Forgotten Suitcases in Hospital Attic Reveal Richness of Psychiatric Patients' Lives Before Hospitalization

Issue Date: 
August 24, 2010

A cracked teacup . . . yellowed photographs . . . a beautifully embroidered baby gown.

These items and many others were found inside hundreds of vintage trunks and suitcases that were discovered by staff members in the pigeon-infested attic of the Willard Psychiatric Facility when the New York asylum closed in 1995.

Realizing they had stumbled upon documents and artifacts dating from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries, two of the staff members and a New York State Museum curator worked to preserve what they had found. The artifacts were eventually moved to the state museum’s warehouse and, in 1999, two individuals—psychiatrist Peter Stastny and Darby Penney, a mental health professional and advocate—immersed themselves for years in the suitcases’ contents. They learned about the patients, went to their former homes, visited their graves, talked with their caretakers, and examined hundreds of Willard Facility-related documents and photos at the New York State Archives.

Award-winning cinematographer Liza Rinsler photographed the project, and the result is an exhibition titled The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic, on display Sept. 1- 25 in Pitt’s Frick Fine Arts Building. The exhibition and accompanying lectures and films (see schedule below) are free and open to the public.

Cosponsored by the University of Pittsburgh, the exhibition memorializes those patients who spent on average 30 years of their lives at Willard. Most were sent there under court order or under involuntary measures; the only criterion for commitment prior to 1950 was a certificate signed by a doctor stating that the person was mentally ill and needed institutionalization.

Each patient memorialized in the exhibition had a fascinating and often heartbreaking personal story. Some were artists, soldiers, musicians, or teachers; many had families, careers, and aspirations; some had college degrees. And while there was custodial care at Willard, with the exception of hydrotherapy (submerging patients in cold water for long periods) and electroshock therapy, there was no mental health treatment. The patients’ records rarely mentioned the exact nature of their mental or emotional distress. Those people found to be violent were placed in locked wards; those willing to work did so for free as cooks, janitors, and asylum grounds keepers. More than half of the 54,000 individuals who entered the sprawling facility over its lifetime died there.

The Frick Fine Arts show is the traveling version of a larger 2004 exhibition that was curated by Stastny and Penney, Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic. The public response to the New York State Museum exhibition was overwhelming. It was viewed by more than 600,000 people over nine months. Some wept openly; conversations ensued; a play was written; a book, The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic (Bellevue Literary Press, 2008), was published, highlighting the lives of 10 patients.

Additional information is available at

The Lives They Left Behind
Schedule of Lectures and Films

All lectures and films will begin at 7 p.m. in the Frick Fine Arts Building Auditorium.


Thursday, Sept. 2

Darby Penney, exhibition curator and author of The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic

Thursday, Sept. 9

Matthew Murray, photographer of the collection

Thursday, Sept. 16

Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America (Basic Books, 2001)

Wednesday, Sept. 22

Carla Yanni, author of The Architecture of Madness (University of Minnesota Press, 2007)


Tuesday, Sept. 7

King of Hearts (1967, Phillippe De Broca)

Tuesday, Sept. 14

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman)