“There were many patients in these asylums who were probably not unlike friends you and I have now.”
Photographer Jon Crispin has long been drawn to the ghostly remains of abandoned psychiatric institutions. After learning of the Willard suitcases, Crispin sought the museum’s permission to document each case and its contents. In 2011, Crispin completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first phase of the project, which he recently finished. (Crispin’s current Kickstarter campaign would help him to finish the project entirely.) Next spring, a selection of his photos will accompany the inaugural exhibit at the San Francisco Exploratorium’s new location.
Crispin’s photographs restore a bit of dignity to the individuals who spent their lives within Willard’s walls. Curiously, the identities of these patients are still concealed by the state of New York, denied even to living relatives. Each suitcase offers a glimpse into the life of a unique individual, living in an era when those with mental disorders and disabilities were not only stigmatized but also isolated from society.
Jon Crispin: I’ve worked as a freelance photographer my whole life. In addition to doing work for clients, I’ve always kept my eye out for projects that interest me. In the ’80s, I came across some abandoned insane asylums in New York State, and thought, wow, I’d really like to get in these buildings and photograph them.
So I applied for a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, got it, and spent a couple of years photographing the interiors and exteriors of these buildings. When the psychiatric programs moved out and shut things down, they basically just closed the doors and walked away. They left all kinds of amazing objects inside these buildings, including patient records in leather-bound volumes.
“I don’t really care if they were psychotic; I care that this woman did beautiful needlework.”
Craig Williams at the New York State Museum fights an ongoing battle to bring objects like these into the collection, and that’s what happened. Willard was being closed as a psych center and converted to a treatment facility for criminals with drug problems. So the New York State Museum received this collection of suitcases, and displayed a few of the cases in 2004. I asked Craig if I could photograph these things, and he said, “Go right ahead.”
Crispin: Willard is this tiny town where multiple generations of people worked in the asylum, like a father would work there and then his daughter would be a nurse there, and so on. I have a theory that the relationship between the patients and the staff was so close, that the staff couldn’t just throw these possessions away when they died. There’s a cemetery on the grounds, and most of these patients were buried right there. And they kept storing their suitcases and moving them around as certain buildings were closed. Then, of course, with de-institutionalization huge numbers of patients were basically turned out onto the street.
Collectors Weekly: Why were the suitcases left untouched for so long?
Crispin: Willard was a facility for people with chronic mental illness. Originally, doctors thought that all you had to do was remove people from the stresses and strains of society, give them a couple of years to get their life together, and they’d get better. Eventually people realized they needed facilities where patients could come and never leave. There’s some question as to whether or not the patients themselves packed their suitcases, or if their families did it for them. But the suitcases sent along with them generally contained whatever the incoming patient wanted or thought they might need.
Crispin: There were many levels of mental illness in these places. Some people were in really bad shape, and sometimes had to be restrained, completely unable to function in any kind of society or environment. Those people probably did not have access to their suitcases.
“It wasn’t some hellhole where people were chained to the walls.”
But a large number of people at the asylum were ambulatory. They were out and about; they worked at the farm; they did artwork. Some of these places even had their own dance bands. The Utica State Hospital had a literary journal. There were many patients in these asylums who were probably not unlike friends you and I have now. The reasons why people were put in these facilities ranged from everything to serious psychoses and delusions to people who couldn’t get over the death of a parent or a spouse. Other people were institutionalized just because they were gay.