Philadelphia's Byberry Mental Hospital Of Horrors

Philadelphia's Byberry Mental Hospital Of Horrors

You would be surprised to know that American Horror Stories: Asylum, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Shutter Island were inspired by the actual, horrid conditions in Philadelphia's Byberry mental hospital.

This state hospital in Pennsylvania crumbled upon its disgrace and evil reputation. It became a synonym of abuse of patients by careless staff members.

Byberry mental hospital opened its doors in 1907, and despite an eye-opening report in Life Magazine in 1946, patient abuse continued into the 1980s. So how did Philadelphia State Hospital get away with it? And how bad was it?

History Of Mental Health Care In Pennsylvania

The Worst Asylum Of All Times – Byberry Mental Hospital Closed Its Doors After Almost 100 Years

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin and fellow Quakers founded the first American Hospital for the Mentally Ill. Franklin voted that the state of Pennsylvania should allocate public funds to centers for the "people who are drowning in pain and misery ... under disorders of body and mind can be comfortably abstained from."

This was an early step in Franklin's formation of the state of Pennsylvania. He established the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia's first library, and the fire department (also the first in the United States).

Franklin's deep belief in civic duty extended to caring for the mentally ill. Although psychiatry still emerged, Franklin believed in the public good and the shared responsibility of society to humanely accommodate people with cognitive differences.

So, in a city that respects Benjamin Franklin's careful planning — the city of Brotherly Love - it might shock you when you learn the history of a mental hospital in northeast Philadelphia. It has passed under many names - Philadelphia State Hospital, Byberry mental hospital, Byberry City Farms, Philadelphia Mental Hospital, and colloquially "madness."

Yet none of these rebrandings have affected inside conditions.

The Worst Asylum Of All Times – Byberry Mental Hospital Closed Its Doors After Almost 100 Years

Byberry mental hospital was formed as a private farm for the mentally ill in 1907. The farm has expanded to an entire hospital in Philly's Somerton neighborhood. New psychological theories have suggested that the mentally ill be strictly separated from the rest of the population. This belief was primarily derived from the work of Dr. Benjamin Rush, another Pennsylvanian resident. During the early 1900s, many patients were transferred to Byberry mental hospital from Philadelphia General Hospital.

In 1936, the psychiatric hospital was handed over to the state and officially became Philadelphia State Hospital in Byberry. At the time, it continued to accommodate a variety of mentally ill people.

"Mentally ill" was the umbrella term for a variety of disorders. This has resulted in innocent people with mental challenges being pushed against violent individuals or criminals. The most detailed accounts of these actions in Byberry mental hospital come from Albert Q. Maisel's exhibition for Life magazine, Bedlam 1946.

Attempts To Expose Byberry Mental Hospital

The Worst Asylum Of All Times – Byberry Mental Hospital Closed Its Doors After Almost 100 Years

In the investigative paper, Bedlam 1946 Albert Q. Maisel discovered the shocking depths of Byberry's disgusting environment. "Hospital" was the term used only on paper, as every description given by Maisel sounds like a horror story from Stephen King.

A basement ward called "Dungeon," "starvation" for naked patients, patients pushed into incredibly close, dark chambers. The rats, feeding on the victims in the basement morgue, found more food than the patients themselves. The morgue was always full.

There were frequent murders in Byberry mental hospital and constant beatings labeled "self-murders." Thousands of patients, indeed prisoners, spent wasted days imprisoned in "restraint." Maisel acknowledged these as a euphemism for painfully tying the patients with leather handcuffs. Unspeakable terror reigned in the Byberry mental hospital.

The Worst Asylum Of All Times – Byberry Mental Hospital Closed Its Doors After Almost 100 Years

Published after World War II, Albert Q. Maisel's cold report horrified Americans. A place so reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps was right there, within Philly's borders - on Roosevelt Boulevard. At about the same time as Maisel was conducting his research, thousands of conscientious objectors were forced to work in state mental hospitals across the country.

Most hospital staff were insufficiently trained and underpaid. The inflow of pacifist workers spoke out against widespread patient abuse and called for deinstitutionalization. One of those conscientious objectors, Charlie Lord, photographed the harsh living conditions in Byberry mental hospital. Along with Bedlam 1946, photography and journalism offered an undoubtedly strong picture of the truth.

In his 1948 book, The Shame of States, Albert Deutsch further exposed Byberry and called for mental health reform. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even advocated for the same thing.


A Real-life Horror Story

Philadelphia's Byberry Mental Hospital Of Horrors

A description of this place can be found immediately in horror films, but the factual information was first found in LIFE in 1946. To this day, similar cases continue to be reported in Philadelphia state hospitals, but there has been no response to one of them.

"Hundreds spent days, sometimes even weeks, without the right to move outside their rooms. With the help of shirts and shackles, most patients are kept in one place. The more violent patients are deprived of bedding, shoes, socks, and even clothes. Some are even placed in wooden crates and simply expected to die and be buried. Dirt is not even commented on, but heating and electricity are myths that no one will be able to test or tell about. During the night, every room turns into something like a tomb, except for shouting and crying, there is nothing else. "

Unfortunately, at that time, the number of patients at the hospital increased at an extraordinary rate. Eventually, special care staff was needed. The problem was that no one knew how to take care of ill people. To make things worse, if you didn't have a job, this was the ideal place as it paid well.

