of the Past
found in a state asylum attic help reclaim the lives of forgotten
patients—and make us ponder the definition of mental illness
Photographs By John Whipple
a shocking juxtaposition of photographs. In a large, framed
portrait, there is an elegantly dressed, handsome woman who
appears to be in her mid-30s. Her clothes suggest that the
portrait was taken in the second decade of the last century;
she is clearly upper-class, and wears a confident smile. On
the adjacent wall, there are a series of small headshots of
the same woman. In each photo, she’s noticeably older and
less happy—with each shot, it’s as if a measurable amount
of life had been taken from her. In the last picture, she
seems totally defeated.
In three tall glass cases, along with the framed portrait,
are a collection of the woman’s things: photos, souvenir booklets
from exotic locales, a selection of sheet music, a heavy purple
robe, some high-quality fabrics and linen, two pairs of expensive,
almost comically dainty shoes, a few books and (oddly enough)
a presidential campaign poster for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The woman is Irma, who was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1878 and
was a longtime patient at the Willard Psychiatric Center in
central New York. Irma is one of a dozen former patients featured
in the exhibit Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases From
a State Hospital Attic, on view through Sept. 19 at the
New York State Museum. (People are identified by first name
only, to protect their privacy.)
According to the information posted with her belongings, Irma
was admitted to Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital in 1933, suffering
hallucinations and paranoia. She had written to President
Roosevelt seeking help—which explains the poster. She was
transferred to Willard in 1939. In her three decades upstate,
she received no psychiatric treatment. She died at Willard
Taken together, what do the pictures and items mean?
don’t know if the exhibit was structured so much to give answers,
as to raise questions for people,” says State Museum historian
and curator Craig Williams.
It was Williams who, with former state mental health official
Darby Penney and psychiatrist Dr. Peter Stastny, was responsible
for sorting through the almost 500 suitcases found in the
attic of one of Willard’s unused buildings in 1994, when the
facility was closed. (Half of them proved to be empty.)
had already committed enormous resources,” Williams recalls,
in the effort to preserve, transport and archive records,
furniture and a host of items from what was once one of the
largest psychiatric facilities in the United States. Then,
two employees let Williams and Penney know about the attic
containing the suitcases. Pondering the possibility that the
suitcases might never have been found, and the lives of the
people who owned them irrevocably lost, Williams muses: “If
it wasn’t for the help of the staff—many of these people having
just been laid off. . . .”
The significance of the find is apparent.
For the better part of 140 years, we dealt with the mentally
ill by placing them in large institutions. Sometimes they
received treatment; sometimes they didn’t. The salient point
is that these patients were, for the rest of society, out
of sight and out of mind. The contents of these cases, when
matched with the corresponding medical records and photographs,
put these people right in front of us. We have to think about
them, and consider how and why we locked them away—often for
Where did the idea of cen- tralizing the mentally ill in huge
asylums come from?
Brad Edmonson is writing a history of New York’s state mental
asylums, Empire of Madness, which will be published
next year. “The idea of the mental hospital was brought over
to New York from England,” he explains.
Edmonson describes the concept as being a hugely attractive
idea in the mid-19th century. Doctors favored it because it
would give them the opportunity to study large numbers of
the mentally ill. Humanitarians saw asylums as a means to
get sick people out of poorhouses and jails, and into a setting
where they would have an improved quality of life. The public
was more than happy to get the mentally ill off the streets—and
out of sight. Finally—and probably, most importantly—politicians
loved the idea of large hospitals. Such institutions would
open up vast opportunities for patronage jobs and pork-barrel
The first state hospital opened in Utica in 1843. It quickly
filled up. And despite the promises of doctors with respect
to treatment and rehabilitation, Edmonson says it was clear
that a lot of the patients who checked in would never check
Up popped the idea—courtesy of a Dr. John R. Chapin—of asylums
for the incurably insane. This was very controversial; humanitarians
were very uncomfortable with the concept, as it seemed to
condemn patients to lives of “exile and hopelessness.”
Yet, the poorhouses and jails were still full of the mentally
Capital Region native Sylvester Willard, who was then surgeon-general
of New York state, urged the construction of a large asylum
for the mentally ill. The bill to authorize this hospital
was in the legislature when Willard died of typhoid in April
1865. This was “a stroke of good fortune for the asylum,”
Edmonson dryly notes, as the cause now had a martyr. The bill
establishing the Willard State Hospital sailed through the
set on the shores of Seneca Lake in some of the most beautiful
country in New York state, became one of the largest mental
facilities in the United States. It remained so for the next
120 years. At its height, Willard was a community unto itself
with living quarters for both staff and patients. It had its
own fire department, a short line railroad that connected
with a freight mainline, an excursion boat, a performance
hall, a large cemetery and all the other amenities that a
village of that size would require.
In June 1928, Willard had 2,649 patients. By 1950, this number
had grown to 4,076. Until the early 1960s, there were hundreds
of acres of land under cultivation (the patients worked the
fields). Large-scale institutionalization became too expensive,
however, and increasingly unattractive both politically and
medically. By 1974, Willard had only 1,000 or so patients;
it was closed down in 1995.
