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Suitcases Hold Clues to Broken Lives, Forgotten Souls

History: Baggage found in a former mental hospital serves as time capsules for another era. Exhibit is planned for 2003.


WILLARD, N.Y. — She came to the asylum in the summer of 1930 with a suitcase stuffed with hand-stitched baby booties and quilts.

She was worn out. At age 40, she had endured a miscarriage, the death of two of her four children and a broken marriage.

The cloistered grounds of the Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes would be her home for the rest of her long life. By the time Willard closed in 1995, her story was forgotten--like those of thousands of other patients here.

Then they found her suitcase.

Workers combing through the center in its last days found the alligator-skin bag 65 years after it was packed, sitting in a filthy attic jammed with some 400 other old trunks and suitcases that had been brought with patients.

The dingy cases turned out to be leather-bound time capsules packed with a cornucopia of intimate items: letters, wedding photos, a dog figurine, a windup alarm clock, a school cap, a diary, ice skates, dog tags, a curling iron.

Researchers are piecing together the lives of the owners for a 2003 New York State Museum exhibit that would tell their stories. It's a bedeviling task. They know the patients' names, but cannot reveal them because of confidentiality laws. How can the researchers capture the essence of people who endured so much using only the likes of booties and trinkets?

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle, but you don't have a clue what the picture is," says museum curator Craig Williams.

Willard Asylum for the Insane opened in 1869 on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. Its mission: Treat the chronically insane with "gentle and kindly understanding." At first blush, Willard looked like a bucolic world apart, complete with sloping lawns, tall trees, a steamboat landing and a rail connection (station stop "Asylum").

Patients took part in plays, parades, social dances and calisthenics. At Christmas, a patient choir would sing carols. They worked on Willard's farm, or in the tin shop or laundry.

Willard dropped "Asylum" from its name in 1890, being called in turn a hospital and a psychiatric center. But it remained the sort of mega-institution that was viewed as a dinosaur with the rise of community-based mental health care and psychotropic drugs in the latter part of the 20th century.

In a wave of institutional closings, New York handed over Willard to state prison officials in 1995 for a drug treatment center, its current use.

That's when the suitcases were discovered.

Beverly Courtwright found them with a co-worker as she rushed to complete a final inventory of the center. The attic of an old workshop was one of the last stops. Nothing much was up there, but the women did find a metal-clad door sealing off one end of the attic.

They pulled the door open with a "Whoosh!" and saw it: a vista of neatly racked cases and trunks coated with dust and pigeon droppings. Shafts of light from the attic windows shone through, and Courtwright swears she felt some kind of energy under the rafters that day.

"It felt sacred and hallowed to me," she says. "I didn't want to disturb it. I didn't want anyone to disturb it. It was all that was left of them. I was like: 'Let them rest.' "

Courtwright told Williams, who was there to save pieces of Willard's history.

An ad hoc rescue squad--many of them about to be laid off from Willard--performed a sort of suitcase triage. They put on spare surgical masks and gloves to bag up the dusty relics and seal them with surgical tape. Williams recalls seeing the people dressed like surgeons and thinking: "They're operating on people's memories."

The suitcases were stored at the State Museum's warehouse near Albany.

State Mental Health Commissioner James Stone gave the OK for a study of the Willard baggage in 1997. Williams was joined by Peter Stastny, a psychiatrist at the Bronx Psychiatric Center and a documentary maker.

Of the 400 suitcases, about half were empty and another 100 contained maybe just shoes or a coat. The last 100 were full. Twenty were chosen for study.

Most had been packed between 80 and 50 years ago, by the patients or someone else. They were probably carried up to the attic upon admission after some choice items were plucked out. Since Willard handled long-term cases, many trunks stayed there into their owner's old age and beyond.

"These were the people who ended up in the bottom drawer," Stastny says. "Willard was the last stop."

Who were these people?

A World War I veteran. A photographer. A nun. An Italian immigrant. An amateur boxer. A World War II refugee.

Old case files reveal that the woman with the baby booties really was a seamstress. She was born near Ithaca in 1889 and was married at 18 to a plumber--a man she said drank too much and ran around with other women.

The years before her institutionalization in 1930 were marred by sickness, the deaths of two of her four children and finally, according to case files, psychotic episodes.

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