The past has always been something that constantly catches the attention of archaeologists, reporters and artists who are always seeking for inspiration. They feel like revisiting these past events will provoke their minds enough to create masterpieces. Jon Crispin is exactly one example of a person who has dedicated his life to documenting the contents of the bags and suitcases of former patients of the Willard Asylum in Finger Lakes Region in New York. He has taken some fascinating shots that reveal a lot about the people that used to call this asylum their home.
Willard Asylum, a building with a stunning architecture that belongs to the mid-19th century, closed down in 1995. Despite its closing down, this asylum is still a significant part of history that is appreciated and recognized as a building with endless stories to tell.
Nowadays, even though the place is absolutely abandoned, it still gives a creepy sensation as if it is haunted, as if the ghosts of the former patients do nothing but roam around the building.
Willard Asylum was first opened solely for the purpose of providing retreat for mentally ill people who were poorly treated in the facilities they used to live before. In this asylum, productive work and newly-invented methods were used to treat the patients and reintegrate them. At least, that’s what it was thought to be at the time. Now, it is clear that Willard Asylum was more of a prison than a hospital actually. Even though the patients were said to live there until they were all better, the administrators never let them leave the building at all. Most of them had to spend their last breathing inside the walls that suffocated them…
When the Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995, it was found that the patients had left a part if theirs inside the building. As reported by the Suitcase Exhibit, hundreds of suitcases were found in the attic of the building. Most of them were even just like they were when the patients first entered the asylum. They all belonged to the period between 1910 and 1960.
When Jon Crispin found out about this spooky story of abandoned suitcases, he couldn’t help but go to the asylum. His curiosity drove him to peek inside the lives of these patients who were seen as unsuitable for the real life.
In an interview, Crispin stated that: “It’s such compelling stuff. These people were essentially prisoners inside. 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 these people really had lives outside before they went to Willard.”
His photographs show the suitcases of various patients. One of them was a second world war veteran who had brought his army uniform with him. Another suitcase had inside a pair of heels, some stylish hats and gold belts. Clearly, this suitcase belonged to a woman who probably enjoyed public attention. The other suitcase reveals curling irons, a sewing kit and a hand-blown glass bottle of perfume of a wealthy woman.
In total, Crispin has photographed 80 suitcases and each one of them shows different stories. He says that thanks to these suitcases, he now has a stronger idean of what the people who owned them were like. However, the New York state law prohibited Crispin from atrempting to match the suitcases with the hospital records that still exist.
Crispin’s photographs was featured in the exhibition “The Changing Face of What is Normal”. An interactive installation called Restraint was also included in the exhibition. This installation was deeply appreciated by the audience as it gave them the opportunity to experience the different treatments that were used in the asylum.
This exhibition was quite popular until 2014 and it was a great source of informing people about the lives of patients at Willard Asylum. Now, this exhibition is installed at the Museum Disability History in Buffalo, New York.