Inside Philadelphia’s Byberry Mental Hospital House Of Horrors

For decades, Philadelphia's Byberry mental hospital neglected and tortured its patients — and got away with it.

Byberry Mental Hospital Philadelphia

Charles Lord, from Wayne D. Sawyer Papers in Civilian Public Service: Personal Papers & Collected Material (DG 056) Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania via civilianpublicservice.orgThe “violent ward” at Byberry mental hospital. 1943.

“Thousands spend their days – often for weeks at a stretch – locked in devices euphemistically called ‘restraints’: thick leather handcuffs, great canvas camisoles, ‘muffs,’ ‘mitts,’ wristlets, locks and straps and restraining sheets. Hundreds are confined in ‘lodges’ – bare, bed-less rooms reeking with filth and feces – by day lit only through half-inch holes in steel-plated windows, by night merely black tombs in which the cries of the insane echo unheard from the peeling plaster of the walls.”

While the description above sounds like something out of a horror movie, it actually comes from a 1946 LIFE Magazine exposé of Philadelphia’s Byberry mental hospital.

Even today, inhumane conditions and patient abuse are the main legacies of the Byberry mental hospital (officially known as the Philadelphia State Hospital).

What started out as a working farm for a few unstable patients at a time in 1903 eventually grew into a multi-building campus. Although it relieved overcrowding from the other mental facilities in the area, it grew so fast that it couldn’t entice enough staff to work there.

Soon, facility administrators were letting people work there even if they weren’t especially qualified — if you needed a job, you had one. Perhaps some that were employed there even fit the bill for admission.

At the same time, close to 3,000 conscientious objectors who didn’t fight in World War II for religious reasons were sent to work at mental hospitals around the country. It was largely via these pacifists’ accounts and photographs that the abusive conditions inside Byberry mental hospital were finally brought to light.

Although some dedicated, caring, and hard-working staff at the Byberry mental hospital truly cared for the patients, a number of bad employees carried out abuses that remain disturbing to this day…

Neglect At Byberry Mental Hospital

Due to the understaffing, there was an extremely low ratio of orderlies to patients at the Byberry mental hospital. Because of this, residents were often left unbathed and naked. Housekeeping fell behind, bedding was unwashed, and floors were sticky with urine. Instead of tending to the patients, staff put them in four-point restraints — sometimes for months at a time.

As recently as the late 1980s, 27-year-old resident William Kirsch was in such restraints for more than 14 months — and possibly as long as three years. The U.S. District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania found that Byberry was infringing on Kirsch’s human rights, and demanded his release from the hospital. “I hope that the state has not injured this poor young man to the point where it is now irreparable,” said his attorney, Stephen Gold. “He was much better when he went in there seven or eight years ago.”

By 1970, more than a decade before Kirch’s case even, there were at least 57 deaths attributed solely to patient neglect at Byberry mental hospital — and probably many more that went unreported.

On the other hand, Byberry’s open-door policy for high-functioning residents made it easy for certain people to escape. Homeowners in the area sometimes found patients sleeping on their lawns. However, some patients who wandered off ended up committing suicide not far from the hospital.

One patient escaped on a cold February day. But when he reconsidered his decision, he couldn’t find any staff to let him back inside. He died of exposure.

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.
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