Monday, September 24, 2007

Lives left behind

“Odd, tactless and domineering” were words her employers used to describe her. She had strange interests which troubled friends and neighbors. When she had trouble finding steady work during the Depression, Madeline was referred to the Emergency Work Bureau. There she was declared unemployable (despite her education at Columbia and Hunter College, despite her history as a teacher of French Literature) and thus began the series of events which landed her at Willard Psychiatric Center. Though she declared, “I want out of here immediately”, Madeline was detained for forty-seven years.

Madeline’s story, along with many others, was recovered from a storage room hidden behind a panel in the Center’s attic. This was where around 400 suitcases had been stored, filled with the belongings which were taken from inmates as they entered, apparently never to be seen by them again.

Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995. Curators from the New York State Museum cataloged the items and used them to learn about the lives of the people who had been held at Willard, visiting their homes, talking with the people who had known them. The resulting exhibition, “Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic” was visited by more than 600,000 in 2004.

Stories of the institution’s inmates and The Lives They Left Behind can be found online at The Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online. It’s well worth the visit.


  1. Civil rights certainly didn't count for much in those days.

    Still don't, for some folks.

  2. does it say why she was institutionalized? it's amazing how women were institutionalized just for being feminists and a million other things.

    abfh is right on in the comment.

  3. Take a look at the gallery. It's fantastic.

  4. Chilling.

    I think the only reason my family managed to avoid the asylum is that they would not allow it. In the south in old times one just did not talk about things in public.....'no your aunt never married....and yes she lives on the farm with your can make those 500 lace doilys she made into a quilt....and don't ask impertinent questions!'

    My family is full of people that could have been locked away but were simply covered for by the rest of us.

    I put that quilt on the back of a chair. It is very pretty but fragile.

    Great post.


  5. My great-great-grandmother died at Milledgeville (Ga's state asylum). I hear different stories about her. I want to go down there and get her medical records.


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