untrue. Toward the end of my stay at Buckner’s I was tested, tested and re-tested. I remember at the time of all of this, my Group Home Mother pulling me into the doorway of her apartment and in a hushed voice telling me that my Mother was trying to have me committed. I was only 12 or so. Her advice to me, if they ask you to draw any pictures, maybe you shouldn’t draw a hole in the tree this time.

    You see, the suitcases in this article are exactly like the one I carried around all those years as I was being shuffled from one “home” to the next. It was heavy and cold to the touch. It was ugly and had a musty odor. The silk liner was coming undone from the inside and the straps were dis-colored and shriveled.

    I felt empty, soulless, forgotten. Ever minute of everyday you are conscience to the fact you are nothing. I was maybe one of the lucky ones because I still had hope. Hope that someone, anyone would come rescue me one day.

    Here is what I remember being in my suitcase. I have pictures I’ve drawn for my Mom. In one picture there is a Mother Turtle. There is sun with beaming rays. Clouds dot the sky. On her back is one of my sisters. Following the Mother turtle, my 2nd sister, my brother and then myself. We are on a road with dotted lines moving right to left. I have a few toys in there that are very dear to me at the time. 2 big stomper 4×4 trucks, battery operated. I have little plastic toys. I have drawing paper and water colors. I have a plastic model but they’ve taken the hobby knife and model glue away from me a long time ago. One thing I did not have in my suitcase were photo’s. There is a little white bible in there as well.

    I never knew what happened to that suitcase.

  59. Joy Says:

    I stumbled upon this article via another website and so glad I did. It is poignant and heartrending but so important. Very little is done in our society to de-stigmatize mental illness. My daughter was diagnosed with psychosis not-otherwise-defined (meaning she was too young to receive a formal diagnosis of schizophrenia – that happened when she turned 18) at age 14 and her life spiraled out of control. She is 21 now and has been through so much, and that is WITH having supportive parents (me and her dad). I don’t like to ponder what it’s like for those without family support.

  60. madeleine brown Says:

    Joy – Blessings to you and your daughter. No doubt some of the patients at Willard had what today would be considered chronic mental illness. But, as Crispin mentions, it wasn’t too terribly long ago people who were rebellious, gay, or just plain different would sometimes be sent to such institutions. It’s the “different” part which speaks to me and I have always loved working with people who have mental illness. I mean, aren’t we all a little different? Remember the orderly in I Never Promised You A Rose Garden who played with his keys because it was the one tangible reminder of the ONLY real difference between himself and the patients? I never forgot that.

  61. diana smith Says:

    This is one of the most powerful links I have ever clicked on. The windows into these individual worlds, and the powerful responses it has drawn from people.
    If we can imagine – really imagine into the hearts of people who are damaged or sad, then that is an end to the casual cruelty that is so much a part of life today.
    Sometime the value of “an artist” is questioned. Your work shows us why we need you so much.

  62. jo moss Says:

    I was a nurse in a mental health hospial for 13 yr fron 1965-81 & the heart ache & horror of being ‘insane’ is so sad.

  63. ignatz Says:

    wow,this is an incredible find and story,a great read.

  64. Eirenn Says:

    These photos are very moving and rather sad, but so too is the history of mental illness in this country and indeed the world. From eugenics programs to lobotomies (of which JFK’s own sister recieved), those who are “malwired” as I like to think of us (i’ve been schizofrenic with bipolar features since late teens) have been locked away, shunned by society, or sent away for reasons we couldn’t control and others wouldn’t understand. When I was 22, my illness reached a point that caused my family doctor and the local goernmental agencies to send me to a secured home. Upon entry, my belongings were inventoried and locked away. Gone were family photos, personal letters, even my small collection of books, I was issued two pairs of denim pants (elastic waiste), 5 pairs of plain white underpants, 5 white undershirts, 3 blue button front oxfords, short sleeved, 1 pair of carpet slippers, and 5 pairs of white socks. this was to be my uniform for the next three years. My head was shaved(lice was an issue), I was given a full medical exam, and put on a regimine of medications that dulled my mind to the point I gave up. The days were spent smoking in front of a television or looking out windows that didn’t open and only faced walls. Pencils, pens, gemclips, anything that could be used to injure was forbidden. Letters were pre-opened and edited, letters out were written with staff present, sealed by staff, and posted by staff. It took correspondence weeks to reach us. We were criminals who had comitted no crime. I was released on my 25th birthday, after the state had announced budget cuts to the state asylum system. I still have nightmares of the place, I remember how those who died were buried on the grounds with no stone, no markers, no mourners. Forced institutionalisation is the closest thing America had to the WWII concentration camps, and the day the last one closes it’s doors to allow the modern outpatient and far gentler community oriented inpatient system will be a day that I will celebrate. May any of you with similar memories be blessed with many happier days, and those who are mentally ill and never experienced this torture thank heaven that you live in a kinder time. Good luck to you all, be safe.

