What Psychiatric Ward Patients Left Behind In Their Century Old Suitcases

Wednesday, October 13th. 1869. A steamboat docks at Ovid Landing in New York and down the plank walks Mary Rote. She had been chained in the Columbia County in a New York poorhouse for 10 years without a bed or clothing. She now became patient number one at the Willard Asylum.

For over 125 years, Willard Asylum housed those people who the state deemed mentally ill. Here they would live amongst the woods and receive medical care. It later changed its name to the Willard State Hospital and within years of its opening, it grew into the largest asylum in the United States. The hospital would eventually close in 1995 and turn into a drug rehab center for prisoners.

Before that happened though, Bev Courtwright, a Willard employee, was assigned the job of salvaging useable property at the hospital. During this process, she discovered the suitcases of former patients tucked away in an attic. The hospital used this attic from 1910 to 1960 to store the patients’ personal belongings. Since many stayed here permanently due to their chronic illnesses, the hospital never removed these belongings.

In 2011, the hospital gave photographer Jon Crispin a chance to document the suitcases. As Crispin puts it:

It was very moving to read the stories of these people, and to see artifacts from their lives before they became residents of the Asylum.

While looking through these photos, it’s quite striking to imagine the lives of these patients and what they felt when they used their belongings such as the makeup cases and alarm clocks. If only these objects could speak.

If you enjoyed Jon Crispin’s work, you can see more of his photos on the Willard Suitcases site.