The Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry was a psychiatric hospital located in the Byberry neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. The name of the institution was changed several times during its history being variously named Philadelphia State Hospital, Byberry State Hospital, Byberry City Farms, and the Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases. It was home to people ranging from the mentally challenged to the criminally insane.
The primary buildings were constructed between 1910 and the mid-1920s, and the newer buildings were constructed between 1940 and 1953. The facility included over fifty buildings such as male and female dormitories, an infirmary, kitchens, laundry, administration, a chapel and a morgue. The hospital’s population grew rapidly, quickly exceeding its capacity; the peak patient population was over 7,000 in 1960.
Several investigations into the conditions at the hospital at various points revealed that raw sewage lined the hallways, patients slept in the halls, and the staff mistreated and exploited patients.
The hospital was turned over to the state in 1936 and was renamed the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. Conditions in the hospital during this time were poor, with allegations of patient abuse and inhumane treatment made frequently. The situation came to national attention between 1945 and 1946, when conscientious objector Charlie Lord took covert photos of the institution and the conditions inside while serving there as an orderly. The 36 black-and-white photos documented issues including dozens of naked men huddling together and human excrement lining facility hallways. The photos were shown to a number of people, including then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who subsequently pledged her support in pursuing national mental health reforms. In May 1946 Lord’s photos were published in an issue of Life, creating a national “mass uproar”.
In his 1948 book, The Shame of the States, Albert Deutsch described the horrid conditions he observed:
“As I passed through some of Byberry’s wards, I was reminded of the pictures of the Nazi concentration camps. I entered a building swarming with naked humans herded like cattle and treated with less concern, pervaded by a fetid odor so heavy, so nauseating, that the stench seemed to have almost a physical existence of its own.”
During the 1960s the hospital began a continuous downsizing that would end with its closure. During the mid-1980s, the hospital came under scrutiny when it was learned that violent criminals were being kept on the hospital’s Forensic Ward (N8-2A). In 1985, the hospital failed a state inspection, and was accused of misleading the inspection team.
Reports of patient abuse were still rampant through the 1980s. One patient had reported that one of his teeth was pulled without Novocaine. Another state inspection team was sent to evaluate the hospital in early 1987. By the summer of 1987, five of the Philadelphia State Hospital’s top officials were promptly fired after the Byberry facility once again failed the state inspection.
On December 7, 1987, a press conference was held to announce the closure of the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. The teams most recently performing investigations described the conditions as “atrocious” and “irreversible.” Though originally supposed to close the following year, patient issues delayed the process. Most importantly, two released patients were found dead in the Delaware river in two successive days after their release. The hospital officially closed in June 1990, with the remaining patients and staff having been transferred to Norristown State Hospital or local community centers.