  65. Xyzzy Says:

    I just found something others here might find really interesting — an article from the late 1800s on life in a mental asylum by a reporter that faked mental illness to get in, then acted like her normal self as soon as she was admitted:
    Ten Days In A Mad-House

    When I was in college about a decade ago, I took a disability studies course and learned something crucial about the closing of mental hospitals — advocates had pressed the government to adopt proven-effective post-release plans to help residents achieve as much independence as possible, warning that not doing so would be disastrous. The government still dumped the patients into the streets without any assistance and blamed advocates for closing the hospitals, leaving the public to believe that there weren’t any options between institutionalization and homelessness.

  66. silverwolfe Says:

    Wonderfully done. The photography, the displays, and the story telling, all.

    re: your comment about last names ~ I don’t mind no last names; it feels more intimate if I think of her as Eleanor, than as Eleanor Rigby. well, bad example maybe ;) And I also like that you picked up how much the caretakers seemed to care about their charges. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy world.

  67. secuono Says:

    I think that those wooden carved dogs were popular in their day, I saw several of them. Very cool to see. Wonderful time capsules, in a weird way, it’s nice not all of them were claimed.

  68. Jocé Bloks Says:

    So delicate and moving! Precious, precious!

  69. Bill V Says:

    Fascinating work. Interesting to compare the way we treated the mentally ill then, to the way we treat them now; essentially they’re on their own unless they have family or friends willing to support them.

  70. DSmith Says:

    Yes, there were abuses. However, the number of people “dumped” onto the street without any support in the 1980′s was not pretty. I had a storefront law office where many of these people gravitated. They did not have any skills to cope with the outside world and became “street people” I worked with many of them, but the supports were knocked out from them and they became the ghosts of our society that we still deal with daily.

  71. Vedette Says:

    Sometimes, these are everything that the patient owns. That is why some of them get mad if you even touch one of their belongings.

  72. Ambrose Says:

    Comment 43. by Lucy… thanks for sharing your story. Very moving. It must have been difficult beyond comprehension and very tough to write about your heart breaking story of adversity. I commend and thank you.

  73. Charlie Says:

    that was awesome. great imagary that promotes very deep thought.

  74. Julie Rice Says:

    Seeing these photos of items deemed the utmost of importance to someone who needed to fit them in the small space of a suitcase was fascinating, and thoroughly interesting. A small way of knowing who they were.

    Knowing the caregivers lovingly saved the suitcases is heartwarming, as I feel if they took such care of their belongings, they indeed took loving care of their patients.

    I appreciate you sharing this with us.

  75. T.Crow Says:

    If not for our loving family my Mother would have been one of these people. Your Respect for the people involved and their illness is much appreciated and very obvious, Thank you.

  76. Elizabeth Says:

    Interesting that HIPAA was brought up. Just in the pictures shown in this article, there are scads of violations of HIPAA’s Privacy Rule. The pictures, physical descriptions, addresses, letters, etc., especially those of Frank, are all personal data that can identify the person, and thus should not be shared or published by the hospital. Simply saying that a person was treated at a facility, even without giving any treatment or diagnosis details, is a violation of the Rule.
    Still, what a poignant display of personal artifacts that tell quite a story.
    This is my line of work and what I spend all day dealing with.

  77. Barb Says:

    What a great story, living so close to Willard and having family working there brings to memory this little story. My Uncle who is 87 worked there for years and would tell us kids amusing stories of some of the younger people placed there, some only a few years older than us….I do remember him telling us all the time of a young man named Tommy Tucker. As we grew older I always remembered the name. Well years later, I found out I had a half sister that was born 10 yrs before me. When we met and talked I asked if she had any other siblings? Her answer suprised me so much, her half brother was The
    Tommy Tucker….I let her know that he was well looked over by my Uncle who worked where Tommy was a patient…Willard…So thanks again for this story… And no, my Uncle never had a clue that Tommy was her brother….

