Any mention of the word asylum, and you imagine people cut-off from society, sometimes even removed from reality. The Willard Asylum for the Insane in Upstate New York was certainly no exception to this. Patients brought to this institution had no knowledge of the permanency of their visit, often bringing small suitcases packed with meager necessities, revealing their ignorance of why they were taken to Willard. Photographer Jon Crispin shot these suitcases, seemingly frozen in time. Each piece of luggage appeared to be undisturbed; looking as they did on those fateful days each one of their owners disappeared into the asylum.
Sadly, most of those that went in never came out. The Asylum had an average of 30 years stay per patient, with death oftentimes the only way out of the hospital. Those that died while committed were buried in nameless graves across the street, identified by a dehumanizing number. Of the 54,000 patients committed to Willard during its years of operation from the 1800s to 1995, 5776 were buried in the cemetery.
The Willard Asylum has been in existence for 126 years, but what really happened behind its brick walls? Rumors do not go away of procedures like lobotomies, experimental psychiatric drugs and electroshock therapy appallingly used on patients. No one will ever know, as Willard is no longer in operation. One can now visit the facility through a guided tour. It was in 1995 that 400 suitcases were found in an attic at the asylum, most of which date from 1910 to 1960. What the contents of those suitcases revealed were the last possessions of the mentally impaired as they, for all intents and purposes, left the world for good.
“It’s such compelling stuff. These people were essentially prisoners inside,” lamented Crispin to Mailonline. “Their families largely abandoned them. They gave them a suitcase and had them committed. Either their families filled them up or the patients themselves did. Looking at these suitcases, you just get the idea that that these people really had lives outside before they went to Willard.” Crispin further observed with much sorrow, “The overwhelming thing that I take from it is it’s all personal. I can look at the objects in these cases and get a strong idea of what the people who owned them was like.”
View the suitcases shot by Crispin and the personal effects in them, left behind by those frequently misunderstood people who were often conveniently labeled “insane.”