What They Left Behind

Suitcases from an insane asylum tell of lives long lost

In 1977, he was released and sent to a county home. His suitcase remained at Willard, filled with souvenirs from his trips to Washington, D.C.: postcards, photos, a replica of the Washington monument. When his suitcase was discovered, Dmytre was still alive. He had been moved from the county home to another adult home. Despite many efforts to track him down, the exhibition's curators did not learn exactly where he was until two years after his death.

Lawrence M. dug graves for his fellow patients in Willard’s cemetery for more than 30 years.
(Images courtesy of Lisa Rinzler/New York State Museum)
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.

Prior residence: Manhattan
Years at Willard: 50

Lawrence might never have ended up at Willard had he not taken a job as a window washer at Bellevue Hospital. He lived there in a workers' dormitory, and in 1916 he was committed to this same hospital because, according to his records, he had been heard "singing, shouting, also praying, claiming to hear the voice of God and seeing the angels, then accusing himself of having sinned too much." He may have been drunk, according to his chart, but nevertheless he was transferred to a state hospital and was sent to Willard in 1918.

Lawrence had been born in Austria and had come to Ellis Island 11 years earlier. He became the gravedigger at Willard's cemetery in 1937, when he was nearly 60 years old. He dug more than 600 graves for his fellow patients over the next 14 years, and continued to work as Willard's gravedigger until his own death at age 90. He, too, was buried in Willard's cemetery, where the deceased did not have headstones, but instead were given cast-iron markers with numbers. Eventually, these markers were removed in order to make it easier to mow the cemetery.

When Lawrence's trunk was discovered, it contained very few possessions—just a few shaving brushes, ties, suspenders, and well-worn leather shoes.

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