In some cases, the mentally ill farms reached nearly 3,000 people and sometimes exceeded that number. During the two world wars, the only way for an American citizen not to serve at the front was to work at Byberry mental hospital and similar places. The job vacancy required the employee to be calm and more balanced, but almost everyone could find a job there due to a lack of staff.

Things Grew Worse In Time

The Worst Asylum Of All Times – Byberry Mental Hospital Closed Its Doors After Almost 100 Years

In the beginning, not everyone was aggressive towards the patients, some employees took care and attention, but the reputation has changed. Due to a lack of understanding, most patients remained dirty, fed themselves, and waited to die. At one point, even cleaning staff stopped caring for the sheets and laundry, the floor began to stick and smell like urine, and dirt on the walls was common practice. Walks in the fresh air were delayed for months.

The first scandals and attention-grabbing occurred in the late 1980s. One of the patients, 27-year-old William Kirsch, was chained for about 14 months. An Eastern Pennsylvania court ordered an investigation into Byberry mental hospital and found a violation of human rights for this patient and many others.

William's lawyer, Stephen Gold, has officially stated that his client was in much better health before entering the hospital and that his condition was deteriorating instead of improving. However, this was not the first reported case.


As early as the 1970s, some anomalies such as high mortality began to be registered, and about 57 patients died at almost the same time. According to the inspection, there were again violations of the basic requirements.

Still, attention continued to be focused on unannounced cases and the growing number of suicides in the hospital. One patient managed to escape in February, and while wandering a few miles in the icy embrace, he finally concluded that it was better to return. When he stood at the hospital door, no one opened it.

He was discovered in the morning, dead from a cold. But, there's more.

Water Cure And Similar Therapies From The Hell

The Worst Asylum Of All Times – Byberry Mental Hospital Closed Its Doors After Almost 100 Years

In 1946 the newspaper also talked about the "water cure." What is it? A sizeable wet towel is taken, squeezed, and placed on the patient's neck. The staff would tighten the two ends suggesting what awaits any disobedient. Most patients started to pray for mercy, but no one could hear them. What originally was intended as ​​torture was often fatal. It was enough to record it as another suicide, as we can imagine.

Because the towel was wet, suffocation marks could not be found anywhere, and in various investigations, no patient could prove that they had been harassed. Some of the employees who left have repeatedly shared that most colleagues have found different methods of harassment without using their hands or weapons against the sick.

The mentally ill have the right to see a doctor, dentist, and other experts when they develop the disease. There were no rules in Byberry mental hospital for these procedures. Dentists extracted teeth without anesthesia, and all other procedures were performed without painkillers. There were rumors that the medical institution itself sold the anesthetics on the black market.

The Worst Asylum Of All Times – Byberry Mental Hospital Closed Its Doors After Almost 100 Years

A psychiatrist trained in the 1970s, Larry Riel, remembers officers sewing up wounds without any anesthesia. They believed that people with schizophrenia could not experience any pain. On the other hand, many doctors drugged patients with various substances to dangerous levels.

The pharmaceutical company Smith Clean-French opened a laboratory in the hospital and conducted experiments with living people, testing new drugs on them. Most families did not understand what was happening to their relatives. If patients/prisoners took the experimental medicines, they wouldn't be abused. The archives hide the secret of hundreds who died from testing experimental drugs.

In 1919 the first case of murder was registered. The victim was found strangled. Staff said the man became ill after World War I and was extremely aggressive, refusing to take his medication. Killings involved employees and the patients themselves, who would kill each other. During that time, there were prisoners in Byberry mental hospital who had to undergo treatment, but no one stopped them from murdering patients.


In 1944 the police came to pick up one of the patients in an attempt to kill another with a sharpened spoon.

On June 21, 1990, after decades of mistreatments and coverups, the Byberry mental hospital closed its doors.

Byberry Mental Hospital Today

The Worst Asylum Of All Times – Byberry Mental Hospital Closed Its Doors After Almost 100 Years

Byberry mental hospital remained open for four decades despite the negative publicity after publishing Albert Deutsch's Shame of States. The 1950s in America did not bring about any radical changes in mental illness awareness or even the primary care of a mental health facility.

In the 1960s, Byberry's mental hospital staff was reduced due to budget constraints, worsening the pattern that continued until the final condemnation of Byberry.

In the mid-1980s, Byberry republished news of patient abuse was investigated and confirmed. The allegations included extraction of the patient's teeth without Novacaine, long-term malnutrition, and misplacement of violent criminals. Investigative teams called their findings "awful" and "irreversible."

In 1987, a press conference revealed the future of Byberry Mental Hospital. After two years of collecting the patients' records, they were moved to Norristown State Hospital or other community homes.

As Byberry mental hospital had always thrived in neglect, it sat abandoned on Philadelphia's Roosevelt Boulevard for years.

Due to concerns about asbestos, the buildings were not demolished. In turn, Byberry had become a cradle of vandals and researchers who were proud to excavate this bleak piece of Pennsylvania history. Undoubtedly, the stigma surrounding mental asylums made Byberry mental hospital famous for creepy wanderers running through abandoned graffiti halls.

In 2003, the city finally sealed the windows on Byberry mental hospital, although this reportedly made hiding easier for those who entered. In 2006, eventually, the buildings were torn to the ground.

However, even after shedding light on sufferings, those within Byberry mental hospital managed to get away with almost everything.