Let’s meet a few more people in the exhibit.
can’t say I’m crazy, but they are good to me.”
So said Ethel, who was committed by her landlady in 1930 when
she refused to get out of her bed.
stars and garters, I was sick,” Ethel later said. She certainly
had reason to be: Her marriage to an abusive alcoholic had
recently ended. Prior to that, she had two babies who died
shortly after being born.
An accomplished seamstress, Ethel’s items included a quilt,
a set of silver spoons, two bibles and baby clothes.
According to the exhibit, Ethel made fun of the idea that
other patients heard voices. A medical review undertaken when
she was 40 years old described her as “hypochondrical,” but
polite and very eager to talk about her life with the interviewing
doctor—in fact she talked so fast that the secretary transcribing
the interview couldn’t get down everything she said. Ethel
never received any psychiatric medications in her entire time
Born to a wealthy Filipino family, Roderigo arrived in the
United States in 1907. He was a student, and deeply interested
in both religion and Filipino nationalism. His items reflect
this: there are books and hymnals, school pennants, photographs
and a full-length, handwritten, unpublished manuscript. Though
he considered becoming a minister, he eventually found work
as a domestic in Buffalo. It was here that, after complaining
of hearing voices (of a spiritual kind), he was admitted to
Buffalo State Hospital in 1917. Transferred to Willard two
years later, he remained there for the rest of his life.
An evaluation from the mid-1930s describes Roderigo as “well
behaved, polite, mannerly, cooperative, neat and clean, never
causes trouble, very willing to help with yard work, takes
an interest in life, plays checkers, reads books, (and) writes
simple poetry.” A later evaluation, from the 1960s, notes
that “years of institutionalization appear to have been a
mistake, as far as duration, as this man appears in perfect
mental condition now.” When he was showing a group of former
staff members through the exhibit, a woman told Craig Williams
that she remembered Roderigo from near the end of his time
there—she said he was a polite, caring person who was always
willing to help people. He died at Willard in 1981.
Herman was diagnosed an epileptic. He was 24 years old when
admitted to Craig Colony, a state hospital for epileptics,
in 1908. He took an interest in photography, and the items
in his suitcase are almost all related to this: a large camera,
photographic plates and a collection of photography books
and magazines. By 1930, the exhibit notes that he was “depressed
and uncommunicative.” He was transferred to Willard, where
the admitting physician found no reason “for this patient
being at a state institution for the insane.” He died there
A photograph he took at Craig Colony remained displayed at
that hospital for years after Herman was transferred to Willard—where
he never took another picture. When he was offered the chance
to leave Willard late in life, Herman refused: “Where would
I go? No place to go.”
Williams points out a few things most of the patients in the
exhibit have in common. There is a common interest in the
arts; the group includes a number of writers, a painter, a
dressmaker, a few musicians and the photographer. Many are
immigrants. Williams remembers reading many medical reports
with notations along the lines of “yes, but we couldn’t understand
what he was saying.” Most had no network of family and friends.
was no family to give them support,” Williams observes.
wanted to include him in the exhibit,” explains Williams,
“but his medical file is missing.”
is referring to a patient named Fred. Born in a typical small
town in rural Steuben County in 1898, Fred was admitted to
Willard in June 1923. What his diagnosis was, what kind of
treatments he received and what progress he made is unknown.
The entire box that contained his medical records is missing,
notes Williams. Maybe it was destroyed; maybe it was only
mislabeled and will turn up in the museum’s collection someday.
What does exist is a diary from 1926, and the rest of the
contents of two suitcases.
A photocopy of the diary is available to read as part of the
exhibit. Each entry is brief, and, while Fred wouldn’t have
won a grammar or spelling contest, is neatly written in an
even, cursive script. He methodically recorded the main activities
of his day.
What Fred did not write down is how he felt about anything
he did, or what he thought about anything he read. Except
in one instance, he never refers to another human being.
Reading through the diary, the routine of his life at Willard
emerges. Saturday was bath night. Monday was movie night at
Hadley Hall, Willard’s performing-arts center; he attended
faithfully (but gave no opinions about any film, though he
often listed their titles). For reading material, Fred favored
the New York World newspaper. He smoked. He cleaned
bathrooms and cut wood. And, he was allowed to leave the grounds
and mingle in the nearby communities just like anyone else.
Asked if this was unusual, Brad Edmonson replies “no.” Some
patients, he explains, were allowed a degree of autonomy.
For example, there is Lawrence, Willard’s longtime gravedigger
and one of the patients featured in the exhibit. Lawrence
lived alone in a shack by the graveyard, and worked more-or-less
unsupervised for decades.
Not surprisingly, patient freedom was directly related to
how “disorderly” they were. Many patients were not a threat
for escape, Edmonson says, for a simple reason: “They didn’t
have any place to go.”
Fred’s diary begins on the day after Christmas, 1925. He recounts
how he walked to the depot and took the train to nearby Geneva,
and then another train to Seneca Falls to eat dinner. He bought
a fountain pen and a day book in Geneva on the return trip.