  78. Phyllis Says:

    I worked in the mental health field for many years- 20 of them in a private psychiatric hospital -this article brought back so many memories , of wonderful people , and a few not so great– but I remember— I recall those who were sent on to the state Hospital where they lived out their lives—I spent 50 years working in the field— but those 20 spent as staff at a inpatient hospital- taught me so much—and will always be with me—

  79. Joanna Self Says:

    Beautiful, thank you for sharing. Haunting and so interesting. So sad to think that there were people who probably didn’t need to be there forever but they were.

  80. Marguerite Earhart Says:

    I noticed the 45 record in Thelma’s suitcase. What would the title of the record and artist? I really liked this article and found it to be thoughtfully presented. Thank you.

  81. Jilly Says:

    These remind me of the last chapter of the book _White Oleander_ where the heroine does something like these as an art form. Amazing.

  82. Brenda from Flatbush Says:

    Amazing stuff, and what a blessed match between photographer and project (or, more rightly, mission). As someone who was the caregiver for a parent with mental illness, I am deeply touched by the respect and reverence for these patients’ dignity and humanity that these pictures and descriptions bear witness to. And of course the physical objects themselves are haunting and utterly fascinating…making us all uneasy about what it is that we will leave behind…

  83. R. Gallogl Says:

    This article is amazing. I’m doing genealogy research, the 1910 Fed. Census lists my 2nd great grandfather as being a patient at the Utica State Hospital (for the Insane); . I find no reference for him after that, have been wondering where he (and other patients) may have been buried. Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece.

  84. D.Holmes Says:

    I came across this article on face book and i loved reading every story of it ! What a wonderful thing to do for those who had loved ones in there and around America.GREAT work!

  85. Ally Fitzpatrick Says:

    Im a photo major in college and I would like to become a photojournalist, photographing asylums and the people and I think is absolutely incredible.

  86. Art McClure Says:

    I don’t watch TV. I read about 100 books a year plus other stuff. This is the best article I have read in a long time. God Bless You! Do more articles about this. Please.

  87. Joanna Roberts Says:

    I loved this article! I also study photography and never thought about mental health in my photos. I love the medical field, especially mental health, but never thought about telling it through my photos. Thanks, great job!

  88. Jackie Says:

    I was a voluntary patient at Mendocino State Hospital in CA, 1966, when I was 20. These photos bring back the people I knew at the hospital, in how the photos create such a feeling of the person. MSH was located in a beautiful part of CA; a safe place for chronically ill and those, like me, suffering and in transit. Reagan shut down the system when he became CA gov; a crime. Re: “Mary Says” “…I would like to point out that using the phrase ‘went nuts” may be a little insensitive, especially in this context.’ I’d gently disagree, in this context, as was pointed out in the article, we cracked pots have a sense of humor. Thanks for this.

  89. Paula Akin Says:

    What an amazing article. And even more amazing, the ripples that spread out from this artwork. Well done, very well done.

  90. Michelle Says:

    Someone was wondering “where those people went.” In the 80′s, there were lawsuits by well-meaning people accusing the states of depriving mental patients of their civil rights. As a native Texan, I saw the state (and many others) embrace this verdict as a means to cut state budgets. Many hospitals closed. The patients who had no family willing to take them went on the streets. That homeless problem we have? It is largely mentally ill individuals who, since they are on the street, often refuse medication, have no stable home, and society in general understandably doesn’t know what to do for them. Many communities try – but the truth is, some people still need those facilities. This was a situation where nobody won. The states still spend tons of money to deal with the homeless mentally ill, and the homeless mentally ill are vulnerable and likely to be victimized on the streets.

