Philadelphia’s State Hospital for Mental Diseases, more commonly known as Byberry Insane Asylum, has a reputation for inhumane treatment with inmates and other patients.
The history of the asylum is not just horrible but also extremely heartbreaking. Many people were sent to the asylum for their betterment or so they wouldn’t harm others around them. Little did anyone know what pain would be inflicted upon them on the hospital’s premises.
A Start for Change
The place was not always horrible. It started as a working farm for unstable people in 1903 so that they could live a normal life.
Gradually it grew into buildings and multiple campuses. It was not until 1911 that it changed into a properly structured mental asylum and gradually became like any other mental hospital in America: under-staffed and over accommodated. This does not work well for any institute as these issues can lead to long-term distress, especially when taking care of patients who do not know how to do anything on their own.
Mental asylums require full-time care from well-trained people. Unfortunately for Byberry, the case was the complete opposite. The hospital’s total capacity was to hold around 2500 people, but there were 4500 patients in the hospital.
There were scandals of abuse and torture, and not only that, rumors of missing patients, sudden deaths, mistreatment, and torture beyond imagination were also circulating. It came to the point that the hospital management started taking random unqualified people for jobs because they could not deal with the patients and the massive amount of new admissions.
The situation began to worsen, and after World War II, when the whole world was on the brink of turmoil, the Byberry asylum was going through a tumult of its own because, by 1947, the patient population had risen to 6100. Although the authorities outside of the hospital were well-aware of the condition of asylum, no one did anything to get rid of the problem.
A Management Nightmare
The most horrible part about the whole thing was that the rumors were not only true, but they did not even do justice to what was going on inside the system.
The under-trained or, more aptly, “untrained” workers gave patients a tough time. They physically abused them, and there were also complaints of people dying of malnutrition which were ruled off as natural deaths in papers. This doesn’t end here; the medical staff was equally bad or even worse.
Staff pulled out the patients’ teeth without anesthetics and left them in pain and agony. Moreover, the patients were locked down for days, and isolation is the worst nightmare for a person with a mental health condition.
In a Life Magazine expose of Philadelphia’s State Hospital, it was written:
“Thousands spend their days — often for weeks at a stretch –locked-in devices euphemistically called ‘restrain’: 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.”
This sounds horrific, and we can only imagine what the people living there must have gone through.
A Brave Survivor
Among many others who fought their terrible fate, Anna Jennings was also a brave survivor of Byberry Asylum.
With a childhood history of sexual abuse, she grew up depressed and hostile because of it. At the age of 13, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent to many institutes for treatment after that. In the early 1960s, she was sent to Byberry Asylum to deal with her problems.
Anna was a brilliant artist and a bright girl who knew that whatever was going on around her was not right and this was not how patients were supposed to be treated. Although the staff treated her right and appreciated her skills, she still couldn’t believe that everyone else was treated like animals.
She witnessed many people getting abused and treated inhumanely, primarily those too mentally ill to ever speak about it. They were beaten, pulled by their hair, and made to sleep in the dirtiest of spaces.
The staff over-secluded patients; one patient was secluded for about a year. The abuse was not the only problem. The asylum lacked in every aspect of hygiene; the rooms smelt of urine with torn mattresses and leaking pipes. She tried to talk to the authorities, but no one seemed to care.
Then she finally started to write about whatever was happening on the asylum premises and passed the papers to her mother whenever she came to visit. Her mother worked with a mental health association and immediately took the horrible encounters of her daughter seriously.
The Long-awaited End
An investigation was soon carried out, and the report from the investigation disclosed that
“The physical and clinical environment at Philadelphia State Hospital is conducive to and supportive of opportunities for patient abuse both by patients to other patients and by the minority of staff who too frequently engage in such conduct.”
It was later in 1990 when proper notice was taken against the hospital, and it was closed and demolished in 2006. The horrors that happened in the asylum cannot be comprehended, and the survivors still have horrible stories to tell about their time in the asylum that they are glad has finally come to an end.