Tragic tales of horrific living conditions and unimaginable abuse emanated from Philadelphia State Hospital – also known as Byberry – in Pennsylvania during much of the 20th century. The mental asylum, originally meant to help “cure” the mentally ill, became little more than a terrifying nightmare for those who lived there.
Philadelphia State Mental Hospital at Byberry originally ran on the principle that mental illness could be cured if the individual was treated in a hospital away from society.
Originally built in 1907, Philadelphia State Hospital eventually spanned approximately 1,500 acres. The state hospital consisted of dormitories for male and female patients, a hospital, a morgue, and kitchens. In the beginning, patients were assigned to work on the farm on the facility's grounds.
The entire campus of the Philadelphia State Hospital wasn't completed until late 1928. Even in its very early years, the mental facility was riddled with problems that needed repair. The underground tunnels, for example, that connected the buildings were often filled with dirty puddles.
Horror stories began early in Philadelphia State Hospital's history. Two male employees murdered a male patient. However, charges against the men were dropped since they had likely been suffering from PTSD after returning from World War I. Both began working at the hospital again after the charges were dropped.
Philadelphia State Mental Hospital, which had a separate space for a maximum of 100 children, became overcrowded after only 20 years in operation. More than 4,000 patients shared space meant for only 2100 male, female, and child patients. Horror stories began to trickle out of the facility.
Tales of patients being restrained for days, and even months, emerged. The cleanliness of the facility left much to be desired with witnesses telling of excrement lining the floors and, because of the lack of staff, patients wearing the same clothes for weeks. Many patients slept on the filthy floors because there weren't enough beds.
Despite the many horror stories to come out of Philadelphia State Hospital, it began an attempt to downsize to improve conditions. Ultimately, however, the hospital's end was inevitable.
News of Philadelphia State Hospital's closure came in late 1987, but the mental facility didn't actually shut down until 1990. Nearly 80 percent of the patients were transferred to suitable institutions to continue their much-needed care while 2,500 were simply released with little more than a few dollars, bus tokens, and a pending appointment for mental health care at a local outpatient facility.
After permanently shuttering, Philadelphia State Hospital became inundated with curiosity seekers and, sadly, some of the patients who had been released and had nowhere else to go. By 2006, however, the constant stream of visitors to the property became a nuisance to the community and was purchased by a developer, who immediately put a fence around the former state hospital.
The scene of so much horror and tragedy was demolished the summer of 2006 but the memories remain through the stories of survivors.
Had you previously heard of the tragic story of Philadelphia State Hospital? Pennsylvania’s storied history is filled with fascinating – and often tragic – tales.
Click here to read more about one of the state’s forgotten cemeteries.