  91. gozion Says:

    i think this is magnificent work. i was diagnosed rather young with manic depression (i do not use the term bi-polar “disorder”, as i feel it minimizes the severity of this of this horribly isolating, debilitating & often fatal illness.) i have been in & out of mental hospital since my late ‘teens, in the 1970′s.
    huge thanks to jon crispin for such beautiful work! (& yeah jackie…us cracked pots often seem to have, most of us, an insane & incredible sense of humour, & i took no offense whatsoever @ “went nuts”!! also thank u for telling what reagan did here in california…i moved here from pittsburgh, & was astounded & dismayed at the state of mental health care here. (virtually non-existent in the early 1980′s) & yes, the people are out in the street…& many of the people living on the street are mentally ill.
    my family would never care enough to pick up a suitcase i’d left behind!! (i have been in hospital for up to three months with no family or friends visiting me. many people thought i was simply seeking attention; one woman forced me to participate as a bridesmaid in her wedding! hospital bracelet & all. it was a nightmare! my first husband raped me, with the door ajar, during visiting hours, repeatedly asking me when i would be “well again & wanting sex”!!)
    the staff was immensely supportive. they refused him entrance to the ward from then on. i have to say, as surprised as i am that these suitcases were not only saved, but lovingly & respectfully cared for, i have to say that i have found mental health care workers over the last forty years to be very caring, wonderful individuals…most of them, anyway. & certainly more caring, supportive, helpful & sympathetic than most everyone “out there” in the world.
    there is STiLL shame attached to such mental disabilities!! please people, do not think otherwise! my own family, & i suspect this is true for many families, is quite disinclined, even after forty years, to accept that i am this severely ill…how inconvenient for them!! they may feel obliged to help in some way!!
    its much easier to attribute my “issues” to character defects & flaws, as well as laziness & an unwillingness to “comply” or adjust. i can well imagine the loss of family & friends these people endured 100 years ago….there were no medications for manic depression until quite recently. ( lithium came into use only a few short years before it was prescribed to me.) i live in constant fear of becoming homeless, or of losing the ability to obtain medications. this is Not an unreasonable fear! i am very much alone & isolated.
    it’s quite tragic that someone homosexual or merely eccentric can be locked away from society. (i am Quite certain that this still happens!) or worse, lobotomized & ruined forever, as was rosemary kennedy….ignorance is not bliss! i feel i would live a far better life if people in general were more enlightened & less judgemental of those with mental illness or traumatic brain injury, as well! i am isolated because of those societal attitudes. i need help getting along here–which i am NoT getting–but i do Not need to be locked up in some facility somewhere. i have never been a danger to anyone else, & for many years, no danger to myself, either, contrary to others’ impressions. i have in fact met very FeW violent mentally ill people, anywhere! if more freedoms were afforded to those in hospital, i may be more apt to seek proper medical care when i need it than i am now. “the rules”( rather than the workers) in hospital remain quite debasing.

    i much appreciate what brenda from flatbush has written; i love barb’s little story of her uncle & of tommy tucker (yes, some of us young patients were more than amusing!). & yes elizabeth…what u have pointed out is against “some law” or another, but not any laws of the heart!! quite the opposite, i feel, & i am grateful for cripin’s meticulous & respectful handling of everything here. magnificent job. as an artist, i very much value the photographs in themselves…they are utterly gorgeous!!
    i am a very intelligent & gifted person. my life, i feel, has been ruined by this illness….someday someone may be photographing my own suitcase!! i do hope not!
    i am sorry to go on at such length about myself, but i feel it may offer insight to many, & that too many people like me will relate to what i’ve written!

    i live in the bay area now, & i cannot Wait for the exhibition coming to san francisco.
    bravo jon crispin…& thank u, indeed, very much!! i cant praise yr work enough! (& so glad too, that yr getting “Press”!!)
    sincerely,
    gozion
    (my real name! & why the hell not, this late in this particular game!)

  92. Joyce Kenefick Says:

    Willard holds an open house and tour every summer. After reading “Suitcases Left Behind, etc.”, I went on the tour. It was fascinating. Last year they had a display of some of the suitcases. My daughter lives across the street from Willard so I have always been interested in the place. Several of the buildings are supposedly haunted. It is well worth the time to take the tour…..I plan on going again this year.

  93. slenkamure Says:

    This is a response to the person who wondered what happens to the patients when a institution closes it’s doors…….sadly the most common answer is that you can find those people at the Homeless Shelters

  94. JOE Says:

    what a nice story and photos.

  95. Dwight Says:

    I feel sad when I read about people dying without anybody to care or to want the things they might leave behind. My sadness was tempered, thought, by thinking of the warmth and compassion of the people who thoughtfully put their lost patient’s effects in a safe place, waiting for someone who would never come. We do have good hearts.

