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Mysteries: The Leftover Suitcases in Willard Asylum

Updated on December 1, 2015
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Medvekoma is a fan of the bizarre and the interesting, and loves to read different mysteries time to time, as well as collecting them.



During the 19th century it was customary to lock up those who were deemed "mentally unstable". One needed a few signatures from certain officials, and the order came to move into one of the infamous asylums in either Europe, the USA or almost any other country.

Reasoning behind incarceration? Anything that was thought to be a mental illness back in the days, no matter how ridiculous it sounds today: homosexuality, epilepsy or seizures, promiscuous behavior or "hysteria".

These asylums contained tiny communities inside. They had staff who lived there, interacting with the patients in many ways, reaching from proper care to scientific experiments that included electric shock treatments and frontal lobotomy (using a large nail-like tool through the nose to sever connection between the two halves of the brain).

What remains to us today from these asylums are derelict buildings dotting the landscape, eerie sightings of the ghosts of thousands who died in these institutions and simple, numbered graves - it was believed that in order to protect the patient's family from harassment, patients were called by numbers, not names.


The story of Willard

The asylum itself was founded in 1869, and its full name was Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane. If a patient died within the institution's walls, which was the fate of most as few left an asylum after being committed, they were buried in unmarked, numbered graves and their families were notified about the death.

Most families came to pick up belongings of the dead, but of course there were some completely forgotten by their own blood. These patients had their belongings packed and locked away in the asylum's attic, which was eventually forgotten up until 1995 when more than 400 suitcases were discovered when NY stat decided to re-fit the asylum's building into a drug rehabilitation center.

New York State Museum acquired the suitcases in 2004 and ever since they have been exhibited all over the USA. In 2010, photographer Jon Crispin gained permission to document each and every suitcase, and the project kicked off where high definition photographs were taken of the belongings, with Jon's personal thoughts bound to the items and their long forgotten owners. The documentation can be read on Jon Crispin's blog.

Some of the patients

Sr. Rodrigo

This patient was transferred to Willard in 1919 due to depression and spirits plaguing him. Other possible reasons behind his incarcerations could be active interest in the Filipino independence movement and his ambitions to become a Methodist minister.

Years of institutionalization appear to have been a mistake, as far as duration, as this man appears in perfect mental condition now.

— From his file

Miss Margaret

Miss Margaret was an aspiring nurse in London before she migrated to the USA. She met misfortune after misfortune, spending 6 years in rehabilitation due to TB. She did live a good life though, with friends, a car and frequent travels. However, after changing doctors, her new one considered her emotional problems to be overwhelming her physical ones, and committed her to an asylum.

She arrived to Willard in 1941 with all her belongings packed into 18 suitcases. She hoped to get a transfer to a better place or an eventual release, but that never happened. She spent the rest of her life, all 32 years in the asylum. She kept touch to her friends for the first ten years, but no letters remain from after that.

Mr. Herman

This patient was originally cared for due to his epilepsy in a NY state colony. He got closely knit to the colony's photographers and had only a few seizures. He was admitted to Willard in 1930, despite his doctor's description of him:

No reason could be found for this patient being at a state institution for the insane.

He no longer had seizures in Willard and spent most of his time as a model patient there. Unlike many of his peers, he was offered to leave Willard but refused, he had nowhere to go, having grown up in institutions.

The feeling of being institutionalized, in Shawshank Redemption's Brooks scene


Willard's suitcases provide a glimpse at the former lives of the inmates. Some brought in for depression, some for seizures, others for undisclosed reasons. Their future the same: an institutionalized life, forever changed.

A motive that appears in IMDB toplist leading Shawshank Redemption: people incarcerated for impulsive decisions, like Mr. Frank in Willard who was committed to the asylum for having a tantrum in a restaurant. These people grow up and become dependent on the institution, and when offered leave, they face fears of no longer being cared for, no longer being catered for. Eventually leading to the inner conflict that drove Brooks to suicide in the movie.

They send you here for life, that's exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyways.

— Red, Frank Darabont's Shawshank Redemption

© 2015 Medvekoma


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