Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane of New York: Its history and the 400 found suitcases.5 min read
Perhaps the Victorian buildings may be falling to pieces, but the contents inside them betray a lot about the sometimes happy, sometimes tragic lives of patients at Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane. Even if asylums often carry connotations of dark and terrible existences, Willard and other institutions like it were intended to be a better alternative to systems in place for taking care of the mentally ill.
Historically, in the early 19th century, those without anyone to care for them and incapable of taking care of themselves were left to almshouses or hospitals, which were overcrowded and under resourced.
In response to these terrible conditions, New York’s Surgeon General Dr. Sylvester D. Willard proposed a state-run hospital for the insane. Abraham Lincoln himself signed off on the proposal a mere six days before his death.
The Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane opened its doors in 1869.
The first patient was Mary Rote, described as “demented and deformed”. She arrived on October 13, 1869, coming from another facility, where she had been without a bed and without clothes for 10 years, dressed only with a blanket and kept in chains. Others followed, people which had been locked up for more than 20 years and some closed in cells without windows. One girl had been shackled in a cell since childhood, another patient arrived at Willard in a chicken crate.
When checks were subsequently made in the asylum, the patients were found in good conditions and involved in various activities, like dance lessons, sewing lessons and theatrical performances, among other things. The hospital had also a land cultivated directly by patients.
The asylum was divided between a women’s side and a men’s side with a violent end and a non-violent end. Administration buildings sat in the middle. The land had originally been designated for agricultural purposes, so the hospital ran its own farm with crops grown and tended by patients. Patients were unconfined, able to walk about as they pleased (though unable to leave the premises). There was a bowling alley, a movie theater, and a gymnasium, and patients took part in camp-like activities like sewing classes. It was still a hospital though, and there were entire buildings devoted to treatments like electro-shock therapy and ice baths, as well as operating theaters and a morgue. A cemetery on the grounds features markers with numbers, no names, for the thousands people buried there.
However, things in the asylum started to get worse: the facility originally born to remedy the sufferings of the sicks, soon became a place in which people were abandoned, simply unwanted.
The Willard essentially became a dumping ground for undesirables. Patients’ afflictions ranged from severe mental and physical handicaps to “nervousness”, “chronic” to “acute” insanity, “feeblemindedness”, and “lunacy.”
Unfortunately, during the first and second world wars, the personnel was reduced a lot and diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria and typhus took over.
In 1955 more than 4,000 guests were admitted here, and over the course of its history, more than 50,000 people passed, half of whom died right here.
After Geraldo Rivera’s 1972 expose on the deplorable conditions at Willowbrook Asylum, numbers in large institutions declined sharply.
The Willard asylum, a facility of about 4000 square meters, closed permanently in 1995. Many patients spent more than 30 years in the psychiatric hospital, and often all their lives. In the same year, a cleaning person stumbled upon hundreds of dusty suitcases in the attic, brought by patients upon their admittance to the hospital, about 400, full of personal effects that were not claimed by relatives when the owners died.
The discovery was truly moving, containing the most beloved objects that the patients possessed, carefully prepared by them or by their families.
They contained memories that piece together a bittersweet picture of their owners, who were identified on handwritten labels: Earl B. , for example, brought a newspaper clipping on a “Smuggling Plot”, while Virginia W. brought a clown doll.
Dmytre brought photographs, of a man and a woman in dress clothes, of the Virgin Mary, of wartime artwork. Eleanor brought clothes, delicately embroidered, buttons for future projects, and patterns for sewing. Fred brought his datebook, and a guide to railway lines. Thelma brought her diary, her Bible, and a few small statues of dogs. Maude brought her tools for leather-working, and Freda brought her alarm clock, her little whisk broom, and a small statue of a little black dog.
So, lot of photographs, elegant clothes, bibles, small statuettes, some diaries and many other important things for their owners, probably buried in the nearby cemetery.
The patients died at Willard, and their personal effects went unclaimed anyone outside the institution. The staff, apparently unable to throw them away, meticulously stored and catalogued the suitcases in the attic during the years, from the 20s to the 60s.
The luggage, carefully packed by the inmates and their families, indicate they believed they were just passing through.
Of course, after the closing of the asylum, it is said that it has become a place infested with supernatural entities and you can hear voices and screams echoing throughout the building. There is also a ghost with red hair, which some visitors claim to have seen. It seems that she is a nurse who worked there, who later became a patient of the Willard asylum.
It is sad if we think that they simply didn’t know what to do with these people who could not fit into the social norms of the 19th century, and so they were often shelved away into institutions. Even if the people who lived and died at Willard have faded into the history, their belongings left behind at the abandoned asylum boldly assert their existence.
TEXT IN COLLABORATION, Danijel and Leo. 👉🏼Random-Times.com