  96. Sheri Says:

    To hotandbothered in Michigan:

    I also come from Michigan and agree completely with your assessment. Engler did a great disservice to the mentally ill in Michigan as he gave them no where to go but the streets or prison. I hope there is a special place for him. While there are some positives to many of the mentally ill who have families that took them in and some group homes, many thousands ended up on the streets or prison.

  97. Eileen Says:

    I live near Willard and in 2011, I took a public tour of the place and I wrote a post about the tour. thejoyofcaking.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/a-day-at-willard-asylum-for-the-insane/

    I love that Jon has taken photos of the suitcases. His photos help humanize an institution that housed thousands of people for more than 100 years.

  98. Ron Says:

    Thanks for posting very heart touching, I think these suitcases today have been replaced with shopping carts as most of the safe havens for the mentally ill in north america have been closed down.

  99. Barbara Says:

    Ha! I am also in Michigan and I too agree that Engler has ruined the lives of many people because of his insensitivity toward those who have any kind of mental illness of which I too suffer from. I have fought the dark lonely battle of depression for many years and also went through many of the so called barbaric treatments that were suppose to “Cure” this illness. I still suffer from this sad illness. Maybe some day it will be different.
    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderfully written story. It was very touching and even sad. But it was also like a tribute to those people too so they were not completely forgotten.
    Mental illness is a very sad problem in many ways. One because so many people do not understand it and therefore tend to ignore those that are struggling. I could go on forever but won’t.
    I found it really interesting that a lot of the suitcases or trunks had one thing in common and that was of a little dog of some kind. Says a lot for the love that they can provide for someone that is so lonely and down.
    Thank you again for this fabulous work….

  100. Great-granddaughter Says:

    Thank you for your work. I have been on a hunt for find answers about a relative who was committed to Chattahoochee in 1920 and who was supposed to be picked up a few years later. For reasons unknown to family members, no one wanted to claim her, her husband picked up with his life — and she died there about 15-16 years later. Your story is disturbing and yet comforting at the same time. There is much to learn from what happened during those years. I believe many more families than we understand were affected.

  101. Jen Says:

    Thank you for providing a glimpse into the lives of those who have been institutionalized. I agree with great granddaughter above – as a society we have much to learn about the experiences of the institutionalized mentally ill over the last century. Both of my grandmothers spent periods of time in mental institutions from the 1960′s to the 1990′s and suffered greatly throughout their lives due to their mental illnesses. Unfortunately a great deal of stigma still remains towards individuals who are mentally ill. As I begin a career in nursing next month, I plan to work towards eliminating the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness face within the health care system.

  102. Daniel Says:

    The worth of a society is based on how it treats its citizens. Makes you wonder. I hope some of the people who spend 25,000 on a pocket book, see this article and spread some of that wealth to people who need to be cared for.

  103. Cheryl Says:

    When I was a senior Girl Scout, I was assigned to go to state hospital and work on my library badge… I was around 15. The state hospital was a large group of buildings housing many different patients. Some were left over from when it was the hospital for epileptics . On my first day of volunteering, I met several “girls”.. who thought that I was a new patient and ask me which “cottage” I lived in.
    There was one particular girl that I seem to be able to communicate with better than the others. She was an older lady/girl.. and she spent her time at the library dusting everything. Her name was Mary, I taught her a few things about the books and the library .. We had a good time when I was there… One morning upon my arrival, Mary met me at the big table where we sorted books and magazines that people donated. She had a shoe box and in that shoe box was her prize possessions. She crocheted all the time, loved to have yarn and thread. In the box were the most beautiful colored crocheted cross bookmarks. She wanted me to have one and to also take one for my mother.
    Time went on, and I finished my badge work… and I left . Mary didn’t really understand that I would not be coming back.. I always wondered if I made an impact on her as much as she made on me.
    I still have the bookmark… and as I sit here writing, I am thinking of the lady’s suitcase with the sewing articles. Mary would have had crochet needles and thread and pattern books.. Thanks for giving them life again…

  104. anne freer Says:

    I was a student at Willard in 1978-1979…along with a number of other students, OTs, PTs, speech therapists. We stayed in the building that housed the doctors. It was an incredible experience and I was so young, 20 yrs old…I so enjoy reading the stories of the suitcases, probably patients I worked with at Willard. I am desperately looking for information to visit Willard with one of the other students. Does anyone have information or contact information? Also I would love to see the Crispin exhibit..when and where would that be?..thank you for any help..Anne

  105. Lublin Says:

    Very informative blog.Really looking forward to read more. Really Great.

