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“Andreatta: Digger of 1,500 graves gets his due”

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This May 15, 2015 article on the Democrat & Chronicle site talks about a memorial service to be held to honor Lawrence Mocha who had dug 1500 graves by hand during his time as a patient at Willard State Hospital where he eventually died and was also buried.  I feel like this is a victory of sorts that gives some dignity back to people with mental illnesses who have lived and died in state hospitals.  Every human deserves to be buried with dignity and be recognize as more than a number, which is what will be happening for Lawrence Mocha.  Hats off to all who worked to give Lawrence a bit of dignity back to him.

“It’s official: Ceremony for Mocha, others in May”

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This March 22, 2015 Finger Lake Times article talks about a victory for a group that has worked to get recognition for not only the work that Mr. Mocha did as a gravedigger during his time at Willard State Hospital in New York, but to also offer some respect for other patients buried there as well.  This has been an ongoing uphill struggle for this group, but they have made some progress, and Mr. Mocha who dug 1,500 graves and wasn’t paid for his work will now get some recognition and be given the respect he and the other patients buried there deserve but until now hadn’t gotten.

“No Longer Anonymous: Gravedigger Gets His Due at a Psychiatric Hospital”

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This December 22, 2014 New York Times article talks about the ongoing passionate debate over whether or not a patient who died at the now closed Willard State Hospital in New York state that had served as the gravedigger for the hospital  and hand dug over 1,500 graves for fellow patients who also died there.  A group has wanted to place a plaque to honor Mr. Mocha for his work and give him at least a little more dignity and respect than what they felt a plaque with a number on it offered.  The state of New York finally allowed the new plaque honoring him to be placed after a living relative was found and allowed to read over the news articles about their deceased relative.  The article indicates that this doesn’t mean that there has been a change in policy, and says that to do more, for those buried with numbers for grave markers, a change in law would be needed.  The article details the issue more than I have here, but I feel that this is a small yet significant victory for the group who wanted to honor Mr. Mocha for his work as an unpaid gravedigger for Willard State Hospital.

Seal of New York.

Seal of New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Allow memorial plaque for Willard state hospital grave-digger Lawrence Mocha!”

Petition Link

This Petition was started by people who want to see a man who spent a huge portion of his life digging grave for patients who died at Willard State Hospital.  Lawrence Mocha never received pay for any of the graves he dug.  The folks who started the petition want to place a plaque at the Willard State Hospital cemetery to honor the life of Lawrence for his service to the state hospital.  so far , the state of New York has refused to allow this citing “confidentiality” despite the fact that information the people want to include on the plaque came from public sources such as the census and social security records.  The folks have been struggling to get this plaque placed for sometime now and are asking that anyone who supports the idea of not only Lawrence Mocha being offered the dignity of being recognized as having value, but also the recognition of the many many others who are buried in nameless grave in state hospital cemeteries not just at Willard State Hospital but elsewhere as well.

The book titled “The Lives They Left Behind” includes the story about Lawrence Mocha’s work as a grave digger for Willard State Hospital, and also has stories about the lives of other patients who were at Willard State Hospital as well.  Th book is well worth the time it takes to read it, and reads fast.

“Suitcases of mental patients tell history”


This article was in the September 1, 2010 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The article describes the work that went into the Suitcase Exhibit and offers background information into the finding of the suitcases, and the research that went into learning about the history of the folks who had brought the suitcases to the now closed Willard State Hospital in New York state.

I am planning on seeing the traveling exhibit in Pittsburgh later this month, and am hoping to be able to share my experience with viewing the exhibit on here.  I don’t know if I will be allowed to take pictures or not, so I won’t promise any pics, but I will most likely be writing about my thoughts and feelings pertaining to what I see at the exhibit.

Information about the dates and location of the traveling exhibit can be found on The Alleghany County Mental Health Association website at … http://www.mhaac.net/

a related post can be found at … https://pamhi.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/update-traveling-suitcase-exhibit-and-some-personal-thoughts/

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“The Willard Suitcase Exhibit Online”

  Here’s a link to the online version of the exhibit of suitcases found in the attic of Willard State Hospital in New York state … http://www.suitcaseexhibit.org/indexhasflash.html

“Forgotten Suitcases, Emotional Baggage”

  Something a little different, I found this article about a display at the New York Public Library of suitcases and belongings of former patients found in the attic of Willard State Hospital in New York state.

Forgotten Suitcases, Emotional Baggage

Lisa Rinzler

An attic at the Willard Psychiatric Center in Romulus, N.Y., held the histories of former patients.

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Published: December 7, 2007
TO a child a forgotten trunk in an attic opens the door to a beguiling fantasy world where a castoff shawl can be transformed into a king’s robe, a superhero’s cape or a genie’s flying carpet.
But the forgotten trunks and suitcases found in an attic at the abandoned Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes region of New York represent the opposite: how the door to a desperately desired reality was closed to virtually all its patients.

The 427 suitcases, trunks, crates and bundles recovered after Willard closed in 1995 turned out to belong to patients who had spent decades in this vast state mental institution. In them were the remnants of lives left behind when their owners entered the locked gates.

Now a handful of artifacts once packed away, and the stories behind them, are on display at the New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business Library in Midtown through Jan. 31.

“The history of mental health is almost always told by psychiatrists and hardly ever by patients or through patients’ lives,” said Darby Penney, “so this is pretty amazing.” Ms. Penney, who worked in the New York State Office of Mental Health, and Dr. Peter Stastny, a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker, spent years piecing together what happened to 25 patients from their belongings, medical records and interviews.

