A Stark Reminder of Abandoned Lives: Willard Asylum for the Insane

willard-state-hospital-abandoned (Image: Julia Wertz via Flickr; see website)

New York’s Willard Asylum for the Insane opened its doors in 1869, and its first patient arrived on October 13. She was brought by boat, docking at Ovid Landing, and escorted off in chains. Described as demented and deformed, her name was Mary Rote. Her records state that she had been confined to a cell for ten years, much of it spent without a place to sleep or anything to wear save a blanket.

willard-state-hospital-abandoned-2 (Image: Julia Wertz via Flickr; see website)

Three men followed close behind her. One had been an inmate for 22 years, and he’d spent so much time confined to his windowless, 5 foot by 6 foot room that he could no longer walk. Another had been in irons for the last three years, his only human contact coming when food was passed through a hole in the door of his cell. Later, another man was brought to the asylum, confined in a chicken crate.

willard-state-hospital-abandoned-4 (Image: Julia Wertz via Flickr; see website)

For many, the offer of a bath, clean clothes and food when they got to Willard was the first kindness they’d experienced in years.

In the mid-1880s, surprise inspections from the state reported conditions unlike any other asylum in New York – or any other state, for that matter. Patients were clean and quiet, not restrained, occupied by various activities like reading or sewing.

willard-state-hospital-abandoned-9 (Image: Julia Wertz via Flickr; see website)

They referred to it as ‘moral treatment’. Those that were capable were urged to work, tending the grounds and the gardens, working as carpenters or cobblers, preparing food in the kitchens and the bakeries or washing clothes in the laundry.

willard-state-hospital-abandoned-5 (Image: Julia Wertz via Flickr; see website)

Plays were staged, auditoriums built, readings given, and professional actors and musicians were brought in. There were picnics and dances, and there were school lessons. By the turn of the century, guidelines were in place for the education and training of nurses and attendants. Willard Asylum for the Insane suffered through the years of the first and second world wars, with staff reduced severely.

willard-state-hospital-abandoned-6 (Image: Julia Wertz via Flickr; see website)

The asylum became associated with area schools, giving students practical experience in nursing and psychiatric care.

While conditions were considerably better than other institutions, illness and disease – especially tuberculosis, diphtheria and typhoid fever were a constant threat. The flu was rampant. In 1955, the asylum was at its height with more than 4,000 residents. Over the course of its history it was home to more than 50,000 people…. and around half of them died there.

willard-state-hospital-abandoned-7 (Image: Julia Wertz via Flickr; see website)

Treatments like electroshock therapy were still used, but so were musical treatments and occupational therapy. The ultimate goal was the rehabilitation of its patients, but as the years passed, the institution became less of a rural paradise and more of a traditional asylum.

willard-state-hospital-abandoned-8 (Image: Julia Wertz via Flickr; see website)

The Willard Asylum closed in 1995, after more than a century of use, home to hundreds of people at any one time. The average stay of a patient at Willard was 30 years, and many of them never left.

That’s where the suitcases came from.

When the institution was closing, workers made a heartbreakingly poignant discovery in the hospital’s attic. Around 400 suitcases were neatly packed and stacked away by attendants who hadn’t been able to bring themselves to simply throw away the possessions of those who had come to the asylum and never left. Each suitcase had originally been packed by the patients or their families, and they contained the most important treasures of their lives outside Willard Asylum for the Insane.

willard-state-hospital-suitcases-2 (Image: Jon Crispin – Willard Suitcases)

Photographer Jon Crispin, who was already known for his work in photographing abandoned asylums, raised the money to fund a project that would document the suitcases and give us a look into the lives contained in each one.

The results are astonishing. They’re heart-breaking, they’re poignant, they’re a time capsule and a link to the past. Some are hopeful. Some…. some are sad.

Dmytre brought photographs, of a man and a woman in dress clothes, of the Virgin Mary, of wartime artwork. Eleanor brought clothes, delicately embroidered, buttons for future projects, and patterns for sewing. Fred brought his datebook, and a guide to railway lines. Thelma brought her diary, her Bible, and a few small statues of dogs. Maude brought her tools for leather-working, and Freda brought her alarm clock, her little whisk broom, and a small statue of a little black dog.

willard-state-hospital-suitcases (Image: Jon Crispin – Willard Suitcases)

In many cases, patients’ families forgot about them when they went to Willard. When they died, there was no one to collect their personal possessions, but the staff of the institution also didn’t want to throw them away. The storage system was put in place from the 1920s to the 1960s, with each suitcase carefully wrapped and preserved, marked with tags identifying the owner and the dates they arrived at Willard Asylum for the Insane.

Many are buried in the nearby cemetery.

Keep Reading – Hart Island: The Tragic Story of New York City’s Forgotten ‘Potter’s Field’


About the author: Debra Kelly



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