Asylum Suitcases, Found And Photographed : The Picture Show A photographer peers into the past — and into old suitcases from an abandoned asylum.
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Asylum Suitcases, Found And Photographed

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Asylum Suitcases, Found And Photographed


Willard, New York was a company town. And that business was running the Willard Asylum for the Insane, as it was called. When patients died, employees at Willard couldn't bear to throw away their belongings. So instead, they sorted them alphabetically, separated them by male and female and stowed them in an attic. Decades later, 400 suitcases were rediscovered and their contents were meticulously catalogued by staff at the New York State Museum.

Jon Crispin is a photographer who had already been taking pictures of Willard, the building. The New York State Museum let him photograph these suitcases, and he produced some incredible time capsules, capturing each person - clocks, hairbrushes, military uniforms, personal letters, all histories of Willard's mental patients over 50 years.

And because of medical privacy rules, Jon is limited in what he can say about these patients, but you are not. So tell us your stories. If you had a loved one in an asylum in an earlier generation, what was their experience? What was life there like? Call us at 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jon Crispin joins us now from a studio in Charleston, South Carolina. He has photographed about 80 suitcases from Willard. An essay about those photos was recently published on Jon, thanks for joining us today.

JON CRISPIN: Ari, it's great to be here.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about how this project started. How did these suitcases end up in your viewfinder?

CRISPIN: Willard was being closed by the Office of Mental Health in New York state as an asylum, as a psychiatric center, and converted to a facility for treatment of people who've been convicted of crimes - a treatment center for drug and alcohol abusers. And some of the staff at Willard was given the job of going through all of the buildings, of which there are many, and determining what things should saved and what things should be disposed of. And Bev Courtwright, who was an employee at Willard, was going through an attic space of one of the main buildings at the institution, and she opened a door and saw an attic filled with these suitcases.

It's just an amazing - it was an amazing rediscovery, as you said, because the staff at Willard was aware of the cases. And as people would die or leave the facility, their cases would be saved, and so Bev rediscovered them.

SHAPIRO: Really says something about the relationship between the employees and the patients, the relationship between the town and the asylum, that they would keep and preserve these.

CRISPIN: Yeah. It's so amazing. I think Willard is a very unique place. As you said in your introduction, it's a company town, basically. Willard is a small town about 45 minutes northwest of Ithaca. It was actually considered to be the possibility of being the original site for Cornell University. It's a beautiful setting on Seneca Lake. And the real main industry in the town was the psych center. So there are multiple generations of families who have worked and worked very closely with patients.

SHAPIRO: And I want to let our listeners know if you are listening to this conversation in front of a computer, you can go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION and look through a slide show of these photographs. And, Jon, you know, when we describe photographs of suitcases, I'm sure people imagine clothes and undergarments, you know, the things that people need for daily life. These suitcases have very, sort of, personal, distinctive things in them. The first image in the slide show, for example, is a collection of green - I think they're hairbrushes. Tell us about these.

CRISPIN: Well, that was the first case I photographed, and it was just - for me, it was quite an emotional experience. I was given the opportunity to photograph the cases. And New York State had done an amazing job of preserving the contents and the cases themselves. They're all wrapped in an acid-free paper. And each item in the case was catalogued by the museum and wrapped very carefully. And every time I would look at a case, it would be wrapped. There would be string around it. And I would untie the string, unwrap the case and open it up and never really knowing what I could expect to find.

That case belonged to Freda, and she clearly had very beautiful things. And that particular set, the greenness of it, the beauty of the case itself, really set the whole tone for me. Each time I would come across a case, I would just be in awe of what I might find inside of it.

SHAPIRO: What were some of the most surprising things you came across?

CRISPIN: There were a lot of clocks, which is kind of unusual when you think about someone being in an institutional setting. There were surprisingly a lot of small carved wooden dogs. I kept finding those. There were - but there were various things. A lot of people brought news clippings, especially there were a lot of World War II clippings about the war. People brought complete sets of silverware. There were personal diaries, day-to-day diaries of people's lives at Willard.

