Monday, November 19, 2012

The Personal Property of Insane Asylum Patients


One of my favorite essays about property (which has been given wide circulation by the Perspectives on Property Law reader) is Erving Goffman's look that how patients in mental institutions carve out little domains of private property for themselves. Goffman shows how even in highly controlled societies, people define themselves by their claims over things and spaces.  Last week the website,, posted an fascinating piece that helps the public visualize the actual property of asylum patients.  Both the piece and the accompanying photos are worth a gander:

If you were committed to a psychiatric institution, unsure if you’d ever return to the life you knew before, what would you take with you? That sobering question hovers like an apparition over each of the Willard Asylum suitcases. From the 1910s through the 1960s, many patients at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane left suitcases behind when they passed away, with nobody to claim them. Upon the center’s closure in 1995, employees found hundreds of these time capsules stored in a locked attic. Working with the New York State Museum, former Willard staffers were able to preserve the hidden cache of luggage as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Photographer Jon Crispin has long been drawn to the ghostly remains of abandoned psychiatric institutions. After learning of the Willard suitcases, Crispin sought the museum’s permission to document each case and its contents. In 2011, Crispin completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund the first phase of the project, which he recently finished. Next spring, a selection of his photos will accompany the inaugural exhibit at the San Francisco Exploratorium’s new location.

Steve Clowney

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