The Willard Asylum for the Insane in New York was built in 1869 and closed in 1995 (to reopen as a drug rehabilitation facility). At its peak it housed 4000 patients, and more than half of the 50,000 people who called it their home died there: Although attempts were made to integrate later patients back into society, in its early days “people didn’t leave unless it was in a box.”
Asylum inmates were allowed to bring one case of possessions with them, and between 1910 and 1960 many of these suitcases were stored upon their deaths. When the facility was closed, the New York State Museum was given the opportunity to remove some historic items and one of the workers found the cases. After a small selection was displayed at the museum, photographer Jon Krispin launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to document the suitcases and their contents. The results are fascinating and heartbreaking.
Earlier today I uploaded Agnes J’s case to the willardsuitcases.com site….She is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that her satchel contained a wealth of correspondence that revealed so much about her life. Hers was the first case that I shot with so much personal information.
There is a line in the letter below that explains so much about her being sent to Willard.
“But don’t come back to the Y.W. and threaten to kill that girl again–that’s what put you where you are now.” Chilling and so sad.
You can see the photos at Krispin’s blog and at the Willard Asylum Suitcases site. It’s a unique glimpse into the lives of these people, and the things they found important enough to bring with them on their (often one-way) trip to the asylum.