Fred recorded his train journeys carefully. Tuesday, Jan.
12, was his birthday; he took the train to nearby Ovid and
back. (Ovid was on a branch line only about 2.5 miles from
where he would have caught the train on the mainline.) On
Friday, Jan. 26, he ventured farther afield. He traveled to
Ithaca, got shaved in a barber shop, ate lunch and “had a
glass of beer.” He records the trip in terms of train times:
“then I walked back to the Lehigh Valley depot and waited
there until the 5.47 train for hoyts corners arrive at buttonwood
at 8.35 got warm and went to bed.”
Fred earned money selling Sunday newspapers. He would walk
to nearby Gilbert and sell the Elmira Telegram in the
morning, return to Willard for “dinner” and then sell more
papers in the afternoon. Over the course of the diary, he
averaged sales of 50 papers every week. It was often “hard
walking,” so he bought a hand sled and had a blacksmith attach
a box to it to haul the papers around.
The last entry in the diary is dated Friday, Feb. 26: “arose.
washed. eat breakfast. made my bed. cleaned up. smoked. went
after the mail. got shaved. eat dinner. helped draw two loads
of wood. eat supper. walked to ovid and got my mail. returned
went to bed.”
Fred was 27 years old when he wrote this. He remained at Willard
until his death in June 1984. Since his case file is gone
or misplaced, this is the only record of anything he did or
was interested in—except for the other contents of the suitcases.
The diary says nothing about his inner life, but the content
of the suitcases does.
Fred’s belongings were in two suitcases, and the items from
each are stored in separate boxes. Williams says that Fred
was unique, in that there were no clothes in either suitcase.
The first box doesn’t have much in it. There’s a letter from
the Metals Tunnel Co. of Denver, Colo., urging all stockholders
to buy more stock: “Get all you can afford.” There is a stack
of salesman’s order forms for the Noe-Equl Hosiery Mills of
Binghamton. There’s a folded copy of a business section of
the New York Herald Tribune, a scrap of paper with
a long list of hand-written figures on it, and, finally, two
railroad publications: the magazine-sized Electric Railway
Journal, dated Sept. 11, 1926, and the phonebook-sized
Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines
of the U.S., Porto Rico, Canada, Mexico and Cuba, dated
Oct. 1925. The latter, a trade journal with a then-hefty cover
price of $2, is extremely well-worn.
Was he a salesman? Did he really own stock in a silver mine?
At least we can be sure of one thing: Fred loved trains.
The second box is packed with papers and ephemera. There is
a stockholder’s report from Silver Leaf Metals Inc., along
with a postcard-sized illustration of their latest endeavor,
the “Crazy Girl” mine, and a copy of the company magazine,
The Western Miner.
Then, on a scrap of envelope that once held a copy of a railway
magazine, there’s an undated letter addressed to “M.J. Van
Sweringen, Cleveland, O.”
Brothers Mantis James and Otis Braxton Van Sweringen are little-known
today, but loom large in the history of business scams. Using
a series of shell companies and stock issues that weren’t
worth the paper they were printed on, they bought controlling
interest in a few of the big railroads of the day. Their game
was ended by the Depression.
Fred’s draft letter reads: “I am interested in your proposed
railroad merger and have watched the papers closely and I
have a plan where it will be easier to merge the railroads
that you have in your plan but others as well and have a road
running from coast to coast. I have worked out the proposed
route but do not have the capital to do it. Send me as much
money and stocks and bonds as you possibly can, I could get
started on an exchange near here.”
Going through the rest of the box, there is evidence that
Fred did indeed work this out: there is a hand-written list
of every freight station from Boston to Chicago on three meandering
routes, one of which was owned by the Van Sweringens. There
is the beginning of a passenger timetable for the “Atlantic
& Pacific Railroad,” and a detailed list of lines to be
It was a revelation—Fred wasn’t just going through the motions
of life. His mind was actively engaged working out ideas and
plans. They weren’t realistic by any means, and may well have
been symptomatic of an illness, but they reveal him to be
an intellectually engaged human being.
Maybe he could have been rehabilitated to the point of leaving
Willard. Maybe not. If his medical file ever turns up, we’ll
know more. The fact is, however, his diary and various plans
went into a suitcase sometime after 1926—there’s nothing in
either dated later than September of that year—and he likely
never saw them again.
The concept of “mental ill-ness” has certainly evolved. Some
of the people in this exhibit would still be good candidates
for hospitalization today; just as many would not. None, it’s
safe to say, needed to be institutionalized for their entire
lives. And it’s frighteningly easy to recognize behaviors
in ourselves, or imagine ourselves in awful situations, that
might have earned any one of us a trip to someplace like Willard.
(I was once obsessed with railroads in almost exactly the
same way that Fred was.)
issue of mental health touches everyone,” Williams reflects.
That is why the exhibit has had such immediate emotional impact
on so many who have seen it. (A minister returned to the exhibit
multiple times and built an entire liturgy around it.)
The people featured in the exhibit, Williams explains, are
“a mirror of society as a whole.” Looking in the mirror isn’t
always easy. But it can be instructive.