In the early 1980's photographer Jon Crispin first came across Willard
lunatic asylum, in upstate New
York. Crispin immediately wanted to photograph the abandoned 19th-century building and worked for a long time to gain lawful access. Eventually he was allowed to tour the building accompanied; he took a friend
along to distract the security guards while he poked around.
Willard was one of several asylums built in response to the campaigning of Dorothea
Dix who, in 1841 began a self-funded investigation into
treatment of the insane poor. Her efforts forced 20 states nationwide to
provide funded care for the mentally ill. Willard was the first to be built
for the chronically insane. If you came here, you were unlikely to leave.
Willard’s intake came chiefly from New York City, via a
specially built train line. Others arrived by boat from all over the
country, docking on Seneca Lake. Patients were kept clean, fed and exercised.
Within eight years, its inmate count of 1,550 made Willard the largest asylum in the country. At its height, this figure reached 4,000.
In 1995, as the building was being prepared for demolition, a local preservationist discovered hundreds of suitcases embalmed in dust and cobwebs in the attic space. The suitcases had belonged to patients who had lived and died there, and were filled with the items each had chosen, or had had chosen for them, when first admitted.
Acquired by New York State, they were moved into storage and catalogued. Two years ago Crispin was invited to photograph the suitcases and their contents. To date he has photographer around 100, with more than 300 to go. His photographs, along with some of the objects, are embarking on a small museum tour, currently on display at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The best place to see a large array of these gorgeous and haunting images is on Crispin's website.