Decades-old suitcases of Willard Psychiatric patients depict life stories

Jul 20, 2018

After state officials closed the Willard Psychiatric Center near Ithaca, they made an unusual discovery. In the attic were 400 suitcases left behind from patients who lived there. For more than 20 years those suitcases have been in the hands of the state, but now they may finally be reunited with families of the patients.

"This collection of suitcases exists to be able to open up a small window into the lives of people who otherwise would have been completely forgotten and isolated by their mental illness,” stated John Crispin, photographer from Massachusetts appearing in this documentary a few years ago

Inside one of the many Willard Suitcases photographed by Jon Crispin.
Credit Photo Jon Crispin

Crispin described exploring and photographing the content of the suitcases along with the New York State Museum in Albany, Willard Suitcase Project. 

Inside were personal belongings, clothing, photographs, letters, silverware, dishes and personal diaries. 

“The idea that there were lives in these suitcases that were unique to the owners and represented the owners in ways that maybe other people didn't think about these people. They were generally institutionalized and I think people just saw them as people who were mental patients and I just saw so much more,” Crispin told WBFO.    

The Willard facility in the Finger Lakes was much like the historic former Buffalo State Insane Asylum. It was built in 1866. Willard had a 126-year history before it was abandoned.           

Willard Psychiatric Center was built in 1866 and officially opened in 1869.
Credit Photo from Explording Upstate website

“When people died at Willard the families were given two options; they could either come to the institution, or pick up the belongings or they could have those belongings shipped COD back to the surviving family members, and many families couldn’t afford that,” said Crispin.

John Crispin, photographer from Massachusetts, photographing Willard suitcases.
Credit Photo by Jon Crispin

When the suitcases were re-discovered in the mid-90s, the State Museum took control of them. Suitcase items were catalogued and in 2004 the museum created an exhibit of about a dozen suitcases and contents, unlocking the mystery surrounding patients treated for mental illness at Willard.  The cases now remain in the permanent collection of the museum.  

“Sliding the little button on the latches of the suitcases and hearing that sound of the latch opening up and then lifting up the lid of the case and smelling what the objects smelled liked, and touching them and feeling them. It’s just an amazing, amazing thing,” recalled Crispin.                           

“We're very interested in helping the families reclaim a lot of just these treasures and trinkets,” declared John Allen, Special Assistant to the Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH).

Suitcase of Willard patient.
Credit Photo by Jon Crispin

Allen said some families don't want others to know descendants were treated at Willard, fearing the mental illness stigma.

“I think there are still many families that prefer the privacy of having their mental health histories not disclosed publicly and that's why the law still persists today. But I still think there are many families who are fearful of the impact of the discrimination on them and living in rural communities really suffer with being potentially stigmatized,” said Allen.

The state's tough privacy law prevents direct descendants or relatives from accessing mental health records. In fact between 1910 and 1960, many who died at Willard -- about 5,500 -- were buried in the cemetery across the road in unmarked graves. The privacy law prevented public identification.

However, the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project Committee worked to change that. State legislation was recently passed, allowing the committee to finally print names Holy Cross Cemetery.   

"That allowed a memorial put up at Holy Cross with 99 names on it and so this is all good will," said Colleen Spellecy, the committee chair.    

Willard Cemetery Memorial Projectat Holy Cross Cemetery.
Credit Photo from Willard Cemetery Memorial Project Facebook page

Finally after two decades of the rediscovering of the Willard suitcases, a search begins for surviving family members. Spellecy said about 30 people attended a recent meeting with the Office of Mental Health to learn how to find descendants. They also were briefed on a federal privacy law that governs medical records; it's known as HIPAA.

"Most of these people, whose suitcases are in the Albany museum, they didn't come under the HIPAA Law at all. In New York State, the privacy law usurps the HIPAA law," Spellecy noted.

"We're very excited to be able to return family bibles and those precious documents that really help link family lineage,” Allen declared.

Allen said he believes if they do find direct decedents, perhaps some would prefer to have the items remain at the State Museum, tracing an historical mental health journey. That, too, is the hope of photographer Crispin.

"I personally would rather see them stay in the collection and I think to break it up - would be not a good thing,” Crispin remarked.

Volunteers will now begin searching on Ancestry.com with the name and death dates of Willard patients. They will search through obituaries for relative’s names, but the State Office of Mental Health would finalize the contact to the last living relative.