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“The Shame of Pennsylvania:” Inside the tragic and frightening Pennhurst State School and Hospital

Goran Blazeski

For decades the primary treatment for people unable to fit into society was placing them in one of many sprawling mental hospitals, some of which held thousands of patients. But those with mental disorders were not always treated with the utmost respect and care.

To say that they were treated poorly definitely doesn’t begin to describe all the horrors and brutality patients experienced. Often kept in the most horrendous living conditions, people in certain asylums suffered severe emotional and physical abuse.

Things started changing by the end of the 1950s, when many people reported numerous abuses. These harsh conditions had to change. During the decade that followed, many asylums across the country were closed down and left standing vacant, with the exception, supposedly, of the many ghosts that still wander the decaying halls of the asylums.

Among these is the sprawling Pennhurst Asylum, otherwise known as the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, or as many people described it who were part of the institution or visited it in the past, “Hell on Earth.”

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Limerick Building. Author: Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Limerick Building. Author: Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Thousands of mentally disabled children, most of them abandoned by their own parents, passed through the doors of the Pennhurst Asylum and entered a whole new world. But this world was more frightening than any they might have imagined before.

Opened in 1908 as the “Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic” Author: Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Opened in 1908 as the “Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic” Author: Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Children, including orphans, were, however, not the only patients of the Pennhurst Asylum, as there were also many hapless immigrants and even criminals, but what they all shared were the appalling conditions and the long years of abuse and neglect.

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Spring City Pennsylvania. Author: Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Spring City Pennsylvania. Author: Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

The “Shame of Pennsylvania” as Pennhurst Asylum was once known, was primarily built to be both a school and a hospital,  but it ended up being one of the most horrific asylums in the entire country.

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Mayflower Building. Author: Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Mayflower Building. Author: Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Construction started at the beginning of the century and Pennhurst State School and Hospital admitted its first patient in November 1908. Once in, every patient was given a classification mentally, either as an “imbecile” or “insane” and physically as either “epileptic” or “healthy.”

Birds Eye View of Campus, 1934

Birds Eye View of Campus, 1934

The 1,400-acre state-funded school and hospital center was, in a way, a small community, as it contained more than 30 buildings, had its own power plant, farm, hospital, morgue, barber shop, and firehouse.

Although it was originally designed to house no more than 500 patients, by the year 1912, the institution was already overcrowded and staff members were unable to give proper care to each patient, with some abusing them. The chronic overcrowding and patient abuse had already begun during the first years of the institution and it didn’t stop until it was closed down.

Pennhurst State School and Hospital. Author Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Pennhurst State School and Hospital. Author Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

The asylum’s staff would often tie the patients to their beds and leave them alone for hours if not the day. This meant many of them would be covered in their own feces by the time the orderlies returned. Patients who showed aggressiveness were often drugged to calm them down, but this was not the worst thing that could happen to these patients. The staff, for example, would often remove all the teeth of a patient who bit another patient or a staff member. In fact, this happened so often that even years after the asylum was closed, visitors would find teeth in the tunnels.

Pennhurst State School and Hospital. Author Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Pennhurst State School and Hospital. Author Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Mistreatment continued, along with the unhygienic, inhumane, and dangerous conditions, but a 1968 short TV series on Pennhurst would inspire many to wage a legal fight against the institution.

Pennhurst State School and Hospital. Author Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

Pennhurst State School and Hospital. Author Thomas. CC BY-ND 2.0

This led to an exhausting 20 years of legal actions and federal judgments before the asylum was finally closed.

Related story from us:Harrowing photos of child miners helped abolish child labor in the U.S.

When one considers the dark and harrowing past of the institution, it comes as no surprise that today the “Shame of Pennsylvania” has a reputation of being one of the most haunted places in the world.