Unless otherwise noted all pictures and text are by and copyright Mike Strong
On The Geneva Times.
Tilly - Not Insane for 90 Years of Incarceration
25 May 1976
Committed at Age 19
She was never Insane
This picture was taken May 25, 1976. That day the staff at Willard State Hospital in Willard, NY was celebrating her birthday, her 109th. They were not entirely sure they had the day or the years exactly right, only that they were close. Tilly's records went back fully to about 1945 in Brooklyn. Before that, most records had been lost.
What was known was that Mathilda Gugenberg (Tilly) came to New York City from Germany as an indentured servant at age 18 or 19. She was committed as schizophrenic at age 19, in the Bronx, by her employer. Once she was part of the state system the state never let her out.
The chaplain told me that the staff now (in 1975) believed she had never truly been schizophrenic in any way. As an example he related how he had recently returned from a two week vacation. As he turned a corner in the ward he ran smack into Tilly who asked him right off, "Where have you been for the last two weeks?" People on those wards loose track of time, he said, even sane people. Tilly was always alert.
But she would not be released at that point in her life, just cared for. After so many years it would also, the chaplain said, not be right to simply dump her on the street to fend for herself. Freedom would never be hers.
Tilly was from the days when a wife or servant or some troublesome person could be committed by someone with power. In those days the keys were thrown away. Inheritance fights, ackward mistresses, possible embarrassments and others were thrown away and discredited this way. Look at her picture and imagine her 90 years younger. One can guess at the possible reasons why Tilly's employer had her committed. The list of potential reasons hasn't changed, just the ease of the ability to commit someone to get them out of the way.
Laws have been passed to fight this. But recently, we have seen this method applied to military whistle-blowers in Iraq. The same sort of thing done to persons in the old Soviet Union, and too many other places. It is with us still.
Tilly was in a nice green and white dress but was not entirely happy about having her picture taken because of her hair. The nurses had fixed her hair as you see it. She preferred braids. She was also recovering from a hip fracture and was in a wheelchair. Several little girls were brought in to take part and one blew out the candles on Tilly's birthday cake.
I've often remembered her eyes looking at me, as in this picture. I imagin her eyes as if they were the window at the end of one of those little eggs with a scene constructed inside. I wonder what world it was that she carried inside her.