  106. L.S. Stuhler Says:

    Jon Crispin’s work is being featured at The Exploratorium in San Francisco. The exhibit is called, “The Changing Face Of What Is Normal”: http://inmatesofwillard.com/2013/02/14/the-changing-face-of-what-is-normal-jon-crispin-exploratorium/

  107. Sheryl Says:

    This article and your photographs are amazing. When I was an undergrad at Cornell in the late 70′s I worked one day a week at Willard for my Abnormal Psych class. I got to know some of the patients and one in particular that I worked with. I wonder if any of the suitcases belonged to her. Her name was Mildred. She had no short term memory but could tell me stories from her past. One of the patients that my friend worked with had been institutionalized 30 years prior because she was an unwed mother. I have some very powerful memories of Willard.

  108. Elizabeth Ethyl Davies Says:

    My mother had schizophrenia or psychotic depression while I was growing up (1940s-1960s). She was challenging and often frightening to live with. One year my high school biology class took a field trip to Pacific Colony, an institution for people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. I came home ecstatic–a place for my mother to get help. My stepfather and I begged the family doctor to commit her there–anywhere– but though he knew how ill she was he declined (and my stepfather was not competent or strong enough to stand up to him). The doctor said mental hospitals were “snake pits,” so he wouldn’t do that to her. Yet she refused any voluntary treatment.

    So my mother lived at home and I grew up in the snake pit she created and let others create around me.

    Finally, my stepfather couldn’t handle the situation and killed himself. That left me in charge at 18. I did manage to get her committed. But it turned out she had developed cancer, now advanced. They did surgery and she died of sepsis at Camarillo State Hospital in 1965.

    About 10 years ago my husband and I visited Camarillo, then being turned into a public college. We’d lived away from California for more than 30 years, so I’d forgotten what it can be like… When I told a minor college official that my mother had been hospitalized and died here in the 1960s she said: “Cool!”

    Good thing I had excellent therapy some years after my mother died, and eventually became a psychologist. I can chuckle at the notion of life and death in a state hospital as “Cool!” But I know that the reality–then and now–for people with severe mental illnesses is far from cool.

  109. Gwyneth from Wales Says:

    Very moving.

  110. AT&T Park, Giants v Nationals | Jon Crispin's Notebook Says:

    [...] over to the offices of Collector’s Weekly and met with Hunter Oatman-Stanford who wrote this article about the suitcases that really opened a lot of doors for me.  We were joined by two other editors [...]

  111. Simon Says:

    Mental Illness is still stigmatized. Why would you think it isn’t?

  112. Tash Mullins Says:

    These photographs are so touching, I am so proud to have seen a glimpse in to their life’s.
    You did and extraordinary job at capturing the history and life of these people.
    If it were my grandmother I would be so proud of you for sharing these with the world. It’s truly breathtaking and it saddens me to know there was noone to collect their items, you’ve given those people alot more than their society did at the time – you made them feel like human beings that have an amazing story, just by photgraphing their suitcases. Thank you Crispin.

  113. Cindy Says:

    I think what you did was BEAUTIFUL. I would really like to see the cases returned to family. The contents must of meant something to the person so it should “go home”. Very touching. I would of loved to have been there at the time. Inspiring. Nice to have someone publish something positive about Insane Asylums. Some really DID try to help. THANK YOU.

  114. Mike Says:

    Dmytre was graphing three phase power. It looks like he was studying some electrical theory. Perhaps he was an electrician or an electrical engineer.

  115. Holly Bond Says:

    Where can we see more of these photos? Will you be publishing a book of them? Please?

  116. RITA CHANDLER Says:

    Thanks for sharing this was so interesting to read. so heart warming and sad at the same time ! :)

  117. Jupiter Drifter Says:

    21 Aug mental doodles

    I used to have a suitcase like this with
    all of the joint memorabilia we had, my sister and I,
    over a 6 year period covering our early adulthood.
    It was a starched canvas moulded bag with leather trim inc. corners.

    Inside everything was glued in many things were joined.
    Some in a line of tickets and stubs etc
    joined together in a 10 to 20 inch pull out,
    attached on the bottom.

