Suitcases Discovered in an Insane Asylum Reveal Secret Lives of Patients

When the New York State Office of Mental Health closed the Willard Psychiatric Center in 1995, Bev Courtwright, a Willard employee, was asked to go through the buildings to determine “what should be salvaged.”

Courtwright was astonished to discover a museum-worthy collection of over 400 old suitcases. The cases, which contained the belongings of former patients, have been stored there sometime between 1910 and 1960 when their owners were admitted to Willard.

The suitcases are now under the care of the New York State Museum. A small number of the cases have been displayed in the museum and photographer Jon Crispin has had opportunity of photographing their contents.

Let’s take a look at some of them.

Fred B

fred b suitcase 1

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fred b suitcase 2

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Clarissa B

Clarissa B suitcase 1

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Clarissa B suitcase 2

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Maude K

“Maude had 3 cases. The wicker case and the “4 winners” box were empty. But the suitcase contained her tools for working with leather.”

Maude K suitcase 1

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Maude K suitcase 2

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Maude K suitcase 3

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Maude K suitcase 4

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Maude K suitcase 5

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Maude K suitcase 6

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Freda B

Freda B suitcase 1

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Freda B suitcase 2

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Freda B suitcase 3

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“These objects open a small window into the lives of some of the people who lived at the facility, and I am determined to share them with as many people as possible.”

Anna G

Anna G suitcase 1

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Anna G suitcase 2

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John C

“This was another fairly early case which I shot in February of 2011. It has a rather odd collection of items, but I loved the coin purse with the keys. In the last shot you can see how the New York State museum staff individually wrapped each of the two keys. Such a great amount of care was used in preserving the cases and their contents.”

John C suitcase 1

Jon Crispin

John C suitcase 2

Jon Crispin

Mary W

Mary W suitcase 1

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Mary W suitcase 2

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Raymond H

Raymond H suitcase 1

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Raymond H suitcase 2

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Charles L

“This case was the only one so far that contained a musical instrument.”

Charles L suitcase 1

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Charles L suitcase 2

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Eleanor G

Eleanor G suitcase 1

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Eleanor G suitcase 2

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Eleanor G suitcase 3

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Anna B

“Anna had three separate wrapped items. The two cases were similar, but the radio was a complete surprise to me. She clearly liked to do needlework, and as can be seen in the books and papers, she was learning English and the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Anna B suitcase 1

Jon Crispin

Anna B suitcase 2

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Anna B suitcase 3

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Dmytre Z

“Dmytre lived at Willard for most of his adult life. He was a prolific artist, and his paintings were hung in various buildings at the institution.”

Dmytre Z suitcase 1

Jon Crispin

Dmytre Z suitcase 2

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Dmytre Z suitcase 3

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Thelma R

Thelma R suitcase 1

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Thelma R suitcase 2

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Mary R

“Mary R obviously came from Eastern Europe and had an interesting collection of clippings as well as some fine needlework.

Mary R suitcase 1

Jon Crispin

Mary R suitcase 2

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Helen R

“Helen’s case is one of the few that was wrapped in this type of heavy paper. She was admitted to Willard on 19 January 1968.”

Helen R suitcase 1

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Helen R suitcase 2

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Carlos F

Carlos F suitcase 1

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Carlos F suitcase 2

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Carlos F suitcase 3

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Peter L

Peter L suitcase 1

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Peter L suitcase 2

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Steffan K

“This case belonged to Steffan (who also went by the name Steve). It presented an interesting dilemma for me as I was immediately attracted to the clock but then began to feel guilty that I was more interested in the object than in the case itself and in Steffan’s life. It was good to sort this feeling out in a relatively early part of the process. But I still love this clock.”

Steffan K suitcase 1

Jon Crispin

Steffan K suitcase 2

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Steffan K suitcase 3

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Steffan K suitcase 4

Jon Crispin

Credit: Jon Crispin

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