What They Left Behind

Suitcases from an insane asylum tell of lives long lost

"In our society, people—if they think about mental patients at all—they think of them as nameless, faceless, perhaps dangerous people. They don't usually get the opportunity to learn who they are, in all their richness and complexity. But I think, for at least the 12 people whose materials are in the exhibition, that people will get a clearer understanding of who they were as people before they went into the hospital, and what kind of lives that hospitalization interrupted, or actually ended."

"Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic" will be on display at the New York State Museum in Albany until September 19. For more information, visit nysm.nysed.gov. The biographies of former Willard patients included here are adapted from materials featured in the exhibit.

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.

Madeline C.: Before she entered the mental health system (left), and at Willard at age 55.
(Images courtesy of the New York State Museum)
Prior residence: Manhattan
Years at Willard: 47

Madeline was born in France, graduated from the Sorbonne, and taught French literature in various parts of the U.S., including Boston, Dallas, and New York. During the Depression, she was unemployed and sought help from the Emergency Work Bureau. She was sent to the New York Psychiatric Institute in upper Manhattan, and after claiming that she could read minds, was shipped off to three more hospitals. "I want to get out of here immediately," Madeline said when she arrived at Central Islip Hospital. "I think it's an outrage I have been brought here."

In 1939, she arrived at Willard. More than three decades later, she was still trying to regain her freedom. "I don't like this hospital," she said, according to a note in her records. "I resent being detained and wasting my time." The items found in her suitcase hint at what her life was like before she was locked up, and what she might have been doing with her time had she been released. Her trunk contained a pink silk dress, a pair of long white gloves, a stack of sheet music, a copy of Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis, and a bulletin listing philosophy and psychology courses at Columbia University.

In 1971, Willard staffers decided not to set Madeline free because of her "continual fidgety movements, rigid stances, and facial grimaces." At the time, they did not know that these were the side effects of the psychiatric medications they had prescribed for her. She was sent to "attitude therapy" to get her to stop grimacing. By the time she finally got out of Willard, she was 79 years old. She was moved to a private facility and died 11 years later.

Frank C., a soldier from Brooklyn, left behind these photos when he left Willard in 1949.
(Images courtesy of Lisa Rinzler/New York State Museum)

Prior residence: Brooklyn
Years at Willard: 3

An incident at a restaurant in the summer of 1945 changed the course of Frank C.'s life forever, propelling him into the mental health system. After he was served a broken plate, he got mad and began kicking garbage cans outside. The police picked him up, and he was taken to Kings County Hospital. "I am not sick," Frank told a staffer. "I got excited on Fulton Street and I was throwing garbage. My blood temper. It went up. I was angry. In the Virginia Restaurant I got a broken plate. I did not understand the broken plate. I thought that someone planned to kill me."

Frank was diagnosed with "dementia praecox," an old term for schizophrenia. He was sent to Brooklyn State Hospital, and then to Willard. Although he had previously been a chauffeur, a soldier, and an amateur boxer, from 1945 on he was a full-time patient. After three years at Willard, he was sent to a V.A. hospital. He never returned to the streets again, and died in a psychiatric institution at age 74. The possessions he left behind in a suitcase at Willard include hismilitary photo, a tiny U.S. flag, a soldier's handbook, and a perfectly pressed army uniform.

Dmytre Z. came to New York from Ukraine with his wife. After she died, his mental health rapidly deteriorated.
(Images courtesy of the New York State Museum)

Prior residence: Syracuse
Years at Willard: 24

Dmytre, a native of Ukraine, was captured by the Nazis and sent to a work camp during World War II. In 1949, he moved to New York State with his wife, Sophia, and they joined Syracuse's sizable Ukrainian community. To express his appreciation for the chance to live in the U.S., he created a wooden replica of a church in his hometown, then brought it to Washington, D.C., to give to President Harry Truman.

Not long afterward, Sophia died during a miscarriage. Dmytre's mental health quickly deteriorated, and he began to complain about feeling persecuted. He became con- vinced that he was engaged to Margaret Truman, the president's daughter, and he went to Washington, D.C., to see her in 1952. The Secret Service nabbed him, and that's when he entered the mental health system. He passed through two hospitals before arriving at Willard in 1953.

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