    Everything would fold inside.
    A few loose things including a diary and a sketch book of 70 pages in A3.
    I don’t know where it is,
    probably got lost with a load of personal nick-knacks
    in France years ago…

    Peacefully drifting near Jupiter

  118. Mike Says:

    I really enjoyed the photos and article. It really showed the softer human side to these people. I worked part time as a mental health counselor, and I was amazed at what some of the patients believed to be totally real. It was sad to feel their frustration when they realized no one believed them.

  119. Sam Says:

    What you have done here is truly AMAZING. You have shed a positive light on mental illness. It is a great way of honoring those people’s memory as it seems some were lost or forgotten. I have been truly inspired by this and hope to get to see an exhibit in person in the near future.

  120. dianne Says:

    In 1995 when this place shut down there was no such thing as HIPAA laws. It didn’t go into effect until 2001. They should have given their families back these possessions.

  121. Carol Hansen Says:

    Poignant….many of us still have no earthly idea of how inhumane humankind can be. This photo-journalist’s story helps us to really think how each of us can be of help to those who are less fortunate.

  122. Aurelia Nova Says:

    Hopefully we will get help for street people
    And there grocery cart suitcases.

  123. Melissa Says:

    To gozion – thank you for sharing your story. Your compelling words have taken root in my heart. I am a person like you in that I have manic depression, and i also take/have taken lithium. Sometimes the treatments are as bad as the illness! I relate as well to the hurtful actions by family members. I am sad that you are so alone and isolated. I do not know if you will ever read this, but I felt a connection and wanted to say that you matter, and you have touched me. Thank you for sharing your words and your spirit. Melissa (my real name)

  124. James Says:

    Very moving. Thanks for capturing and sharing.

  125. louise templer Says:

    I have worked at Lake Alice in Marton New Zealand and the same sadness touched my soul. I painted the faces of people who were broken but their spirits burned bright in their eyes. I have kept my records and memories and some of the History.I saw the drum kit abandoned and covered with dust and the hand made and painted skulls. (percussion instrument). For some reason the culture of the institutions were rich and there was a lot of caring. I have the diary of the Nurse in charge of Box Gang workers. Giving weather reports, sowing,harvest and seasons and some events of misbehavior of certain employees.

  126. Amandien Says:

    I love this story and the concept. Love the suitcases and how objects can tell so much about a person. I really liked reading it!

  127. Darby Penney Says:

    Unfortunately there is a good deal of misinformation in this article. Much of what is said about how and why the suitcases were kept, why they were not returned to families, etc., is completely inaccurate. Mr. Crispin says that a few of the suitcases were displayed by the NYS museum in 2004. In fact, there was a huge, 6,000 sq. foot exhibit- of which I was a co-curator – about the lives of more than a dozen of the suitcase owners, not just a display of a few suitcases. And that exhibit was the result of 6 years of research by myself and my colleague Peter Statsny, MD, and others as well as exquisite photographs by Lisa Rinzler, taken many years before Mr. Crispin’s. In 2006, we designed a traveling exhibit with The Exhibition Alliance, which is still touring, and a website, http://www.suitcaseexhibit.org. Dr. Stastny and I published a book, The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic (Bellevue Literary Press, 2008), again, before Mr. Crispin took his photographs. It is disappointing that Mr. Crispin does not acknowledge our extensive previous work on this subject.

  128. Jake Says:

    Zoom in on Dmitri’s suitcase and the open notepad with pictures. You can see he his science notes deal with electricity. He shows an AC voltage source, a resistor, and an inductor in a circuit drawing. And above that theres a graph with 2 wave functions. It is showing how current leads or lags, which then can be used for phase angles in calculations. Sounds like a mad scientist to me…however mad that may be is questionable

  129. Pamela Barron Says:

    Thank you for sharing the story of these suitcases and their contents. I had a grandmother who was in the Warren State Mental hospital in PA. I was very little and I remember my family going there and my mother and probably my aunts went to visit her. I never knew my grandmother, but the story I remember is that when my grandfather died, my grandmother went into a depression and tried to commit suicide. I think I might have one birthday card left that my grandmother sent me. I am glad these items have been preserved.
    I wonder if there are any relatives of these people that are still alive.

  130. MJ Says:

    Very moving, very beautiful. Very thankful for the photography, the story, and mostly the comments. Still living life trying to balance a sane, insane, life.

