WILLARD — When Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995, workers discovered hundreds of suitcases in the attic of an abandoned building.
Many appeared untouched, looking just like they had been since their owners packed them before arriving as patients at Willard. And, many of those people never left, having died at the Seneca County facility.
The suitcases were photographed and catalogued by photographer Jon Crispin as part of a state-sponsored project. The contents gave a glimpse into the lives the Willard patients lived before they were judged insane and committed to the facility on the shore of Seneca Lake.
Crispin’s work resulted in “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital for the Insane” in 2014.
Now the state Office of Mental Health and the New York State Museum in Albany have teamed up to try to return the contents of the suitcases to surviving family members.
Colleen Spellecy of the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project Committee, a group that worked to recognize Willard patients buried without headstones at a nearby cemetery, said the committee’s volunteers have been asked to help find the family members of the suitcase owners.
The suitcase contents are being stored at the state museum.
People willing to help in this effort are invited to a meeting at 10:30 a.m. June 29 in the Manning-Lilla American Legion Post lodge in Ovid.
Of the 400 suitcases found in the attic and taken to the museum, only 95 were successfully identified by their contents. Spellecy said the state is offering to pay for subscriptions to Ancestry.com to assist in finding the families of those still unidentified.
“The suitcases contain amazing contents from a full set of silverware to everyday shoes to letters, photos, books and handmade items,” Spellecy said. “The more volunteers that we are able to have work on Ancestry.com to find rightful family descendants of the identified patients, the quicker we can repatriate the contents.”
For more information, contact Spellecy at email@example.com.