Lost Cases, Forgotten Lives: The Willard Suitcases

Darby Penney, MLS, Director of Historical Projects, New York State Office of Mental Health
Peter Stastny, MD, Associate Professor, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

As Willard Psychiatric Center in rural New York, USA was being closed in 1995, staff discovered hundreds of patients suitcases in an abandoned attic. These suitcases, and the lives of the people who owned them, are the subject of an ongoing study using the tools of historical analysis, biographic reconstruction, and ethnography. Using the suitcase contents, the patients medical records, and other historical sources, this study is attempting to piece together the life stories of these individuals, who were admitted to Willard between 1898 and 1952, for a major exhibit at the New York State Museum in 2003. This is an an audio-visual presentation which includes photographs of some of the suitcases and their contents, photographs of the suitcase owners, quotations from letters and the medical records, and historical analysis. The goal of the project is to challenge the stereotypes that many people have of mental patients by depicting the lives of the suitcase owners in all their complexity and individuality. The suitcases speak to aspirations, accomplishments, community connections, and also to loss and isolation. The participants will have an opportunity to connect with a more humanistic view of individuals diagnosed with mental illness, and to learn about the history of mental health institutions through the lives of people who lived there.

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