  131. Juan Valenzuela Says:

    Love this! Wish I could experience this exhibit!

  132. Pendrama Says:

    My late Dad managed a golf course that was once situated on a sprawling mental facility. Over time he became friendly with some of the patients. One long-term patient intrigued him. The man, probably in his 80′s was unable to speak beyond mumbling. He never had visitors, but to my father, the old man appeared undiminished by his years spent in this bleak state-run institution. My father once received permission to take the patient off premises to see what life outside was like. The man seemed to remember his surroundings and pointed left and right directing my father who was driving to some destination. In a half hour they reached the top of a hill in a rough neighborhood. The man was pointing at a rundown house with tears in his eyes. My dad could only assume that was the last place the man lived before getting his life sentence in a mental institution. How many years did the man spend there is anyone’s guess. Whether he was ever mentally ill or just had an awful speech defect will never be known for sure. May God bless his soul and give him eternal happiness in his afterworld.

  133. Dyann Says:

    I was fascinated by the suitcases and the many stories.
    I worked in a mental health facility where two women that I knew of were there over 50 yrs for post partom depression. So sad.

  134. Kathy Says:

    Thank you.

    I, myself, was put in Central State Hospital in Anchorage Kentucky in 1993. The only reason I wanted to live after my suicidal tendancies wasBECAUSE of the most incredible people I was housed with.

    They changed my life. I will never forget them. I am alive today because of them.

  135. Tamra-Shae Oatman Says:

    Hunter, you and Jon Crispin are a great team and clearly touched a nerve…..comments have continued for months. The story and photographs are a beautiful tribute to a very sad chapter in mental health history.

  136. Kelly Says:

    Just Amazing!!

  137. Julius Bernal Says:

    Your article and the moving photographs made me think of the movie Citizen Kane. All the items being burned at the end of the movie meant nothing to any one, but what a story they could tell. Thanks for this moving compilation.

  138. Ciara Belt Says:

    Truly fascinating. Great photos! However, back in that time, the chances of these people being legitimately insane are slim. People used to be labelled as insane if they just talked to themselves or had funny dreams!

  139. Ron the Escapee Says:

    Seeing and photographing all this made “Crispin’s Day”.
    Aww, go ahead and look it up;~)

    This was certainly an interesting peek into what were probably prized objects of the unfortunate inmates who were most likely abused and made to suffer at the hands of the ignorant who controlled these insitutions back in the day.
    I hope that at least some were able to escape this maltreatment and live positive and happy lives.

  140. Capt. TOM Says:

    Can you identify the object with hairpins on top, just below the comb in “Annas” suitcase? It looks like a old dollar bill.

  141. Trudie Fry Says:

    So emotionally moving……….it leaves me afraid of my fellow man, who holds more authority than myself. That I could be one of these suitcase carriers, simply because my defense was not “acceptable” to those who had that authority.

    Really? Yes, really! Lowering my exposure that I might live my life, by my rules, bring no harm to another, and have no harm done to me.

  142. AnnieBanannie Says:

    I work with a group in another major U.S. city that is also trying to locate unmarked graves and information about 2000 patients buried on the grounds of a former state hospital (“lunatic asylum”). We are at such a disadvantage because the original hospital was eventually torn down and most records and artifacts were destroyed. In doing genealogical research, stories do surface, but not nearly enough. You are so fortunate to have access to these little time capsules!

  143. Hal Robinson Says:

    This brought back so many memories, my ex-wife and myself worked for 4 years in the state hospital in Austin. I have to say, no one, not a single person I ever worked with disrespected the people we cared for. We didn’t understand what they had to deal with at the time, but, we were a community. I still 40 years later want the best for all of our wards of the time.
    It just broke our hearts when the court released so many folks, who just had no chance to thrive, without any experience to the street. God Bless them all.

  144. jim sadler Says:

    It was all about money. When the government decided to shut down mental hospitals under the guise of civil rights violations a huge sum of money was saved. The patients were dumped onto the streets and suffered degradation, misery and death and in some instances became a severe safety issue for the public as well. The sicker the inmate the more likely they were to believe that nothing was wrong with them and they were being held as some sort of mistake or punishment. Therefore they complained and created a legal excuse for denial of care for the mentally ill. Shame on us for allowing this to happen.


Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.