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September 5, 2013

The Willard Asylum Suitcase Project

                                                                                                                                                     Associated Press

The Willard Asylum for the Insane was located in Willard, NY, and
served as a treatment facility for the mentally ill for over 100 years. 

Built in the 1860s and abandoned in the 1970s, the city of Willard wanted
to preserve the beautiful facility.  In 1975, the Willard Asylum was listed
on the National Register of Historic Places and stood empty until 1995
when the State of New York decided to turn it into a prison facility.
During renovations an employee went into the attic and found an
incredible time capsule - 400 of them, actually - suitcases belonging
to patients who had been admitted to the facility but who never left.

Each patient brought one suitcase when they arrived at the asylum.  The
average stay was for almost 30 years and the majority of patients died at
Willard. Upon their death, if a patient's family did not want their personal
effects, they were simply stored in the attic and forgotten.
After the discovery of the suitcases, which date from 1910 to 1960,
the State of New York categorized the contents of each suitcase and
many have been displayed at the New York State Museum.
Photographer Jon Crispin has previously documented 19th century asylums through a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.
He was fascinated by the collection and, over the years, his interest led
him to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to photograph and
document the Willard Asylum suitcase collection.  It was displayed in
San Francisco earlier this year.



Photos, books and letters are the most common items found in the suitcases.


"Josephine S", a 25 year old young woman from Canandaiqua, NY, was
admitted to the Willard Asylum in 1898.  Sadly, she was a resident there
until 1973 when she died at 100 years of age. 

At the time of her admittance Josephine's worldly possessions included an original
1903 edition of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm along with 2 other books, a brush,
a hand painted china plate and a few letters.
To guard their privacy, the last names of patients were not used
in correspondence. This 1906 wedding invitation was a treasured
keepsake for 74 years.
If you're interested in the Willard Asylum Suitcase Project visit
Jon Crispin's website.  It is a fascinating view into a sad and brief
glimpse of American history.


  1. Such beautiful pictures and items, with such very sad stories. Just being perceived as "awkward" could be a life sentence back in the day.

    1. Warehousing troubled relatives was about the only outside help families had at that time. The thought of having all of your worldly possessions stored in one lonely suitcase is heartbreaking.

  2. What a poignant post. I felt quite sad looking at these possessions. As mentioned in the comment above, some people could be sent to these asylums for the most tenuous reasons, and stay there for life. I will definitely have a look at Jon Crispin's website. Really interesting, thank you.

    1. I hope the publicity blogs and other sites are devoting to this project allows the collection to be shown in other cities. What a lesson we can learn from the past. Heartbreaking, isn't it? -- Jan

  3. What an aching sentiment to those who were more often misunderstood than insane. Lonely lives summed up in suitcase. Heart wrenching. Thank you for making us aware.

  4. Wow! I found this completely fascinating, I can't even put it into words. It made me think of the movie "The Changeling" and it made me sad for the people who a majority of them were probably not insane. To see what people prized back then and the items that we now consider beautiful antiques is amazing. I will have to visit Jon Crispin's website for sure.
    Also, thanks so much for visiting me for some coffee! So happy to be following along with you.

    1. So many conditions that can be successfully treated with medicine today were considered mental illness less than 50 years ago. Just the word asylum evokes fear and anxiety. Wouldn't it be fascinating to know the residents' life stories? I wonder if the patient who owned the suitcase with the military uniform suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from WWI. There's definitely so many directions this project can go. -- Jan

  5. How sad.... and yet how FASCINATING! Jx

    1. It's almost stuff of science fiction, isn't it?

  6. Oh, it is hard to type with tears in your eyes. How terribly sad and I wonder how many were miss diagnosed or considered trouble makers because of their zeal for things like equal rights or wanting to pursue freedoms that were not considered becoming to their families or husbands.
    I also wonder how many of them could have been helped with modern medicine and compassion.
    So sad :(

    1. Thank goodness we've moved beyond the cruel treatment of those who are misunderstood and misdiagnosed. After almost 500 posts, writing this one broke my heart. I felt that the story needs to be out there for as many people as possible to read. Thanks, Connie. -- Jan

  7. Achingly beautiful and heartbreakingly sad.

    1. For all of its problems, our health care system is still the best in the world. Hopefully, the medical profession has learned from the mistakes of the past. -- Jan

  8. I am going to go to the other site to read more. It makes my heart ache to see all these things. Today, many of those patients could probably have been helped and allowed to live a normal life outside the confines of the mental facility. So sad. Wonderful post-thanks- xo Diana

    1. It was very hard to write the post without getting emotional. Josephine S's story is so sad - to live to be 100 and spend 75 of those years in an asylum. I can't even imagine. -- Jan

  9. This is so heartbreaking! I can't even imagine being locked up in an insane asylum for 75 years. I remember when they changed the laws so that only the patients themselves could agree to admittance to a mental health facility. So many lives, so needlessly lost. I am glad that you shared this, it brings to light a sad history. xo

  10. Heartbreaking is the only word I can think of. I'm glad that someone is documenting it, but how sad to take a suitcase with you with photos, books, memories and letters and have them locked away. Thank you for sharing this.

  11. Vitally interesting, but terribly heartbreaking all in the same breath. Thank you for sharing this most interesting post.

  12. Wow - fragments of lost lives. Fascinating and deeply moving.