In their poignant detail the items helped rescue these individuals from the dark sprawl of anonymity. But barely a dozen of the thousands of objects, now in the New York State Museum’s collection, are in this tiny traveling exhibition.

The heart of the display consists of seven-foot-high panels, each with a sepia-tone portrait of one of the nine patients featured, their life stories and photographs of them and their cache of belongings. The same information and much more is on the Web site suitcaseexhibit.org and in a forthcoming book, “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic” (Bellevue Literary Press), written by Ms. Penney and Dr. Stastny with photographs by Lisa Rinzler.

Margaret, a tuberculosis nurse, owned the most suitcases and boxes, 18 in all. (Confidentiality laws prevented the authors from using the patients’ real last names.) Inside were the makings of a home: dishes, pots and pans, a Japanese porcelain vase, a percolator, lamps, clothing, a bone-china teacup and saucer, hundreds of photos, her nursing diploma, citizenship papers and a pair of ice skates. Suffering from TB herself, and stressed over a series of illnesses and deaths among her loved ones, she was brought to Willard in 1941 without ever having seen a psychiatrist on the basis of complaints that she “annoys people” and felt persecuted. On her way to the ward Margaret, 48, said she felt “like a fly in a spider web.” She died there 32 years later.

Like many of the women who ended up in this hospital, Ms. Penney said, Margaret was an immigrant and had little or no family nearby. The patients were definitely troubled, she added, but the cause was often an immediate crisis like a death in the family or the loss of a job, something that would rarely need lifelong commitment.

“A lot of these folks happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and said the wrong thing to the wrong person,” Ms. Penney said.

Although none of Margaret’s possessions are in the library exhibition, it includes some items that belonged to Frank, the only African-American identified among the suitcase owners. He ended up at Willard in 1946, at the age of 35, when he became enraged after being served food on a chipped plate at a restaurant in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a block from his apartment. Though never violent before, he was given a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, a diagnosis more commonly given to black men than any other group, according to Ms. Penney and Dr. Stastny.

An Army veteran, Frank stayed at Willard for three years before being transferred to a Veterans Administration hospital for the rest of his life. But his trunk stayed behind. A few of its contents are now in a glass case: a folded white T-shirt, arcade photos, a natty blue jacket and a starter pistol.

In another glass case are two hand-stitched quilts, a cream-colored knit baby bonnet with pink ribbon and rosettes, an embroidered white linen christening gown and baby booties, and six silver spoons, one engraved with the name Ethel, the owner. She was a talented seamstress who had suffered a series of physical and psychic blows during the first half of her life.

Two of her four children died before their first birthdays. A miscarriage followed, and she soon learned she had ovarian cancer. By the time she ended up in Willard, in 1930 during the Depression, she had left her husband, an abusive alcoholic, after 22 years of marriage and was renting a room in Freehold, N.Y.

Her landlady tried to evict her after they had a falling out, but Ethel took to her bed and said she was too ill to leave. She was taken to Willard, where her medical records note that she seemed content despite frequent physical complaints. She died there 43 years later at 83.

About half the 54,000 patients who lived at Willard during its 126-year existence died there. Many were buried in the hospital cemetery, their graves marked by their case numbers.

Willard was “built to be the end of the line,” Ms. Penney said as she walked around the hub of display panels at the library. Patients received “less food, less clothing, less amenities” than at other state facilities, Ms. Penney added. “They really wanted to do it on the cheap.” Other panels in the show illustrate the history of mental-health treatments and asylums, while in their book Ms. Penney and Dr. Stastny write that patients were categorized according to their ability to work and their manageability. Patients’ unpaid labor is what kept mental institutions across the country going.

For most of Willard’s existence an understanding of psychiatric disorders was minimal as was appropriate care, Ms. Penney said. Electroshock treatments, ice baths and insulin shocks were common.

The effects of misguided treatments can be seen in the faces of patients. Photographs of Madeline, a rich French woman, taken before her institutionalization at 36 in 1932, show a stunning and sophisticated traveler in locations from the Azores to the Adirondacks. Among her belongings were a silk dress; a riding habit; fine kid gloves; books of philosophy, literature and poetry; and papers from her studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and Columbia and Hunter in New York.

During the Depression she spiraled down into poverty and emotional distress, believing she had telepathic powers. During her 47 years at Willard she was prescribed the first generation of neuroleptic drugs, which caused an incurable movement disorder, tardive dyskinesia. A photograph from about 1960 shows Madeline, her mouth pinched and puckered, her eyebrows drawn together in a tightened frown. A doctor’s note described her “shriveled, wizened face, narrow eyes” and a “stiff and sarcastic smile frozen on her face.”

In the following years the staff either upped her medication or tried “behavior modification therapy” to stop the “extreme grimacing and various twitchings of the hands, arms and trunk” — a vain attempt in the face of neurological damage, Ms. Penney and Dr. Stastny note in the book. “After several years,” they write, “she, like millions of her peers, was in the same predicament: she had become dependent on the very medications that had caused these neurological symptoms.”

Psychiatry, even today, they maintain, is often about stripping individuals of their identities. “If someone had taken the time and effort to piece together these people’s stories during their lifetimes,” Ms. Penney and Mr. Stastny write, perhaps they could have resumed “the lives they led before being institutionalized.”

“The Lives They Left Behind” runs through Jan. 31 at the Science, Industry and Business Library, 188 Madison Avenue, at 34th Street; (212) 592-7000.
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