Digital History Focus: Willard Suitcases
BY Claire Potter ON October 3, 2014
LGBT historians have a special interest in the history of incarceration, since it has been historically quite common for queer people to be jailed or involuntarily confined because of same-sex desire. Needless to say, we at OutHistory.org were delighted to find photographer Jon Crispin’s Willard Suitcases project. Since 2011, Crispin has been opening and photographing the evidence of patients’ lives that left in storage at the Willard Asylum of the Insane. Founded in 1869, Willard was closed in 1995 (the name had been updated by then to The Willard Psychiatric Center.) It is now operated by the New York State Department of Corrections as a drug treatment program.
The suitcases, left by inmates who either died incarcerated in the asylum or were transported without their belongings, are held by the New York State Museum. Crispin attended an exhibit in 2004, which is how he learned of this collection and developed the idea for Willard Suitcases.
OutHistory.org has a connection to Willard as well. Lucy Ann Lobdell, a 19th century gender-crossing woman, was patient there towards the end of her life. As you can see from her photograph, she also engaged in a kind of racial crossing common to the 19th century, which American Studies scholar Philip DeLoria has called “playing Indian.” Was this related to her gender crossing? Perhaps: it was certainly linked to her love for the outdoors and for the masculine past times of hunting and tracking animals. OutHistory co-director Jonathan Ned Katz obtained Lobdell’s records, and her life is recorded in Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (Meridian Press, 1992; orig. 1976). Read an excerpt published by OutHistory.org in 2008 here.
A second site on Willard that has extensive primary sources is maintained by Linda Stuhler, author of The Inmates of Willard: A Genealogy Resource, 1870-1900 (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011).