Illinois Ancestors: 'Opening a window' into lives of Willard patients

Illinois Ancestors: 'Opening a window' into lives of Willard patients

In 1995 an employee of the Willard State Hospital, a New York mental hospital, discovered 400 suitcases dating from 1910 to 1960 that had belonged to patients there.

Photographer John Crispin has been cataloging each suitcase and "opening a window into the lives — and the minds — of the people deemed too unwell to be allowed in society." Some can be viewed at

It's sad to realize that the reasons for being sent to such a facility could have been depression, anxiety disorders, brain injuries, epilepsy, dementia and Alzheimer's disease — anything considered not "normal."

As one who knows of a person who had been committed to Willard, these photos are especially heartbreaking. The contents do not portray anything out of the ordinary: photographs, toiletries, medications, sewing notions, a newspaper, perfume, an army uniform.

Some patients received those frightening electro-shock treatments (beginning in the 1940s); some were "cured" and eventually released; but many of the inmates died there and were buried in graves marked with numbers and not names — more than 5,000 of them.

Pending cemetery legislation

Efforts are underway to reveal the names of those buried in the Willard Cemetery as well as 17 other state cemeteries in New York. A bill was introduced by Sen. Joseph E. Robach to the New York State Legislature in March 2012 and reintroduced on Jan. 18, 2013, as S2514-2013 to release those names.

Visit and learn more of this project. Be sure to also view the video, "They're Buried Where?"

According to reporter Seth Voorhees, "The great majority, if not all, of these historical cemeteries are 'inactive' which means no one else will be buried there. ... Putting names on a memorial headstone, or list, should not be offensive to anyone."

Linda S. Stuhler has written "The Inmates of Willard 1870-1900," and her website at tells of her personal visit there in 2011.

Comments from readers indicate that many people wish to learn of loved ones who had been there. It's unfortunate that such institutions have "sealed" personal records.

Alabama records found

According to Dick Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter (June 13): "After 60 years of mystery, thousands of pages of Madison County historic documents from the territorial days and even some Civil War era records are back in the hands of county record keepers."

Apparently a local historian was permitted to borrow the records in the 1950s for his master's thesis research, but died before returning them. Descendants have recently found them and some have already been returned.

Anyone researching Madison County ancestry should read; an inventory can be found at The records include deed books, court minute books, circuit court record books, county probate court record books, chancery court records, and more.

Advice for researchers

Archivists as well as librarians can be genealogists' best friends. They supply us with helpful information and manage to find data that we hadn't even known about.

Some tips for visiting archives are worth noting. Visit and be reminded of some common courtesies.

Free resources

That word "free" is definitely eye-catching. The Genealogist's Toolbox has a helpful guide at that provides an eight-page list of links to family charts and forms (over a dozen sources), software, literature and articles, education, calendar tools, and miscellaneous.

This list is definitely worth checking out, whether you are a beginner or more advanced researcher. You may find something to make your research easier or more productive.

Queries, genealogical questions from researchers and genealogical materials readers would like to share will be printed in this column free. Joan Griffis may be reached via email at or by sending a letter to Illinois Ancestors, c/o The News-Gazette, P.O. Box 677, Champaign, IL 61824-0677.

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