Abandoned suitcases of insane asylum patients

Case with green enamel hair brush set strapped to lid. Abandoned suitcase with yellow alarm clock, straw broom, small Scotty dog figure, shoe polish cream and booklet.

These fascinating images show abandoned suitcases which belonged to patients who were residents of the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane between the 1910s and early 1960s. The institution stored the cases when patients passed away; when it closed in 1995, staff came across the forgotten cases, and thoughtfully gave them to the New York State Museum for preservation. This incredible collection was featured in a recent article by Hunter Oatman-Stanford on Collectors Weekly, in which he provocatively asks: “If you were committed to a psychiatric institution, unsure if you’d ever return to the life you knew before, what would you take with you?”

The suitcases were photographed by Jon Crispin as part of a larger artistic project documenting abandoned mental hospitals. However, in the context of the Collectors Weekly article, these fascinating suitcases were presented first and foremost as museum or personal objects, and only secondarily as contemporary art images. (Oatman-Stanford does, however, go on to conduct a very interesting article with Crispin about the Willard institution and its patients, which you can read here). This is probably unsurprising considering the slant of the publication, but it nonetheless brings up an interesting blurriness between museum object, artwork, so-called ‘outsider art’ and personal possessions.

Each suitcase is, itself, almost like a mini museum about the owner: a small collection which can give you a glimpse into his or her life and interests. Of course, they were not compiled for this reason, but I think that just paints an even more alluring portrait of the person and what their objects might say about them.

Open suitcase with vintage family photos, clock and fork and knife. Suitcase with old notebooks, books, metronome and small bear figurine. Four little drawers with sewing patterns and hair curling irons. Abandoned suitcase with old family photographs, buttons, wallet, and Camay soap. Open suitcase with black hat and blue shoes. Suitcase with handwritten list of fabrics, sequins, toothbrush, luggage tag, gloves, comb. Old, battered black suitcase. Case with Bible, Christian philosophy booklet, dog figurines, record and rulers.

Suitcase showing war porait and ration book, other personal items

// All images by Jon Crispin, from Collectors Weekly.

 

Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:

Straitjacket embroidered by asylum patient Agnes Richter in the 1890s.

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51 thoughts on “Abandoned suitcases of insane asylum patients

  1. Great project. I would avoid the word “insane” in the title, though (since you’re not directly naming the psychiatric institution). In modern days it’s an offensive terminology. What about “mentally ill”?

    • The term makes me uncomfortable too, but I decided to stay true to the name used in the original collection. The potential pejorative connotations of formerly acceptable terms is something that I’ve been grappling with in my PhD research…freak, deformed, abnormal, cripple, etc. The history of words, and the way they swing in and out of appropriateness is extremely fascinating to me; I think my perspective at the moment is to try and use terminology that is contemporary to the historical period I’m addressing, but do my best to provide enough context that it doesn’t extend offensive connotations. It’s certainly not a perfect strategy, and maybe I missed the mark on this one a bit! Thanks for bringing up a very good point.

      • I love this display! I also totally agree with you Chelsea. We have to use these words in the context they were meant for in their day. We cannot always sanitise history :)
        Happy New Year!

  2. Wow, what a great find! I like your idea of the suitcases being mini museums about the owner. Have you ever come across Christopher Payne’s photographs of State Mental Hospitals? They are quite similar to Crispin’s but are great for giving you a sense of the scale of those places, they were like small villages in themselves -some of them sought to be entirely self-sufficient! I also find the architecture at the hospitals quite fascinating, apparently architects used them as places to try out new ideas. See http://www.chrispaynephoto.com/asylum.html

    • I wrote my dissertation about the architecture of asylums in the UK, and the transition from punitive to curative design. I focused on a place called Hellingly in East Sussex, and met some people who worked there. They commented that it felt like a whole community had been destroyed when they closed the asylum. Christopher Payne’s photos really remind me of this sense of sudden abandonment. Hellingly looked very similar. Thank you so much for the link. I hadn’t heard of Payne before.

      • As it was a BA dissertation, it hasn’t been published. I might return to it next year though, and perhaps try and publish it as a small book which includes more personal accounts. I’m just too busy this year! When I was engaged in research, it was also very difficult to find information on the architecture of such spaces.

      • Hi Max
        Your dissertation sounds fascinating! I would encourage you to continue :) i’d read it! During my 36 years of genealogical research, I happened upon Peter Higginbotham’s fabulous site on workhouses, which in a way are very similar to mental asylums – segregation and often degradation of inmates, control by overseers and ‘matrons’ and also used as last resort for those that wouldn’t fit into society including “lunatics and imbeciles”. Here’s the link to the architecture page http://www.workhouses.org.uk/buildings/ also, if you type the name of an area in the search box at the top of the page, it should come up with a list of workhouses from that area – by clicking on one of those links you generally get a plan and a picture of the building and often a link at the bottom of that page to information from the 1881 census of the staff and inmates of that time.
        All the best!

