The institution began as a small work farm for the mentally ill. Soon, plans were made to turn the farm into a cottage plan asylum. Construction began on the institution in 1906. Shortly after that, it was established in 1907 as the Byberry Mental Hospital and originally followed the theory of physician Benjamin Rush that mental illness was a disease and could be cured with proper treatment, but that the mentally diseased should be kept away from normal people until they were actually cured. Many of the original patients were transferred from Philadelphia General Hospital. Over the years, the name of the institution changed several times from 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, and living and treatment conditions were extremely poor. The peak patient population was over 7,000 in 1960.
The hospital was turned over to the state in 1936 and was renamed the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. However, the state possession changed nothing, and further investigations publicized similar findings. Byberry: In his 1948 book, The Shame of the States, Albert Deutsch described the horrid conditions he observed at
“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 about certain issues, with overcrowding being the top problem.
Reports of patient abuse were still rampant through the 1980s. One patient had reported that one of his teeth was pulled without Novocaine. Another famous story of patient abuse was that of William Kirsch in 1987, who was shackled to a bed for 14 months. A female patient was murdered by another psychiatric patient, Charles Gable, who then dismembered her body; parts of her body were found in several places upon the property. Gable was never found, but one patient was found playing with the victims teeth. 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. Mostly the fact that 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.