Welcome to Pennhurst: Asylum of Horrors

Hello dear reader and welcome to the back end of Season 2! Mimi and I have had a nice rest, enjoyed the sunny days of Summer and are ready to jump back in with both feet. I bet you missed us! You missed us…right? Only a few episodes remain for Season 2 and we’re excited to bring you the creepy content you crave!

I’m once again on an asylum kick (I’m still not sure why they called them that) and I’ve been really digging into the history of Pennhurst Asylum in Spring City, Pennsylvania. Once called the Eastern State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, the original structure sat on 112 acres of land and was built in the Jacobean Revival style (Jacobethan.)

“In architecture, the style’s main characteristics are flattened, cusped “Tudor” arches, lighter stone trims around windows and doors, carved brick detailing, steep roof gables, often terracotta brickwork, balustrades and parapets, pillars supporting porches and high chimneys as in the Elizabethan style.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacobethan)

Without getting into too much detail about the history of Jacobethan (hinging on Elizabethan) architecture, let me just cut to the chase and tell you that the building itself is beautiful.

Admin-current-pennhurst

Pennhurst

With that said, let me also point out that Pennhurst was a dumping ground for all manner of afflicted individuals. Patients were separated according to sex but were also categorized by whether or not they were epileptic and whether or not they’d had dental care. There were many adult patients, but they were all called “children” regardless of that fact. Patients were also separated according to race because Eugenics. Segregation and sterilization was their bag.

“In 1903, the Pennsylvania Legislature authorized the creation of the Eastern State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic and a commission was organized to take into consideration the number and status of the feeble-minded and epileptic persons in the state and determine a placement for construction to care for these residents. This commission discovered 1,146 feeble-minded persons in insane hospitals and 2,627 in almshouses, county-care hospitals, reformatories, and prisons, who were in immediate need of specialized institutional care.

The legislation stated that the buildings would be in two groups, one for the educational and industrial department, and one for the custodial or asylum department. The institution was required to accommodate no fewer than five hundred inmates or patients, with room for additions.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennhurst_State_School_and_Hospital)

The asylum accepted its first patient on November 23, 1908, and, in short order, became overcrowded less than four years later. Conditions within the asylum quickly declined due to the huge influx of patients and the administration was under pressure to accept immigrants, orphans, and even criminals through its doors. Children aged between six months and five years were housed in one ward. Many of these children were never taught to walk or care for themselves because they lived in “cages,” cribs that kept the individual penned in. It was basically a recipe for not only disaster but also a great way to create a future haunted location. Pain, suffering, lonliness…that was Pennhurst.

Upon opening and admitting “Patient Number 1,” as listed on the original paperwork, the hospital was a gleaming jewel in the crown of administrators who hoped that Pennhurst would house and serve the needs of a vulnerable population. The long tables in the dining hall were covered in white linen tablecloths and the rooms made bright with fresh paint and large windows. Day rooms offered comfortable chairs, opportunities to play piano and relax. Within a very short time, through overcrowding and cuts to funding, Pennhurst became a horror rather than a refuge to its children.

 

In a 4 part docu-series on Pennhurst, shown on NBC in 1968 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=au0tBIlHIhQ), Bill Baldini went inside Pennhurst to expose the living conditions and operational problems within. In an interview with a doctor at Pennhurst, Baldini finds out that problem patients are consistently drugged so that they can be handled more easily and children of delinquent parents and low educational background who are brought to the asylum by authorities or officials are being classified as mentally disabled. There is no real level of care at Pennhurst at this point in time. Residents are strapped to their beds for large portions of the day without the opportunity to move around and are often left to fend for themselves for long periods of time.  They are forced to sit in their own excrement and have no ability to get food or water if they are in need. They are sometimes even beaten by staff members. At this time, Pennhurst employs nine medical doctors and two psychiatrists who are expected to care for 2800 people. Pennhurst only allows .75 cents to care for its residents per day. The actual allotment is a little more than $5, but administrative fees are also expected to come out of that “budget.” Only 7% of residents are enrolled in rehabilitative programs due to lack of funding. Animals at the zoo are more cared for. The “hospital” is a relic at this point, lead paint peeling from the walls and leaking, rusty pipes jutting from holes in the walls like open wounds. Baldini spent hours compiling evidence that would eventually aid in the shutting down of Pennhurst 20 years later and actually only slept for between three to four hours per night at the station. He lost his voice and was so exhausted he almost collapsed. His final report (part 4) had to be read on air for him. The evidence Baldini uncovered was chilling and sounds very much like Geraldo Rivera’s expose on Willowbrook, another asylum plagued by budget cuts and accused of ill-treatment of its patients on Staten Island, New York. Find that story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcjRIZFQcUY

This place would give anyone the chills…

The halls were once filled with the sounds of patients yelling, howling, furiously kicking their bedframes while their feet remained strapped down. Some of the residents of Pennhurst, those who spent the majority of their lives on these wards, died here, their energy returned to this place for some reason, remain. They call out, touch those brave enough to wander the halls, and likely wonder why they were left to rot in this place, 25 miles outside of town where they could be forgotten like so much human garbage. Below is a breakdown of particularly haunted locations at Pennhurst.

  1. Limerick

In this building, you might experience full-bodied apparitions, get some ultra-clear EVP’s (Electronic Voice Phenomena), experience EMF (Electro Magnetic Field) surges, and actual, physical contact with spirits.

2. Philadelphia

Again, EVP’s and EMF surges are reported. You might see orbs, full-bodied apparitions or shadow people. Visitors have also reported being hit by thrown items.

3. Quaker

Hot and cold spots can be felt throughout Quaker Hall coupled with a strong sense of being watched. EMF surges are common, but Quaker is said to be the spot to get “Class A” EVP’s. Ghost hunters have captured images of a little girl roaming the halls and one investigator was scratched while inside.

4. Mayflower

The Mayflower building seems to also be quite the paranormal hot spot. The ghost of a little girl can be seen darting in and out of the corners of each floor. It seems like she follows those keen to investigate. The ghost of a man is seen sitting in the common room. There are also whisperings of a nurse who gives “invisible shots.” Guests report feeling a pinching sensation as they explore.

Pennhurst is an experience and not one that you will soon forget.

Haunted Haunt

In 2010, the main building was reopened as the Pennhurst Asylum Haunted House though this has been a controversial development to both locals and those who were previously employed as caregivers.

It’s $99.00 for paranormal investigators to thoroughly explore the admin building and a few of the tunnels underneath connecting to other buildings. The ghost hunter in me wants to lock and load, get into those buildings and see what’s up, but there’s a little voice inside my head telling me that Pennhurst isn’t just some spooky, haunted attraction. It’s a place where people lived and died. The average stay for “children” at Pennhurst was 21 years and some of those people never left. Some of them didn’t even remember what life was like before Pennhurst because they were sent there as infants and toddlers. They could request to be released, but more often than not the court would deny that request and insist that they remain there. It was a horrible place filled with suffering. Should we really be dressing up in costumes and scaring people in a place that was a pit of despair for so many people? For $20, you can choose one of the haunts to explore, the ticket prices go up from there, but what’s the real cost of turning this place into a haunted attraction? I guess that’s the question I’m asking myself.

Have you visited Pennhurst? I’m curious to know your thoughts.

Until next time STAY SPOOKY!

Your fellow Haunt Head,

Janine

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