Photographer Jon Crispin has long held an interest in the clinically insane. Recently, he was invited to explore what is perhaps a personal holy grail for this ongoing fascination—the remaining artifacts from a late-1800s psychiatric hospital. The Willard Lunatic Asylum in upstate New York was torn down in 1995, which is when hundreds of old suitcases belonging to former patients were found in the wreckage. The items have been moved into storage and catalogued, and for the past two years Crispin has been going over them thoroughly.
One gets the sense that, for Crispin, the experience of examining these suitcases is a dream come true, even though it’s a long, meticulous process. (Crispin started an ultimately successful Kickstarter campaign for the project two years ago and he is less than a third of the way done.) Each suitcase contains the personal effects of people who were about to check themselves into a hospital for psychological treatment—or about to have someone else check them in. The objects range from syringes full of strychnine sulfate to a panoply of religious books and various time pieces. While not every single item offers concrete insights into the personalities and mental states of its owner, they each contribute an overall profile.
San Franciscans interested in exploring Crispin’s findings further will be able to do so with a forthcoming show at the Exploratorium. Everybody else can scroll through the images in the slide show above.