When the Willard Psychiatric Centre in Upstate New York closed in 1995 in preparation to be turned into a rehabilitation centre, one of its staff unlocked an attic door, and found a room full of secrets: 500 suitcases coated in dust and cobwebs that had been put into storage between 1910 and 1960 – men’s on the left, women’s on the right, alphabetized, labeled –  when their owners were admitted to Willard, many of whom never left…

An American freelance photographer, Jon Crispin, spent the past decade documenting the contents of each suitcase, opening a small window into the lives of some of the people who lived at the facility – which I just lost myself reading about today on his beautiful blog.

Crispin has always had a fascination for abandoned buildings, especially asylums, coming across Willard in the 1980s driving back from a wedding with a friend who showed him the 1860s building. After learning about the Willard suitcases – which by then had been moved into storage and catalogued by the New York State Museum who featured them in a major 2004 exhibition The Lives They Left Behind – Crispin eventually sought permission to photograph each case and its contents.

Chapin House, Willard’s central building.

I photographed the first case on 17 March 2011.  I remember setting up my wrinkled background and fiddling with my lights.  It struck me at the time that it would be interesting to document the entire process of shooting the cases, including what they looked like after the museum had wrapped them back up after the conservation process,” says Jon.

It was so exciting to open up the cases. You can see letters that were written and never mailed, you can see personal care items, clothing, there are artefacts from the lives that these people lived. There are all sorts of things that people decided to bring with them. That’s another element of it that’s interesting to me; some choice was made as to what to take. It’s almost as if it were a time capsule that was put away and forgotten about,” he told Collector’s Weekly.

While pouring over Jon’s site, I lost myself reading the fascinating story of the project, the pictures, reading comments, following up links to other sites and looking up various information on the Willard Asylum itself. It seems that after passing, many of the residents were buried in a large “cemetery”  where the graves were not marked, kept track of, nor were the grounds particularly cared for.  The graves were dug by many of the patients themselves as part of their work programme.

In contrast, Jon brings warmth and dignity to the patients’ lives through the possessions of theirs he photographs. Since he started the project in 2011, Jon has photographed each of the 500 suitcases – that’s over 50,000 photos – all of which you can see here.  It’s impossible to choose ‘favourites’, which would also be disrespectful, but I picked out some below to give you a flavour of the project.

willard suitcases project
Margaret came to Willard with her entire household, so needless to say her collection is huge and it took 5 months to photograph. Included in her suitcase are quite a number of sewing items, meticulous notes on travel planning – even her car, a 1934 Dodge Coupe, as well as all the paperwork relating to the purchase.

See all the photos of Margaret’s suitcase, here.

 

Dmytre Z who lived at Willard for most of his adult life. He was committed in 1953 and stayed in the hospital for 24 years until he died in 2000. He was a prolific artist, and his paintings were hung in various buildings at the institution. There’s even a black and white photo of him holding one of his works.

See all the photos of Dmytre’s suitcase, here.

 

Josephine’s case was different than most in that her name was stencilled on the outside. In one photograph you can see a wedding invitation that she received while at Willard.

See all the photos of Josephine’s suitcase, here.
 

Thelma’s suitcase is one of Jon’s favourites for many reasons. “I love the dogs (all 3) and the Decca recording of Tony Martin’s “I Guess I’ll Have To Dream The Rest”, and her journal entry about going to the dentist is interesting.

See all the photos of Thelma’s suitcase, here.

Get lost discovering the entire collection of Willard Suitcases, here, and reading Jon’s blog, here.

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