What They Left Behind

Suitcases from an insane asylum tell of lives long lost

 Albany, New York—Craig Williams, a curator at the New York State Museum, drove four hours to visit Willard Psychiatric Center in the spring of 1995. The complex, located 65 miles southwest of Syracuse, was about to shut down after more than 100 years. Williams figured he would be able to pick up some artifacts—maybe some antique furniture or a few nurses' uniforms. A staffer suggested he check out the attic of an abandoned building, and that's when he found 400 suitcases covered by decades of dust and pigeon droppings.

These suitcases bore the names of former patients. Inside were their long-forgotten possessions: snapshots, diaries, postcards, books, letters, news clippings. For Williams, finding these suitcases was the equivalent of stumbling upon a buried chest of gold. "You'd open these suitcases, and you could so clearly sense and feel a personality and a humanity," he recalls. He didn't know it at the time, but these dusty trunks would change the course of his life, sparking a mission that would stretch on for the next nine years—first to uncover the stories of the suitcases' owners, and then to present them to the public.

The results are now on display at the New York State Museum in a riveting new exhibition, "Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic." The show features the suitcases and possessions of 12 former Willard patients, including the four individuals whose photos and stories appear on these pages. All 12 of these former patients have died. No family members or friends have yet stepped forward to claim their belongings.

Hundreds of patients’ suitcases were discovered in the attic of an abandoned building.
photo: Lisa Rinzler/New York State Museum
Hundreds of patients’ suitcases were discovered in the attic of an abandoned building.

More than 50,000 people entered Willard State Hospital during its 126 years of operation. This photo was taken around 1945.
(Images courtesy of the New York State Museum)
Today Willard is a prison for drug-abusing parolees, but originally it was New York's insane asylum for people who had been deemed incurable. More than 50,000 men and women passed through Willard during its years of operation, from 1869 to 1995. Many were locked up there for decades, never returning home again. Some were subjected to electroshock therapy. Others endured hydrotherapy, which involved being submerged in a tub filled with cold water for hours on end. A few had scars on their foreheads, the result of a lobotomy conducted elsewhere.

Patients left behind their suitcases when they died or were sent to another facility. As a result, it took many years of detective work to put together this exhibition. In 1998, Williams teamed up with two people who then worked at the state Office of Mental Health: psychiatrist Peter Stastny and Darby Penney, former director of recipient affairs. They obtained permission to review the case files of former Willard patients, and then set about trying to piece together the stories of their lives.

For the three curators, this project soon became an all-consuming endeavor. They sifted through thousands of pages of patient records and also 4,000 archival photos. Stastny recruited Lisa Rinzler, an accomplished cinematographer, and they traveled around the state together, documenting the homes where these people lived before entering the mental health system. Williams made frequent trips to Willard, driving 200 miles each way, to collect more artifacts.

Lavishing so much attention on people who were largely forgotten during their lifetimes was, of course, part of the point. With the help of the curators, the exhibit's subjects have accomplished something they could never achieve while they were alive. "They've managed to move from being hidden in the crevices of an institution to being in a room of their own," says Stastny, who is an associate professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. "It's a huge accomplishment in a certain way. Now they can talk to us and show us who they are."

Since the exhibit opened on January 17, the power of these individuals' tales has become apparent. Reading their stories on the walls and peering at their possessions, it is hard not to identify with the former patients. On a recent afternoon, two women studied the exhibit's section devoted to Frank C., a World War II veteran, who was brought to a police station in 1945 after passersby complained he'd kicked a garbage can. He was sent to Kings County Hospital, then to Brooklyn State Hospital, then to Willard.

"I'm in another world right now," said visitor Mary Ann Barbolt, 45, as she read Frank's story and glanced at his army uniform enclosed in a glass case. "This is like a whole other part of humanity that's very disturbing. I can't believe people were institutionalized for having a temper tantrum. It's unsettling to think that because of their lack of knowledge in the field of psychiatric disabilities, they locked these people up for the rest of their lives."

"It's just totally depressing," added her friend, 46-year-old Colleen Roche. "It's gut-wrenching for me to see these atrocities that happened."

"It makes me feel very guarded and suspicious," Mary Ann said. "It makes me feel very vulnerable."

"My stomach is in knots right now," Colleen said.

Provoking such a visceral response appears to be one of the curators' intentions. "For a lot of these people who are featured in the exhibition, I feel like they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Penney says. "A lot of people identify with the arbitrary nature of how people got swept up in the mental health system. I've heard a lot of comments where people were saying, 'Geez, that could've happened to me.' I think that's the major point: that they're human beings too, and they're not so different from you.

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