We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

A tan banker’s box labeled st. es sits on a shelf in the archives at Walter Reed’s National Museum of Health and Medicine. The box is filled with dozens of 4-by-5-inch glass slides from the nation’s first and only federally funded asylum for the mentally ill. Set against a light board, the fragile plates illuminate haunting scenes. A woman, hunched on the floor, holds herself with her head lowered in retreat. Two elderly men pose in the sun in their wheelchairs. There are portraits showing patients with their eyes blotted out or the outlines of their heads carefully snipped away. Diagrams map the suspected causes of problematic behavior as they were once understood (homosexuality, for example, is linked to masturbation and incest).

A few scribbled notes are the only clues to the stories they tell. Smaller boxes are labeled transvestism and sexual psychopath. They include photographs of famous transvestites like Valerie Arkell-Smith, a London lady who posed as a colonel and married a woman in the ’20s. A box marked foreign bodies contains X-ray images with keys, hooks, and rings outlined in the blank spaces of stomach cavities, and a carefully arrayed collection of dozens of items one patient swallowed (a current St. Elizabeths pathologist who has seen the patient’s file vouches for the inventory’s accuracy). Many pictures of patients and staff appear to date to the turn of the 20th century. The most recent images, likely from the ’40s, feature posed group photos of recuperating patients in the woodshop or gathered around a piano.

The slides offer a glimpse into St. Elizabeths’ past. Even the people with the closest knowledge of the local asylum—a few current and former employees who’ve become obsessed with the institution’s history—didn’t know the images existed until they were recently rediscovered.

For more than a decade, the slides were in the care of St. Elizabeths’ longtime head of house-keeping, Wilhelmina Carey, who, starting in the late 70s, began gathering pieces of the hospital’s history. Carey, now 71, hunted through the 336-acre campus and came back with hundreds of objects. She gathered photographs, artwork, equipment, and dozens of pieces of furniture, including a desk that belonged to Dorothea Dix, the reformer who pushed for opening the hospital. She also found records for thousands of patients—including three would-be presidential assassins, Civil War soldiers (black, white, Union and Confederate), and the poet Ezra Pound. In 1981, her collection opened as a museum in the hospital’s Central Building.

Carey says she was occasionally caught hugging the furniture there. “It’s my furniture. I love it,” she says. “You want to preserve history and that’s what I do.”

Standing on the porch of her Southeast Washington home, Carey says the slides were never part of her collection. She is most likely mistaken. The slides probably stayed for years in their box in her museum, undisturbed unless a visitor came to rifle through the collection. A handwritten note on an envelope of loose slides reads, “Borrowed —1 ping-pong slide from Mrs. Carey. 7/1/87.” The item, incidentally, was never returned.

In 1987, the federal government foisted the struggling hospital upon the District of Columbia. As compensation for the $120 million yearly cost of running the facility (offset by a declining federal contribution), the feds promised to bequeath to the city the rights to more than 150 acres of the western campus, which could be a valuable parcel in the blooming business of redevelopment. The land was supposed to change hands in 1991. But the feds managed to hold onto the property through a series of land swaps. The Department of Homeland Security is expected to move there in 2011.

The 1987 hand-over marked the beginning of a dark period for St. Elizabeths’. Because of a court order requiring a move toward community care, the patient population had plummeted from highs reaching 8,000 in the ’60s to fewer than 1,000 in the late ’80s. With dwindling funds, the District could barely pay to maintain the crumbling campus. Five different commissioners helmed the faltering system before the hospital went into receivership from 1997 until 2001.

Amid the tumult, St. Elizabeths invited archivists from the Smithsonian to collect artifacts, especially the furniture, from Carey’s beloved museum. In 1996, after the Smithsonian had taken its pick, Carey says, several other organizations came to peruse the remainders. Items were transferred to the Anacostia Museum, Howard University, Walter Reed, and the National Archives, among others. “From our point of view, this was a rescue operation,” says Michael Rhode, the archivist at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Rhode says the slides would be useful tools for anyone researching the history of St. Elizabeths and psychiatry in America. But he understands why they may not have been appreciated in their time. During World War II, he says, curators at his own museum gave away photographs from the Civil War because “they didn’t see the value in them.”

“These are valuable and also some of them are not bad pictures, as photos themselves they are interesting,” Rhode says. “They have several layers of value.” He says Carey paid a great service to future historians by preserving the slides, even if they didn’t hold her attention. “It’s absolutely amazing what she did.”

Carey laments that St. Es has lost the one place that showcased its history. “The first thing they told me to do was to put everything in one place,” Carey says. “Now we have it scattered all over the world.”

The slides featured in these pages moved to Walter Reed in 1997 and sat untouched until 2005. That’s when General Services Administration employees surveying historic buildings on the hospital’s campus paid a visit to the archive in search of information. The discovery rekindled an interest in relocating the rest of what had been given away a decade ago.

Carey doesn’t shy from assigning blame for the museum’s demise to the District government. Her pleas to move the contents to the east campus went unheeded. “I told them how important it was,” Carey says. “D.C. government didn’t accept the responsibility for the museum.” Carey says the only option was to give the artifacts away.

The inventory of the museum was cataloged in a 3-inch binder kept in the hospital’s Blackburn lab, but St. Es officials now say they can find no record of where the 1,326 listed items were transferred. Carey insists the information is not lost. The transfers were recorded, she says, “and I kept it in my head where it all went.”

Dr. Patrick Canavan, who was appointed CEO of St. Elizabeths in January, says he has enlisted a history student from the University of Virginia to work on tracking down the artifacts this summer. He realizes Carey will be a key resource in solving the mystery.

Carey, who is currently recovering from pneumonia, says she will help.