  3. I saw some of these pictures elsewhere, in some article about this project, and they’ve really stuck with me. It’s such a heartfelt look at something so intimate. I’m tempted to use words like “sad” or “tragic”, but, of course, that might say more about my own perspective and fears than anything.

    • That’s a really interesting point! You’re absolutely right, of course- the power of these objects is just as much about what they reveal about our own reactions. You always have such insightful perspectives, usermattw.

      • I agree with mattw. These personal belongings stir up our emotions. I feel sadness, fear and tragedy for the patients to whom they belong. I despise the term “insanity” as well as “psycho”, “retarded” and “schizo” to name a few. The terms that were once considered as acceptable, have been abused so much in our society today, mostly due to ignorance, Not unlike some of the children I work with, many of these patients would be able to live a better life today. Special thanks to doctors in the field of neurology, psychiatry and disorders of the brain, as well as awareness groups such as N.A.M.I. For myself, the contents of these suitcases tell us so much about the patients there that should be remembered. They suffered illness and great hardship, but, were most likely very intelligent and courageous ladies and gentlemen before their afflictions onset. For that, I honor them!

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  10. This is so tragic. In those days it wasn’t uncommon for people to be admitted who we wouldn’t consider that mentally ill today. As someone who went through a terrible depression for a few years, I’ve often commented that if I had been in a hospital for the same thing back then I’d have been lobotomized by now, not a happily married mother of four. So sad that I would have never been able to take up my sewing, look at my own Bible, or hold my wedding corsage again.

    • Thank you for sharing that, and I’m so glad that you were able to work past your depression and get the chance to find happiness with your family. I too have struggled with it, and I think that is part of the reason this series resonated so strongly with me as well. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that more and more intelligent and successful people like yourself have been using social media to open up about mental illness, and I think this is such an exciting and important shift in the way we think about these issues as a society. Shaking off stigmas of mental illness and talking about things like depression in an honest and open way is the best tribute we could possibly make to the legacy of these suitcases and their owners. Thank you, Erin, for being a positive force in the world!

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  12. Once again, the mentally ill are being abused. These items , these SACRED items, have been put on public display for what? Whatever you’re intentions, i think you capable of something more original than to invade these cherished possessions of someone, who probably clung to them more than ANY social media comment can pontificate or understand. i respectfully think this is sensationalism gone wry, and for what?

    • I think your comments raise an important point about the display of someone’s personal items and how it can sometimes can walk the line between exploitation and celebration. And you’re right that my comments certainly can’t capture what these items meant to the person whom they belonged to. But I think that act of trying to imagine what the lives of their owners might have been like is the very definition of empathy, prompting to us to think about the real people who existed beyond the stigma of mental illness. I personally feel Crispin’s photographs address these objects in a very respectful way, as a way of honoring the memory of people who might have once been locked away from society and forgotten about. Displaying the suitcases that were lovingly preserved by nurses decades ago is, I think, a way of revealing an important hidden history that doesn’t make it into official history books; it is a way of giving a voice to people who, in their day, probably weren’t given much of one.

      That being said, I do think it is really important to think critically about the politics of display. While I do not think that this series represents the abuse of people with mental illness, it is always valid to question the motivations behind these sorts of representation, particularly when the people involved can’t consent to the collection and display of their things.

      • “It is a way of giving a voice to people who, in their day, probably weren’t given much of one.” That’s how I feel. The project also reveals their personality. These people were not their “insanity.” They had goals and dreams, thoughts and loves. And they are mostly forgotten to history. This project gives them respect they may not have been afforded in life.

  13. This is a phenomenal site. Is there a way to identify and possibly lay claim to the property of a family member. My grandmother Anna Katherine COUGHTRY Hallenbeck
    Born 5 April 1876 in Bethlehem, (Albany, )New York, died in a mental institution in New York State
    on 18 October 1934. How can I ever find records or information, with so little to go on?

  14. I would give anything to read those technical notes in the second display. I have known a few people considered insane who were actually brilliant, far beyond their peers. Isaac Newton was institutionalized when he came up with his theory of gravitation, and we see today how great an impact has had on our civilization. These items are priceless, perhaps many beyond our reach of understanding until a future time when we are evolved enough to interpret them.

  15. There is a great song that would go nicely with these photos by Australian duo called Luluc and it’s called “Little Suitcase”. Here it is!

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  21. Has anyone else noticed that many of the photos are of African-Americans? Is it possible that many of these supposedly insane people were suffering the effects of racism?

  22. These are wonderful and poignant. I cannot look at these however, without wondering what I would have taken with me. You see, I am a transsexual woman that was born in 1961. If I had ‘come out’, or been diagnosed in the 60′s or even possibly in the 70′s there is a very good chance I would have been sent to an asylum… so it seems especially touching to me. “There but for the grace of God go I”.

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