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.

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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.

"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.


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Madeline C.: Before she entered the mental health system (left), and at Willard at age 55.
(Images courtesy of the New York State Museum)
MADELINE C.
1896-1986
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.


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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)
FRANK C.

1910-1984
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.


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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)
DMYTRE Z.

1916-2000
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.

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.


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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)
LAWRENCE M.

1878-1968
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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