The Owners of the Willard Suitcases
The stately Victorian buildings may be derelict, but the contents inside them betray lives that were at times happy, but mostly tragic. The buildings were part of the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane where the discovery of suitcases in the attic of the building provided a cache of information as to the lives of the patients that came here, and sometimes spent their remaining days within its walls.
In the post-Civil War years, many large asylums were built to house not only the insane, but those who were destitute and had no one to care for them. They replaced almshouses which were overcrowded and squalid.
New York's Surgeon General, Dr. Sylvester D. Willard proposed a hospital for the insane which was run by the state. In April, 1865, a bill was passed establishing the Willard Asylum as a home for the insane poor. Six days before his death President Lincoln signed off on the plans. It was finally built in the area of Seneca Lake in New York, on a 440-acre site known as the State Agricultural College. The college had opened in 1860, and quickly emptied out at the beginning of the Civil War. It eventually reopened at Cornell University.
Once complete, Willard became the largest asylum in the United States.
The asylum was built in the same style as many other Victorian institutional facilities. Limestone quarried on the grounds was used for the foundation, and the walls of the building were of brick that was made locally. The campus 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.
In 1869, Willard's first patient was a woman named Mary Rote who suffered from dementia. They brought her from the Columbia County poorhouse. In those years if a patient was not cured after spending two years in an asylum they were returned to the almshouse they came from. Mary arrived on a steamboat that crossed Seneca Lake and stopped at Ovid Landing.
According to Dr. Robert Doran’s History of Willard Asylum for the Insane and the Willard State Hospital (1978), it was described, "She had been confined over ten years, and for most of that time had been in a nude state. She was found crouched in a corner of a cell partially covered with a blanket, but without any other clothing or even a bed. Since her admission, she had been daily dressed and at all times presentable. Her general appearance and habits of cleanliness are much improved."
She died on January 9, 1876, from tuberculosis.
One patient was chained in a cell since childhood, another had been kept in a crate.
By 1875, Willard was overcrowded especially with female inmates. It appeared they were being dropped off even without an application. At that time they housed 985 patients. All the rooms were filled and some patients were bedded on the floor.
Even the criminally insane were destined to go to Willard. In 1880, a lunatic at at the asylum in Yaphank killed a fellow inmate with a spade. He was convicted of murder and sent to Willard.
Not all the patients were acutely insane, others just suffered from physical handicaps or mental retardation which was known as "feeblemindedness" in those years. The asylum became a dumping ground for undesirables, brought there by their own families. Sadly there were many that could have lived outside the asylum, as found by reviewing the doctor's notes, however the patients' families did not come for them. In other words, these people had nowhere to go.
In 1881, eight-hundred and twenty-five of the patients were provided with employments. "It has been found that they could do any kind of common farm and household work. They planted and cultivated potatoes, planted and reaped corn, harvested wheat and cut hay. In the garden they took care of 25 acres of land on which vegetables of various kinds were raised." They were not forced to do the work, and participated willingly.
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. The patients took part in camp-like activities like sewing classes. This approach improved the health of many of the patients.
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 featured markers with numbers, and no names for the thousands buried there.
In November 1882, a story ran in the Commercial Advertiser. It described the following:
Her brother sold everything he had, and barely scraped the money together to bring his family, which included five children to America. They had set aside a little coin to take them to the location his sister had provided. When they arrived, they immediately recognized Willard from the description given in the letter as the "mansion" where his sister lived.
When they asked for the lady of the house, the staff was unable to converse with them and explain what the building's purpose was. They found an old Dane among the attendants who explained the true situation, and they realized they were penniless among strangers.
The managers were touched and gathered an amount of money for them. They gave the brother employment in the laundry of the asylum.
In 1995, Willard Psychiatric Center closed. It then became a state-run drug rehab center for prisoners. A Willard employee found 400 suitcases behind an attic door. They belonged to former patients that stayed at Willard between 1910 to 1960. Many of the owners of the suitcases never claimed their belongings because they spent their life at Willard, and were buried in the cemetery across the road.
The contents of the suitcases were the belongings they refused to leave behind, hoping someday they could reclaim them when they left to live in the outside world.
These people did not fit into the social norms of the 19th century, so they were often shelved away into institutions, but in some cases this was better than being left destitute on the street. The people who lived and died at Willard have faded into the tapestry of history, but their belongings left behind at the abandoned asylum are a reminder of their existence.
For all those patients who did not live at Willard during those years, and left behind a suitcase in the attic, they have faded into obscurity behind a number in a cemetery.
The last burial was in 2000, and over it's 100 plus history 5,776 patients were buried here. They either died at the hospital or were returned after they died.
The plots were divided by faith and sometimes occupation. There is one for Civil War soldiers who died at the hospital. Another area was for Jewish patients. The problem has been in accessing the death registers to connect numbers to names.
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Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer