Byberry Mental Hospital
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Byberry Mental Hospital holds a special place in history. Images taken there highlighted the need for changes to be made in the treatment and housing of the mentally ill. Byberry is where many conscientious objectors worked during WWII. One of those CO’s was a compassionate man named Charlie Lord. Charlie Lord would sneak a camera into the hospital and he captured 36 photographs that were later published in Life magazine in May 1946. “The photos reminded the American people of photos from Nazi Concentration Camps. So it created a kind of mass uproar, nationally.” (npr.org)
The conscientious objectors had witnessed attendants that would often use violence to try to control the mentally ill patients. The attendants would use items such as cut-down broom handles, or rubber hoses filled with buckshot to strike the patients. Attendants would even choke out a patient with a wet towel around the neck of the patient as the attendants had learned it would not leave any evidentiary marks.
Two buildings in particular housed living nightmares for the patients of Byberry Mental Hospital. The “incontinent ward” was where men were kept mostly naked with no furniture, activities, music, or bathroom facilities. It was a large concrete room full of urine and feces. Another building was referred to as “The Death House or Violent Ward” where the patients would often attack each other using whatever they could turn into a weapon. This building contained a room that held row upon row of patients strapped down to the frame of their beds.
Byberry Mental Hospital opened in 1907 and in spite of all the bad publicity it received in the 1946 Life article it did not close until 1987. I am left hoping that conditions improved for the patients housed there after “The Conscientious Objectors from Byberry started a national association that helped train and professionalize workers at state hospitals.” (npr.org)
Before Byberry was eventually demolished, it had been reported that the catacombs were spooky and haunted by ghosts of former patients with one that was a particularly violent entity. It was also reported that Satanic Rituals were said to have been performed on the grounds as well.
The Other Half