Looking at old, abandoned belongings can be quite a moving experience, and if there’s a sad history attached to the objects, we might well feel a measure of melancholy. Still, at the same time, we’re all fascinated by the lives of others – especially if their stories and experiences are very different to our own. That’s why these suitcases, which once belonged to patients at the Willard Psychiatric Center, New York, make such captivating photographs.
In 1995, workers found the suitcases in a deserted building’s attic when the hospital shut down. The cases had been placed there for storage at some point between 1910 and the 1960s, each one taken from a newly arrived patient. Since people were often sent to the asylum for the rest of their lives (the average stay was over 30 years) and many had left family behind in foreign countries, the suitcases were never reclaimed.
Each of these suitcases is like a tiny time capsule offering a glimpse into people’s lives. From the objects preserved in the cases, we can gain a precious insight into who the owners were, what interested them, where they came from, and even whom they loved. “I have been given the incredible opportunity to photograph these cases and their contents,” says photographer Jon Crispin. “To me, they open a small window into the lives of some of the people who lived at the facility.”
The abandoned suitcases were received by the New York State Museum and added to its permanent collection. Here, they have been painstakingly cataloged, with each item contained in the cases carefully wrapped for protection. In fact, Crispin had to unwrap them to take these photographs. “I am so interested in these cases,” he says. “I like the idea of documenting the care and energy that the museum has put into them.”
This suitcase belonged to a woman named “Freda B.” Crispin says that he can’t share her full name because doing so might open him up to a state lawsuit. “I would really like to use her whole name here, but there is a massive debate going on as to whether people who have been at Willard and other psych centers need to be protected by privacy laws,” says the photographer on his blog. “I come down strongly on the side that it is dehumanizing and stigmatizing to pretend that she doesn’t have a surname.”
Although we don’t know Freda’s last name, there are things we can learn about her. Looking at her belongings, we might assume she liked to keep things in order. The suitcase includes a set of personal grooming brushes, a small broom, some leather shoe cream, and an alarm clock. The case also contains a book, Primary Seat Work Sense Training and Games, which may suggest she was a teacher or was at least interested in the field.
Most of the patients who ended up at Willard were sent there against their will. In the 1950s, it wasn’t difficult for someone to get committed to a mental institution. All that was required was a certificate from a doctor. Many patients were simply rejected by society.
This suitcase belonged to Frank, a man who reacted strongly to being served food on a damaged plate at a Brooklyn restaurant in June 1945. Feeling disrespected, Frank “just went nuts,” according to Crispin. He didn’t hurt anybody, but he kicked some trashcans and made a lot of noise outside the eatery. Thence, he was admitted to two other hospitals, before he ended up at Willard in 1946 for a three-year stay. The repercussions of the restaurant incident never left Frank, and he ended up dying in a Pittsburgh Veterans Administration hospital in 1984.
In this shot, we see a collection of personal photographs that Frank kept in his case. Frank corresponded with family back in West Virginia and Ohio, including his father. However, according to medical records Frank didn’t have any family contact, which goes to show how official history can get it wrong.
“Frank looks very dapper, and there are all these beautiful women from the ‘30s and ‘40s in his little photo booth pictures,” said Crispin in an interview with Collectors Weekly. “That really affected me.” Crispin also added that he discovered that Frank was gay.
Here we see another look at the carefully packed contents of Frank’s suitcase. Among his belongings were his Army uniform, letters from his family, and a baby’s shoe. And Frank’s story is only one of the sad tales of Willard’s patients.
A man named Dmytro was another former patient with an incredible story. He was the son of a poor farmer in the Ukraine and was forced into slave labor by the Nazis during World War II. Later, he was imprisoned by the Soviets in Hungary. Dmytro managed to escape and ended up at an American displaced persons’ camp in Vienna. There, he met his wife, Sophia (pictured above). In 1949, the couple moved abroad to the US, and Sophia became pregnant. Life was good for Dmytro, but then tragedy struck.
Sadly, Sophia miscarried their baby and died, and the Ukrainian immigrant’s life went on a downward spiral. While in mourning, Dmytro had delusions that he was meant to marry President Truman’s daughter, Margaret. In 1952, Dmytro tried to make an unauthorized visit to see Margaret at the White House, and the US Secret Service kept him in custody. Dmytro ended up at Willard in 1953, following brief stays at two other psychiatric hospitals.
During his stay at Willard, Dmytro was subjected to 20 sessions of electroconvulsive therapy that – perhaps unsurprisingly – didn’t make him any better. In the 1960s, Dmytro discovered that he possessed a flair for expressing himself in painting. He used his canvases to tell his life story and did a painting a day for a number of years. His art was publicly displayed at a patient exhibit in Washington, D.C., yet he gave most of his work away to Willard staff members. In 1977, Dmytro was finally discharged from the psychiatric hospital and went to live in a county home. In 2000, he passed away at a nursing home aged 84.
This suitcase belonged to one Anna, and according to Crispin, it contains a painstakingly listed record of the clothes contained within. Clearly, these items were dear to Anna.
Occasionally, the reasons people were sent to asylums were tied up with bereavements they endured or due to them having strange religious beliefs. Other times, they may have suffered from health issues or traumas. It’s probably fair to say that at least some of these individuals were failed by the mental health system of the day.
Once they were admitted to Willard, people were categorized based on their capacity to work. Women might have been allotted cooking, sewing and cleaning tasks, while men were given jobs like gardening, shoemaking and carpentry. Until the practice was banned in 1973, it was the patients themselves who in no small way kept the institution running with their unpaid labor.
Those who were deemed dangerous to themselves or others were locked up, and their activities were strictly controlled. As far as treatments went, the few offered at Willard until at least the mid-1950s were rather unpleasant. One such treatment was hydrotherapy, where patients were forced to stay in coldwater baths for extended lengths of time. Or there was electroconvulsive therapy, as endured by Dmytro (see above).
It wasn’t only suitcases that were left in the attic. This storage container was the property of a woman named Eleanor – and from the looks of it, she liked to sew. Perhaps she was given a sewing job at the hospital.
A lot of these personal artifacts remained at the asylum after the deaths of their owners, because privacy laws made contacting relatives complicated. And in some cases, when the families could be found, they’d already cut themselves off from their institutionalized relative and didn’t want anything to do with them.
This trunk contains wrapped objects and it evidences the museum’s careful preservation process. It was in 1999 that psychiatrist and filmmaker Peter Stastny, and Darby Penney, an activist for people with mental disabilities, first saw the suitcases at the New York State Museum’s warehouse. The pair then used hospital records to choose a small number of cases for further study. Along with photographer Lisa Rinzler, they spent a decade investigating the backgrounds of the patients, which led to an exhibit, and the 2009 book The Lives They Left Behind.
The book and exhibit received many different reactions, from intrigue to indignation. The abandoned belongings even caused some people to break down in tears. Every case has a story, even a seemingly empty one like Floyd’s (pictured above). Interestingly, the cases went on to inspire both a play and a sermon, the latter of which was delivered by a minister who saw the exhibit.
Looking at these old cases, we may feel relieved that times have changed. Yet while things may have improved on many levels for the mentally ill, their struggle continues. A large number of people still experience prejudice, and sufferers can be forced to live away from their communities.
Those affected by mental health issues still have trouble earning incomes. And the drugs they take can lead to secondary conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, which can lead to death. It’s hoped these suitcases help to humanize the mentally ill and increase awareness about their conditions and compassion for them as people.