Willard Asylum Suitcase Documentation

Jon is awed by the support from the Kickstarter community, with over 560 backers, from points as far away as Italy.

Photo: (C) Jon Crispin

I have this peculiar fascination with old suitcases. Well, not just any old suitcases, but suitcases that once held the worldly possessions of the people residing at the Willard Asylum in Ovid, NY in Seneca County. I remember a large article in Metroland about the New York State Museum’s 2004 exhibit “Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic”, curated by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny.

Then recently, I was looking at my weekly Kickstarter e-mail, and I noted the highlighted Willard Asylum Suitcase Documentation: a photography project in Albany, NY by Jon Crispin. So I e-mailed him, and he called me back.

Jon Crispin, born in 1951, has had the opportunity to take pictures of various projects involving the State Museum over a number of years. For instance, he took some photos, well after the Attica prison uprising, that had been saved.

Jon recalls growing up in Meadville, PA, where the great entertainment was to go to the railroad station to see the daily train departure. Then, at one point, as is true in many small towns, the train stopped coming. He felt the need to make a photographic record of it.

The youngest of three, Jon seems to be following his sister’s path, of a sort, as a preservationist. He seems to be particularly drawn to things left behind, seeing their beauty. The Willard Project most assuredly falls into that category. Both he and I are fascinated by the letter, unmailed, in the photo above, and imagine what the story of it might be.

The photographer wanted to note the assistance he’s gotten from Craig Williams of the State Museum, who has been a champion of his for a number of years. He appreciates the work that others have done in this arena before him. He is awed by the support from the Kickstarter community, with over 560 backers, from points as far away as Italy. Most of all, he is grateful for the fact that his wife has had a steady job with health benefits, which had allowed him to stay home with their son, who is now at college, while he worked on his photography.

Jon mentioned that he read about Willard in a New York Times article. While looking for it, I found an even more intriguing piece: an April 1872 Times article about Willard, which informs how people of the time saw the facility in a positive light. I also recommend an article from the blog Joy of Caking.

I suppose that another element of my interest in Willard involves the fact that there was a state hospital in Binghamton, where I grew up, and my father went there periodically to entertain the patients. I went with him only once or twice; I found it rather foreboding. In retrospect, I wonder if the patients there, and the other “asylums” felt the same?

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