Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Yesterday a friend told me about the Willard Suitcase Exhibit. When nearby Willard Psychiatric Center closed in 1995 hundreds of suitcases were found in an abandoned building. Craig Williams, a curator at the New York State Museum, uncovered details of the lives of the owners of a few of the suitcases.

For example: Lawrence M was committed in 1916 at the age of 38 "because, according to his records, he had been heard 'singing, shouting, also praying, claiming to hear the voice of God and seeing the angels...' " [I am reminded of Socrates, "...a man who beholds the beauty of this world... will desire to spread his wings and fly upward, and because he gazes upward, like a bird, and cares nothing for the world below, he will be considered mad."]

But Lawrence did not fly. "... he became the gravedigger at Willard's cemetery in 1937, when he was nearly 60 years old. He dug more than 600 graves for his fellow patients over the next 14 years, and continued to work as Willard's gravedigger until his own death at age 90. He, too, was buried in Willard's cemetery, where the deceased did not have headstones, but instead were given cast-iron markers with numbers. Eventually, these markers were removed in order to make it easier to mow the cemetery."

The traveling version of the exhibit has been called "The Lives They Left Behind." Oddly, the NYS Museum calls the exhibit "Lost Cases, Recovered Lives." Recovered by whom, I wonder. Not the people who owned the cases, all of whom are apparently dead.

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