OPERATION TIME: November 23, 1908 to 1987
KIRKBRIDE PLAN: No
STATUS: Open for tourists
The Early Years
The authorization for the Eastern State Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic was approved by the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1903. A commission for figuring the numbers of “insane” residents of the state was founded; they discovered that there were 1,146 “feeble-minded” citizens in mental hospitals, and another 2,627 in almshouses, county-care hospitals, reformatories, and prisons.
It was decided that there would be one group of buildings for educational and industrial purposes and another for the actual asylum. Eastern State Institution was required to have no less than five hundred patients.
The first buildings were constructed between the years of 1903 and 1908 on 633.913 acres of Crab Hill in Spring City, Pennsylvania. The buildings were labeled by letters of the alphabet:
- F Building: The girls’ dining room
- G Building: The kitchen and store room
- H Building: Use unspecified
- I Building: Use unspecified
- K Building: Cottage for girls
- N Building: The boys’ dining room
- P Building: The teachers’ home
- Q Building: Use unspecified
- T Building: Use unspecified
- U Building: Use unspecified
- V Building: Cottage for boys
- R Building: School
- W Building: Laundry and sewing
- X Building: The power house
Up until the asylum’s opening in 1908, “P” was used temporarily as the Administration building; it was later replaced with “L” and “M” in 1919. Three more buildings, Whitman, Wilson I, and Wilson II, were constructed for employee housing. In 1929, the Assembly building was completed for use as the gymnasium and auditorium.
In 1930, the upper campus’ buildings, Pershing, Buchanan, Audubon, and Keystone, were completed and used as “the Female Colony”. Capitol Hall and Devon were built on the lower campus shortly after World War II. In 1971, Horizon Hall opened.
The asylum officially opened its doors on November 23rd, 1908, admitting “patient number 1” to the hospital. After a short four years of operation, Pennhurst was already overcrowded; they were pressured to add to the population by admitting immigrants, orphans, and criminals. Patients went through three phases of classification, dividing them into categories: mental (imbecile or insane), physical (epileptic or healthy), and dental (good, poor, or treated).
Other reasons for admission into the hospital were Strabismus, imperfect sight and/or hearing, mute or semi-mute, speech impediments, paralysis, epilepsy, blindness, imperfect gait, imperfect prehension, deformity of the face, head, limbs, and/or feet, microcephalic or hydrocephalic head, and offensive habits.
Many patients worked in the industrial portion of Pennhurst, and were assigned to one of the following jobs: mattress making, shoe making/repair, grading, farming, laundry, sewing, baking, domestic duties, butchering, painting, and working in the store.
In 1913, the Commission for the Care of the Feeble-Minded was created by the legislature. It was believed that the disabled were unfit for citizenship, and they were a threat to the peace. One of Pennhurst’s goals was to remove the disabled from the gene pool by keeping them away from the general population, following the ideals of eugenics.
One such eugenicist, Henry H. Goddard, said that:
“Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal. The general public, although more convinced today than ever before that it is a good thing to segregate the idiot or the distinct imbecile, they have not as yet been convinced as to the proper treatment of the defective delinquent, which is the brighter and more dangerous individual.”
To prevent pregnancies, the Board of Trustees added cottages specifically for female inmates in 1916.
Suffer the Little Children
When CBS10 correspondent Bill Baldini made a five-part television news report called Suffer the Little Children in 1968, the darker side of Pennhurst was uncovered. In 1983, nine employees were charged with harming patients, with abuse ranging from slapping to beating and even arranging for patients to harm each other. The Halderman Case detailed the patient abuse going on within the hospital, which led to the closure of the asylum.
In 1977, the case against the hospital was heard by U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Broderick. It was determined that Pennhurst’s conditions violated the constitutional rights of patients. Ten years later in 1987, the institution was closed, with its remaining 460 patients being discharged or transferred to other facilities.
Among the hospital’s violations were unsanitary, inhumane, and dangerous conditions (violating the fourteenth amendment) and they used cruel and unusual punishment (violating the eighth and fourteenth amendments).
After the closure of Pennhurst, the upper campus was used by the Department of Military Affairs as a veteran’s home. It officially opened in 1986 as the Southeastern Veteran’s Center. The Horizon Hall began renovations in 1990 in order to create a nursing facility. It reopened three years later as Coates Hall.
In 2003, Congressman Jim Gerlach made attempts to establish a federal veterans cemetery at Pennhurst, but the proposal was rejected by VA. The administration building was partially renovated in 2010, leading the hospitals reopening as a haunted house. Despite its success, it remains controversial among locals and those who were affiliated with Pennhurst.
Today, Pennhurst Asylum is said to be haunted by the patients who died at the hospital. Activity includes the sensation of a good breeze, full body apparitions, moving objects, and the sounds of children and adults screaming and crying in pain. Whispers and slamming doors can be heard in the hospital as well.
In Popular Culture
- Pennhurst has been featured on Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, BIO’s Celebrity Ghost Stories, BIO’s The Haunting Of…, MTV’s Snooki & Jwoww, and History Channel’s Haunted History.
- A book entitled Ghosts of Mayflower: A Pennhurst Haunting was written about the hospital.
- The movie Pennhurst, starring Beverley Mitchell and Haylie Duff, was about the hospital
- Greatest Unsolved Mysteries. “Pennhurst Asylum,” www.Greatest-Unsolved-Mysteries.com
- Wikipedia. “Pennhurst State School,” www.Wikipedia.org
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