I think one of the questions a lot of people ask is whether or not people who were there had access to their cases. And it's quite clear that they did, in most cases. Some of the items were tools that could have been used in making leatherworks or knitting and things like that. Obviously there were people at Willard who were there as patients who had been nurses, and one of the cases contained an amazing set of hypodermic syringes and still some elements of - remnants of her life as a nurse. So...

SHAPIRO: Incredible.

CRISPIN: was very varied. Everything was - every case was very different. There were wooden legs and false teeth and personal hygiene items. So it was just a very wide range of objects.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to a caller, Vicki(ph) in Marietta, Ohio. Vicki, I understand you used to work at Willard?

VICKI: Yes. I was blessed to work there from 1974 to 1979. And I had moved to the area from Ohio and happened upon that as a place of employment. And the thing that stuck out to me the most in that encounter from employment-wise was the way so many people were related and interrelated. And so it became more like a family facility, you know, where even though it was huge at that time, like 1,500 residents, at that time so many of the local people worked there that I felt like it made a total difference than the stories you hear about some facilities like that.

SHAPIRO: What kind of work did you do there?

VICKI: Well, I was one of the mental hygiene therapy assistants. So you took training, you know, kind of like an LPN, passed meds, therapy programs, modalities for the clients. And the thing was, at that time, there was no lockdown. It wasn't like, you know, you think about some psychiatric hospitals. And the patients were free to roam the whole grounds. They had a huge recreational building. They had a theater. They had an ice skating rink. They had just everything there that, you know, people could go fishing.

It was self-sufficient at one time. And I was telling the person I was speaking with that you develop such relationships with the patients, that I live just like a block away and one of the patients came over when I had my child and brought me a lilac bush he had pulled up from the grounds there at the hospital.


VICKI: So, I mean, it was just the relationships were so rich and it gave me a whole different perspective on mental hygiene and mental health. You know, you had manic-depressives who would go home for a while and come back in. And it was just a great blessing of an experience, professionally and in every way, humanitarianly.

SHAPIRO: What a beautiful story. Thank you so much for calling, Vicki.

VICKI: Oh, well, thank you so much for paying attention to this because I feel like a lot of the issues we're dealing with today is because we don't have those services that we had at that time to help people come in and get steady and then get back on their feet and go back out into, you know, the public.

SHAPIRO: Hmm, yeah. All right. Well, thanks for the call.

VICKI: Thank you. Take care. Bye-bye.

SHAPIRO: And, Jon Crispin, you've been working with Willard for so many years now, first photographing the buildings, now photographing the suitcases. What have you learned about the relationship between an asylum and the patients and the staff? I mean, what sort of insight can you bring to these challenges that we still face today in helping mentally ill people?

CRISPIN: Mental health and the treatment of mental health is a really difficult issue for a lot of people to talk about. And one of the things that Vicki said that I think is just so important is that the nature of Willard was different than most other institutions. I spent a lot of time photographing other abandoned asylum buildings in New York State, and Willard was really unique in that the patients were free to roam around. I would be - when I first started photographing, I was using a four-by-five view camera and I would set it up on a tripod and put a cloth over my head and I'd be focusing the camera and looking at the buildings.

And people would walk up to me, and I honestly at times was not able to discern whether or not people were patients or staff or even doctors. And people would talk to me, and it was a very different kind of environment. It was more like a college campus. And that's not to say that there weren't things going on at Willard that were difficult, difficult for the staff and difficult for the patients.

Overcrowding was always an issue in the New York State asylum system. But the state was really trying to help people. And what I came away with was a healthy respect for both sides of the issue: a complete respect for people who have mental health issues and who were struggling, but also a respect for the people who work at these facilities and who are really doing the best job they can.

SHAPIRO: Let's take another call from Maureen in DeKalb, Illinois. Hi, Maureen. You're on the air.

MAUREEN: Hi there. I'm just calling because my grandfather's name was James Ward in River Rock, Arkansas. He was also kind of a famous character. His name was Whistling Jim. And he was institutionalized on two different occasions in the State of Arkansas lunatic asylum in the - I believe in the 1920s. And he actually ended up dying in the facility and he had told his family not to let him - not to put him in the lunatic asylum for the second time because he had a feeling that he would - his body would be exhumed or something and he would die there.

Well, anyway, that's family history. He was indeed killed there. He was beaten by the guards that were working there evidently. And 50 years after he was killed, they indeed did exhume his body and he was covered in bruises and such, they could tell. And he is the reason why the state of Arkansas shut down the lunatic asylum in Little Rock.


MAUREEN: And he was in the lunatic asylum in the '20s I believe.

SHAPIRO: And do you have any artifacts from the time that he spent there? I'm so sorry for what happened to him. Do you have any relics, mementos?

MAUREEN: Well, he wrote two books. And one of the books - I believe the name was "My Experiences As a Lunatic in the State of Arkansas Lunatic Asylum." That was one of them, and I don't know what the other book is. I have copies of both of them, though.

SHAPIRO: Language alone shows how much things have changed since then, I guess. Thanks so much for the call, Maureen.

MAUREEN: Yeah. Yes.

SHAPIRO: We're talking to Jon Crispin, a photographer who has documented suitcases owned by people who left the Willard Asylum for the Insane. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Jon, were there people who suitcases you found that you just had to learn more about who they were as individuals, who you sort of tracked down the story of their lives?

CRISPIN: It's really interesting. When I first started shooting, I thought it was really going to be important for me to be able to tie a medical story, medical history to the cases and the objects in the cases. And New York State has basically collected every record of every person admitted to any New York State institution since the middle part of the 19th century.

And I'm actually working in parallel with a poet whose name is Karen Miller. She's a psychiatrist and a poet in the Boston area. And she actually has access to medical records. So I do have the ability to find things out about these patients. But partway through the project I got a response of one of my posts on my WordPress site from a woman saying, you know, I don't really want to know specifics about these people. I like to look at the objects and I like to build up a story on my own of what they might have been like.

So I do know quite a lot about the patients. Karen is doing a very incredible job of writing poetry about the lives that people were living at Willard. But I, in a way, I now prefer to be a little bit separate from the story of people's medical history. It's just more important for me to see the objects as representative of what they might have been like as people.

SHAPIRO: Let's take another call from David in Sioux Center, Iowa. Hi, David.

DAVID: Howdy.

SHAPIRO: Go ahead. Tell me your story.

DAVID: I just had to call in. I just remember working for a facility about 30 years ago right after I got out of the service, and as I explained, when you get out of the armed forces, the first thing you want to do back in the world, as we used to say, was do something significant, and an opportunity to work in a facility with handicapped individuals was perfect.

One of the things I most remember is that when we would receive clients there from county homes and so on. I remember one gentleman in particular who was deaf and he signed to a number of us after he worked there for just a couple of weeks how thankful he was that he could finally work. And it was just an amazing experience to see how happy people would become through work.


DAVID: Amazing. Another thing that I thought was really funny - we'd have tours come through and one of your other callers mentioned something about this but it really struck a chord with me because it was so fun to watch tours come through and look at me.


SHAPIRO: And wonder, are you staff or you're a resident?

DAVID: I wonder if this guy is quote-unquote normal. I remember coming down a ladder one time, and one of the tour guides and I were good friends anyway. And Leo looked at me and said, well, hi, Dave, how you doing today? I said, good, Leo, how are you? And then he noticed that I put about 20 pencils in my pocket to show that I was significant, you know?


DAVID: And he started laughing. The tour group never caught on to what was going on. They still kept staring at me, but we just had a blast.

SHAPIRO: That's a great story.

DAVID: The best place I ever worked.

SHAPIRO: David, thanks so much for sharing your experience with us.

DAVID: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And Jon Crispin, I want to thank you for sharing your experience with us as well. Just stunning photos and remarkable stories.

CRISPIN: Thank you so much, Ari. I really appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: Jon Crispin joined us from a studio in Charleston, South Carolina. He is behind a photography project that documents what's inside suitcases found at the Willard Asylum for the Insane, as it was called. His photos will be featured in an exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco starting April 17th. And you can see some of those photos now at Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, drones soaring through American skies. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington.

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