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Political Dictionary of the History of Health

The suitcases of Willard State Hospital (New-York)

Suitcases as symbols of the struggle for dignity and civil rights of people with mental illnessesLeroy B. 2011, Jon Crispin CourtesySuitcases as symbols of the struggle for dignity and civil rights of people with mental illnesses


In 1995, the discovery of the suitcases of patients interned at Willard State Hospital brought to light a forgotten part of history. Dr Sylvester D. Willard, secretary of the New York Medical Society, wrote a devastating report in 1864 on the living conditions of the mentally ill in hospices. In 1869, he founded the institution that bears his name. The latter was part of the humanist and assistance movement of the end of the 19th century and of the “moral treatment” movement where isolation, the discipline of a well-regulated life and occupation through work played an important role. 


If for some patients, the asylum - Willard Asylum for the Insane which became Willard State Hospital-, was a place of psychic reconstruction, this utopia also had its setbacks. Symbol of the important progress in the recognition of the needs of care and protection of the weakened persons, the psychiatric establishment is also a regulator allowing to control and hide the social misery. Indeed, many patients, men and women, designated as incurable and transferred from other establishments, were emigrants struggling to adapt or traumatized soldiers, who, isolated and without external support, were forgotten until their death and sometimes buried anonymously. These neglected graves have given rise to many passionate debates and inspired initiatives, such as that of Stuhler (The Inmates of Willard 1870 to 1900 / A Genealogy Resource) that traced the identity of patients through population censuses. 

When the hospital closed in 1995, staff members remembered the existence of the suitcases that patients left behind when they arrived. As a result, the New York State Museum acquired 400 suitcases, which were catalogued, packaged for preservation, and displayed in New York and other cities. Penney and Statsny's publication, The life they left behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic (2008) and Jon Crispin's work (2011) photographing the suitcases and their contents brought the patients' fates into the public eye.  These suitcases thus condense pieces of individual and collective history: train tickets, embroidered scarves, military booklets, etc. More than the medical file, they bring precious information on the journey of their owner and reveal the person behind the patient, says Crispin. They also provoke debate and reflection.


From the history of Willard State Hospital, which is sometimes forgotten for having been at the forefront of therapeutic socialization trials, we remember above all the prison and dehumanizing dimension of the psychiatric institution: lobotomies, electroshock, long hospitalization periods for which the justification is not obvious and the obligation to work are considered as many attacks on the dignity of the person. The institution followed the general evolution linked to the discovery of neuroleptics allowing a shortening of hospitalization times, to the changes in the representations of mental illnesses and to the economic objectives of reducing the patient population. But deinstitutionalization (which began in the 1960s and 1970s) was not accompanied by financial subsidies to create alternative solutions.

In fact, 155 years later, as in Dr Willard's days, people with mental disorders find themselves, without care, often on the streets or in jail.  The US Mental Health Report  (2019) indicates that 24 million adults in need of psychiatric care have no treatment, and more than 5.3 million adults lack access to care due to a lack of insurance. 

Through the sensitive identification they elicit, like the anonymous graves, the recovered suitcases, which have become symbols of the struggle for the dignity and civil rights of people with psychiatric disorders, give rise to a desire for reparation and knowledge. Reparation, by reconstituting the life of the patients as Ilan Stavans did for Charles F. and, knowledge, by encouraging initiatives and debates in the scientific and associative circles: does the medical secrecy serve to protect the private life or to erase, today as yesterday, the traces of the existences of the patients? What is normality? Is the obligation of care in psychiatry an infringement of civil rights? How does society view mental illness? What price does it agree to pay for the care of the most destitute?  

Thus, the exhibition Suitcases Exhibit Finds hosted by the Museum of disability History in New York reminds us that psychiatry is the mirror of society and that its history is political and social. 

Translation: Corinne Daugan, IUT Rives de Seine, Université de Paris.


Read more in the dictionary : Excess mortality in psychiatric hospitals

Corinne Benestroff - IUT Rives de Seine-University of Paris

References :

Ilan Stavans, Jon Crispin, What Remains: The Suitcases of Charles F. at Willard State Hospital, Exelsior editions, New York Press University, 2020. 

Jon Crispin, interview by Corinne Benestroff, 11/10/2020. 

To quote this paper: Corinne Benestroff “The suitcases of Willard State Hospital (New York)" in Hervé Guillemain (ed.), DicoPolHiS, Le Mans Université, 2021.

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