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Abandoned Suitcases Reveal Private Lives Of Asylum Patients

Willard Asylum for the Insane, located in New York, was built in 1869. Patients had an average stay of 30 years, and many who came to the hospital never left. Eventually the site was abandoned, until, in 1995, an incredible discovery was made in the attic…

Over 400 suitcases, each packed with the belongings of people who lived and died decades ago, were found. Each one is a tiny time capsule of the lives they lived before being committed to Willard Asylum. 

Many of these people had been abandoned by their families. When they died, they were buried in unmarked graves, and their belongings were packed away and forgotten. 

Photographer Jon Crispin has spent the last few years breathing life back into these abandoned suitcases and memories by documenting the bags and their contents in a series of incredible photos. 

He said: “It’s such compelling stuff. These people were essentially prisoners inside. Their families largely abandoned them. They gave them a suitcase and had them committed. Looking at these suitcases, you just get the idea that that these people really had lives outside before they went to Willard.” 

Each suitcase has a unique story to tell. 

Although some are melancholy, others are bursting with personality. 

The photographs and 14 original suitcases were recently on display in an exhibition, titled “Changing the Face of What is Normal: Mental Health”, at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

The exhibit also featured “Restraint”, an installation that looked at the various methods used to restrain mental patients over the years. Viewers were invited to try them all, from a 19th-century cage made of wood to the modern-day straight jacket. 

While some items make a lot of sense, like this handy clock, others are shrouded in mystery. Why bring a broom to a hospital?

Although the exhibit closed in fall of 2014, the photos live on, inspiring curiosity and keeping the memory of these obscure individuals alive. 

If you had to pack one suitcase to describe your life, what would it contain? Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to share these rare images of the past with your friends and family. 

Credit: Jon Crispin

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