Suitcases of the Dead Tell the Haunting History of an Upstate New York Asylum
The Willard Asylum, located in Ovid, NY - just 2 hours from another infamous asylum in Utica - has a long and disturbing history. The stories of how patients were treated, and what passed for therapy years ago is unsettling, but the stories are really brought to life by hundreds of suitcases - discovered untouched in the asylum's attic - belonging to patients who died before they were able to leave Willard.
Our understanding of psychiatric issues has evolved over the last 100 years. Back in 1869, when Willard welcomed its first patient, asylums were "essentially a dumping ground for undesirables. Patients’ afflictions ranged from severe mental and physical handicaps to 'nervousness,' 'chronic' to 'acute' insanity, feeblemindedness' and 'lunacy,'" writes Atlas Obscura.
While Willard tried to treat its patients with dignity, in practice, the facility was as much a prison as it was a hospital. There were floors dedicated to electroshock and ice bath therapies, along with a crematorium and morgue. Patients were confined until the hospital deemed them well enough to leave, and many never did.
When the hospital finally closed in 1985, hundreds of suitcases were discovered in the attic, left behind by patients who never set foot outside Willard once they arrived. A photographer, Jon Crispin, has documented the cases and their contents - giving us an insight into the lives of the residents of Willard, and the items they brought with them.
The contents of the suitcases range from the practical - toothpaste and sewing kits - to the whimsical - a collection of small dog statues and a record. Each case was carefully reserved by hospital employees. Crispin confirms patients could access the cases, taking items back to their rooms to enjoy, if they wanted.
You can see the full photographic collection of the Willard Suitcases on Crispin's website, WillardSuitcases.com Crispin details shooting the cases and more on his blog. Be sure to see Josephine S, who hailed from Canandaigua.