Thursday, 22 October 2015

Inside the Suitcases Found Abandoned in a New York Loft 40 Years Ago...

I was on the hunt for a vintage vanity case when this heartwarming story caught my eye, which is too good not to share. When the Willard Psychiatric Centre in Upstate New York closed in 1995 in preparation to be turned into a prison, one of its staff unlocked an attic door, and found a room full of secrets: 400 suitcases coated in dust and cobwebs that had been put into storage between 1910 and 1960, when their owners were admitted to Willard, many of whom died there... 

Now, an American freelance photographer, Jon Crispin, has started documenting the contents of each one, a project he began a couple of years ago. "These objects open a small window into the lives of some of the people who lived at the facility and I am determined to share them with as many people as possible," he says. 

Chapin House, Willard's central building.
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. He became fascinated and soon gained access to begin shooting inside, eventually finding out about the cases. 

'This case was photographed in March of 2011 and is from my first shoot. Here is a link to my thoughts about how I was feeling at the time.'

"It's amazing to me to be able to open these cases up," Crispin told Collectors' Weekly. "You can see letters that were written and never mailed, you can see personal care items, clothing, there are artifacts 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."

'Dmytre Z lived at Willard for most of his adult life. He was a prolific artist, and his paintings were hung in various buildings at the institution. We even have a black and white photo of him holding one of his works.'

What's most interesting is that each case tells a story, not only about the person, but about why they were in Willard, whether they packed the case themselves and had access to it while they were there. "Initially, my idea was to pair the suitcase photographs with some indication of why these people were in Willard. As the project evolved, I found I wasn't that interested in such a literal connection. The suitcases themselves tell me everything I want to know about these people. I don't really care if they were psychotic; I care that this woman did beautiful needlework. I'm much more interested in the objects themselves and what people thought was important to have with them when they were sent away."

'Peter's case is one of my favorites. I love the grip itself, and the green color of the shaving soap is my favorite. Love the labels too.'

"Some people at Willard definitely had access to the thing they brought with them," says Crispin. "For example, one case was filled with what look to be leather-working tools, and it's pretty clear that this person used those tools because these facilities had time allotted for arts and crafts. The suitcases also contain lots of letters received by people while living at Willard, and there were lots of letters that were written at the asylum but never mailed. There were also examples of things written by people who were obsessive-compulsive, like the guy who wrote down the name of every railroad station in the United States on page after page of his notebooks." 

'Thelma's suitcase is one of my favorites 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.'

Crispin noted that many of the owners of the suitcases were buried across the road in the Willard Cemetery. Some of the suitcases were separated from the patients when they were transferred to other institutions; other times the families didn't want to deal with them. "There are so many questions to do with this whole story," Crispin told Slate.

'Josephine's case was different than most. I like the stenciled name on the outside. In one photograph you can see a wedding invitation that she received while at Willard.'

See inside all of the Willard Suitcases so far, here and follow John's blog, here.

1 comment:

  1. This is amazing Els! What a fantastic article!!! xx