An exerpt from
The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic
By Darby Penney and Peter Stastny Photographs by Lisa Rinzler


Although born on different continents almost two decades apart, Madeline Cartier and Irma Medina had a surprising amount in common. Beauties in their youth, they were sophisticated single women from respectable families who immigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century. Both lived in Manhattan in the 1920s, partaking of its rich cultural and educational opportunities, and each used the city as a base for her far-flung travels. Madeline taught French literature in private schools and took classes at Hunter College and Columbia University, while Irma worked for the venerable French perfumery Roger et Gallet, gave private French lessons in her spare time, and was involved in the musical world of New York.

Madeline was born in 1896 to a wealthy Parisian family of brandy distillers and arrived in New York from Le Havre in 1920 on the ship Rochambeau. Irma, eighteen years Madeline's senior, had an Italian father and a French mother and was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She sailed from Genoa on the Prinzess Irene, arriving in New York in 1910. As self-reliant women, both earned a decent living for many years. But when the Great Depression struck, both became destitute, and their lives took tragic downward turns that eventually brought them to Willard State Hospital on the same day in 1939.

As educated single women who came from countries with relatively few immigrants to the United States, Irma and Madeline were unusual among early twentieth century immigrants. Between 1910 and 1920, more than 60 percent of immigrants arrived as part of a family group; the largest numbers came from Ireland, Italy, the United Kingdom, and eastern Europe. Less than a quarter of single immigrants at the time were women, the vast majority of whom lacked formal education and found work as domestics or factory workers. Unlike most of their sister immigrants, Madeline and Irma initially lived comfortable and intellectually stimulating lives in their adopted country. Yet both eventually lost everything and found themselves in what must have been unthinkable conditions for women of their backgrounds, confined for decades on overcrowded asylum wards, without contact with the outside world, and with nothing to look forward to.


The two women's lives in New York City seemed to run on parallel tracks, but their time in mental hospitals converged unexpectedly. And yet Madeline's and Irma's responses to being diagnosed and confined could not have been more different. Each was quickly transferred from Bellevue to Central Islip; Madeline in 1932, and Irma a year later, where she joined Madeline on Ward 55. They stayed on that ward together for several years and were certainly acquainted with each other, although both were noted to be reclusive and highly selective in their contacts with other patients. Despite their difference in age, both were well-educated, spoke French, and had an interest in music, so they might have found each other compatible company. Since medical records rarely include information about patients' relationships with one another (unless they are violent or otherwise troublesome), it is impossible to know whether they became friends.

Madeline felt that her commitment was a terrible injustice and was in high dudgeon throughout her five years at Central Islip, writing frequent letters to her lawyer demanding that he secure her release. She did not receive any reply and assumed that the hospital never posted her letters. She also wrote to friends and acquaintances, begging their help to get back to Manhattan. Some responded with admonitions to follow the doctors' orders, while others inquired with the hospital superintendent, who invariably replied that Madeline was much too sick to be discharged. She wrote frequent complaints to the superintendent about the violation of her rights and demanded to be released to attend classes at Columbia. All these letters were compiled in her record as further evidence of her insanity.

Irma, on the other hand, was "quiet, agreeable, well-behaved, and easily managed" for the first two years at Central Islip, but her medical record said that she "has no insight into her condition and is resistive to the development of any insight." Initially she was seen as a good worker, but by 1935 she had become more "sullen and withdrawn," refused to do any work, and felt that the staff and other patients were against her. She retreated into a fantasy world, believing herself to be an Italian princess named Leticia from a wealthy family in Naples, married to a Count Ladislaus.

Irma was transferred to Kings Park State Hospital on April 6, 1937; Madeline followed a week later. From her two years at Kings Park, Irma's record contains only three notes, all commenting on her lack of insight, her refusal to work, and her belief that she was an Italian princess. Madeline's file contained just ten notes during the same time period, mentioning that she refused to work, spent a great deal of time reading, and that she persisted in her belief that she was being confined illegitimately and repeatedly demanded her release.

JUNE 17, 1937: Patient [Madeline C.] received today on Ward 41 from Ward 120. She was somewhat restless, wandering about the ward but when questioned answered promptly and relevantly. Stated that she was being detained here without cause, that she was quite well enough to leave and get a position. Her manner was quite superior and she talked in an affected and manneristic way.

-M. Evans, M.D.

SEPTEMBER 14, 1938: She complains a great deal when seen on rounds and during the interview. She requests continuously that she be permitted to go home. Her productions are spoken with a strong French accent and are concerned mostly with her complaint that she is being kept in the hospital unjustly, that she does not have enough clothing and that she is not accustomed to such a life as she is leading in the hospital at present.

-I. Portnoy, M.D.