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Out of the Past
Suitcases found in a state asylum attic help reclaim the lives of forgotten patients—and make us ponder the definition of mental illness

By Shawn Stone
Photographs By John Whipple

It’s 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 in 1971.

Taken together, what do the pictures and items mean?

“I 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.)

“We 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 life.

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 spending.

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 out.

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 ill.

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 Legislature.

Willard, 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.

“I 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.

“My 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 at Willard.

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 in 1965.

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.

“There was no family to give them support,” Williams observes.

‘We wanted to include him in the exhibit,” explains Williams, “but his medical file is missing.”

Williams 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 merged.

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.)

“The 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.

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