Suitcases In The Attic

Willard Psychiatric Hospital in it's prime.
Willard Psychiatric Hospital in it's prime. | Source
The Attic where the suitcases were found.
The Attic where the suitcases were found. | Source

Suitcases found in a New York State Mental Hospital Attic

The Willard Psychiatric center, located in the Finger Lakes of New York, was closed in 1995. When the buildings were being cleaned out, hundreds of suitcases were found in the attic of an abandoned building. They were the suitcases of the people who had been committed there. They hadn't been touched since they were packed away up in that dusty, old attic.

The suitcases were full of pictures and other personal effects, detailing a lives that were left behind. Many of the suitcases showed that those that were committed had lives before Willard. They had dreams, goals, and aspirations. They had families, children, husbands, and wives. The suitcases raised many questions: why were these people sent here? How long did they stay? What was Willard like and how were they treated? A group of interested professionals went on a hunt to find out about the owners of the suitcases and try to piece the last bits of the owners lives.

Theresa, Lawrence, Roderigo, Margaret, Herman, Frank, Ethel, Dmtryo, and Madeline are just nine people that had suitcases up in the Willard attic. The contents of the suitcases revealed that these people were teachers, nuns, soldiers, laborers, musicians, and skilled craftsman. The reasons that they were sent to Willard varied just like their careers. As more and more answers were uncovered, it was realized that maybe the system had failed these people, like so many others.

Memories of the Past
Memories of the Past | Source

Their Lives

Theresa was a nun from Germany and after moving to New York City, was thought by others to have religious delusions. She was committed to Willard in 1919 and spent the rest of her life there. She was quoted as saying in medical records: "I don’t hear voices, I don’t see visions. I feel silly - I am not crazy - I am nervous. I had an operation for gallstones three and one half or four and one half years ago in North Dakota. I live at 140 West 61st Street with the Sisters of the Sick Poor. I was stubborn. I did not want to steal. I got excited over the war. I am all mixed up. I feel down hearted.”

Lawrence suffered from a head injury and was a binge drinker. He was admitted to his first mental institution in Germany and that set the stage for his life in institutions. He was noted at singing, whistling, and being a noisy man. He was sent to Willard in 1918 and by 1937 was the unpaid gravedigger at the hospital. He died there in 1968 at the age of 90.

Roderigo was born into a wealthy family in the Filipinos and moved to the United States in 1907 to attend school. He was the domestic help of a well-known doctor in the area and considered becoming a Methodist priest. However, he was often plagued with depression and said that he heard voices that accused him a being a sinner. His employer had him committed to a mental hospital in 1917. He was sent to Willard in 1918 and was noted as being a very kind and polite resident, “He readily converses with anyone, sociable, very 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, writes simple poetry.” In 1960 he was offered the chance to leave Willard and the institutional way of life, however he declined because he would have no where to go. He died at Willard in 1981.

Life before Willard
Life before Willard | Source

Margaret suffered heartache after heartache during her life. Her father died when she was young and her mother was accused of neglect. This left Margaret and her sister in the hands of the state. She eventually went on to nursing school and received her degree. She moved to the United States to further her nursing career but she contracted the deadly and highly contagious Tuberculosis. After the death of her long-time doctor and confidant, Margaret saw another doctor that felt her physical problems was the result of emotional problems. She was admitted to Willard in 1941 and remained there until her death in 1973.

According to medical records, Herman should not have been at Willard. There was “no reason could be found for this patient being at a state institution for the insane.” He suffered from Epilepsy and was sent to a hospital for such when he was a teenager. He was admitted to Willard in 1930. He did not have an adult history of seizures but when offered the chance to leave Willard, he like so many others refused. He stated that he had no place to go and nothing to do. He died there in 1965.

Frank was admitted to Willard when he caused a disturbance outside on a restaurant in 1946 after receiving his meal on a broken plate. A member of the US Army that had been discharged in 1944 for medical reasons, Frank was one of the first African American patients to be admitted to Willard. He only stayed at Willard for three years before he was transferred to the VA Hospital in Canadaigua, NY. He died in 1984 after spending half of his life in an institution for a simple disturbance outside of a restaurant.

Ethel had two children and a husband before she was admitted to Willard in 1930. “She refused to leave the place where she was living and went to bed saying she was ill … As she refused to leave the house, the landlady made a petition for her commitment.” She found her commitment amusing and readily denied hearing voices or seeing visions. She died at Willard in 1973.

Dmytro and his wife moved to the United States in 1949, but after his wife's death during a miscarriage his life began to crumble. He was committed to Willard in 1953 after trying to visiting the White House and saying that he was going to marry the daughter of President Truman. Dmytro left Willard in 1977 to live in a quiet country group home. This is where he died in 2000 at the age of 84.

Madeline was born in Paris, France. She traveled to many places before permantley living in New York City. She became drawn to the world of the occult and after it was decided that she was unemployable she was admitted to her first metal institution. She was admitted to Willard in 1939 where she constantly demanded to be released saying that she was resentful of having to be detained against her will. She was given antipsychotic drugs which caused her to develop a debilitating disease known as tardive dyskinesia (TD). This disease caused her to have uncontrollable movements and facial grimaces. When she was 79 she was sent to a private care home and she died in nearby Seneca County in 1986.

The halls of Willard
The halls of Willard | Source
Graves of the unknown...
Graves of the unknown... | Source

A Long, Dark History

Prior to the 1950's the laws protecting those with mental illness were very vague and all it took to be committed was a note from a doctor stating that hospitalization was needed. Most of the people that were committed to Willard were placed there out of force because someone else thought that they needed to be there. Those that were here were mothers, daughters, sons, husbands, fathers, aunts, uncles. They held job, were religious, had college degrees and lives before the institutions.

During the years of 1865 and 1995, Willard was the home to more that 50,000 people that were claimed to have some form of mental illness, although the diagnoses were always were vague in the medical records. Over half of those people are buried there, as well, in a cemetery that is located on the grounds. Many of the markers are just labeled with a number, no name.

Informational Source

Peter Stastny and Darby Penney are the two researchers that uncovered the lives of ten individuals whose trunks and suitcases were found in the attic at Willard. Their work took ten years to accomplish.

All information for this article was retrieved from the Suitcase Exhibit website.  You can visit there too and find out even more information about the lives of those at Willard.

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Comments 2 comments

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France Travel Inf 6 years ago

This is a chilling account - wow!

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ChristinaScibona 6 years ago from The Heart of the Finger Lakes Author

This story has always intrigued me and I am glad that I was able to share it.

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