Tales From an Attic

Sierra Bellows in The American Scholar: In February 1995, New York Governor George Pataki announced plans to close the Willard Asylum for the Insane, a state-run institution that opened in 1869 on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. Portions of the hospital would be converted into a drug treatment center for prisoners; the rest would be permanently shuttered. Before this could happen, however, the hospital’s many artifacts—for example, its 19th-century medical equipmenat—needed to be documented and preserved. This is what Craig Williams, then a curator at the New York State Museum in Albany, did for much of the spring of 1995. One morning that April, Beverly Courtwright, a longtime storehouse clerk at Willard, told Williams that he needed to see something. She took him to the deteriorated brick structure that once housed Willard’s medical labs and occupational therapy rooms. Together they went up several flights of stairs to the attic, an open loft with exposed wood rafters and a brick wall at one end. In the brick wall was a door. Courtwright didn’t open it, so Williams went through alone.

Frank C., a U.S. Army veteran, was admitted to Willard in 1946, at the age of 35. Following a single outburst at a restaurant in Flatbush, Brooklyn, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. (Photograph by Jon Crispin)

On the other side was a large room. Broken windows and holes in the roof made columns of light out of floating dust. Lining the perimeter were rough-hewn wood shelves speckled with pigeon droppings, and on these shelves were hundreds of old suitcases, each with a handwritten tag bearing a patient’s name and date of admittance. Williams called his supervisors in Albany, asking what he ought to do. Because New York State law allowed for the transfer of property from one state entity to another, the museum could take possession of any or all of the suitcases. Williams’s supervisors told him to keep a small sample—10 suitcases at most—for archiving, and to destroy the rest. But Williams couldn’t countenance that. He decided to save them all.

He returned to the attic a few days later and, with the help of some former Willard employees, wrapped the suitcases in cloth and readied them for transport. A few elderly patients were still living at Willard, awaiting transfer to other institutions, and their suitcases were returned to them. The rest—427 containers, not just suitcases but also trunks, crates, and doctor’s bags—were then sent from the Willard campus to the New York State Museum’s warehouse in Rotterdam, just outside Albany. There, volunteers and interns catalogued the contents of a few cases, but most remained unopened.

A few years later, as New York considered closing more hospitals and asylums, Williams met with the executive staff of the Commissioner of the State’s Office of Mental Health to discuss how the museum might better preserve the history of the state’s mental health treatment facilities. When he displayed images of a few of the Willard suitcases, Darby Penney, the head of the Office of Recipient Affairs, gasped. She and her colleague Peter Stastny, a psychiatrist, began working with Williams to review the contents of the suitcases and match a few of them with the medical records of the patients to whom they belonged.

In 2004, the exhibition “Lost Cases, Recovered Lives” opened at the New York State Museum, structured around a dozen of the Willard suitcases. “Much has been learned about the suitcase owners and the history of the New York State mental health system,” the museum stated at the time. “Curators hope their stories will restore a human dimension to a group of people who have been hidden and forgotten.” “Lost Cases, Recovered Lives” ran for nearly a year and inspired a traveling exhibition that toured for a decade. Penney and Stastny later published a book, The Lives They Left Behind, which told the stories of 10 patients whose possessions had been in the attic. Their last names were changed in accordance with confidentiality laws.

In 2011, Williams granted photographer Jon Crispin access to the Rotterdam warehouse—another way, Williams thought, to preserve the cases and their contents. The first one that Crispin unwrapped belonged to a patient known as Freda B. Mold bloomed on its leather exterior; the interior had cream-colored lining and matching straps that secured a jade-green Bakelite vanity set. The case also contained a yellow alarm clock, a box of Whittemore’s shoe cream, and a book for teachers called Primary Seat Work: Sense Training and Games.

Crispin and his assistant, Peggy Ross, had planned to photograph only a few of the cases. The more they worked, however, the stronger the instinct became to capture every single one. Crispin launched a few successful crowdfunding campaigns to support his work and posted photos online. He had access to the patients’ full names, but in the interests of privacy, he made every effort to conceal their identities. Some cases held addressed envelopes, library call slips, bank statements, and other identifying items. Crispin photoshopped surnames out of every image, leaving only first names and last initials. The blank spots where a surname had been were made to look like the weave of fabric, or the warm ivory color of old paper, or whatever was characteristic of the object’s surface. He added the full names of patients to the metadata of the digital photos in his personal archive, but he made sure to remove those names before posting them online. As he said in a 2012 interview published on the website Collectors Weekly:

I’m still trying to figure out how I can name these people, because I think it dehumanizes them even more not to. People who’ve been in mental institutions themselves have said, “Your project is very moving to me, but I’m very disappointed that you have to obscure names.” I think the stigma of mental illness has evolved from something shameful to something that’s much more medical and much more accepted. It just happens to people. But I’ve been very careful at this point in obscuring names. … I’m not showing their medical records; I’m only talking about the fact that they lived at Willard.

More here.