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Pennhurst: The Shame of Pennsylvania

Updated on November 4, 2014

During eight decades of continuous operation, Pennhurst evolved from a model facility into the subject of tremendous public scandal and controversy before the federal courts ordered it closed and the remaining residents moved elsewhere. The horror and atrocities seen at Pennhurst before it closed in 1987 are not completely at rest. Supposedly, many spirits roam the halls of this vast expanse of the slowly decaying buildings. It wasn't always bleak and grim for this location. How is such a model institution thrown into a whirlwind on controversy and scandal one may ask? Let's dive into the history of Pennhurst and see why such a model institution fell so short of perfection and grandeur.

A 2010 aerial view of Pennhurst
A 2010 aerial view of Pennhurst | Source

In The Beginning

Contrary to the myths and lore surrounding Pennhurst, it was not all bad starting out. In the beginning, things went on as planned in the creation of the establishment. Construction started in 1903. In that same year, the Pennsylvania Legislature authorized the creation of the Eastern State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. It was a product of a self-proclaimed "progressive" era when the solution to dealing with disability was forced segregation and sterilization. In 1908 the doors of Pennhurst opened.

Pennhurst was one of the largest institutions of its kind in Pennsylvania. It's property is vast, covering close to one hundred and twenty acres. When the doors first opened, the establishment was to house thousands patients at any point in time. When it came to admitting the residents, half of them were committed by court order and the other half were brought by a parent or other guardian. It was devoted strictly to the care, treatment and education of the disabled.

The amount of care needed for the patients here to attempt any kind of rehabilitation was quite a formidable task. Most residents where classified into three main IQ groups based on what they could accomplish by themselves. The three groups were classified as Morons, with an IQ of 59-69, Imbeciles, with an IQ of 20-49, and Idiots, with an IQ below 20. These medical terms were antiquated before they became popular in the common slang of today, and were replaced with the terms, Mild, Moderate, Severe, and Profound Mental Retardation. The lowest functioning patients were mostly bed-ridden in cribs, unable to move much or feed themselves.

Daily physical tasks such as changing the residents diapers, giving them showers, and assisting with walking were needed, but fell to the wayside when overcrowding became a problems and staff number dwindled. They even had educational programs on site as well as recreation activities, but the lack of trained staff made both types of programs and activities take a back seat. In later years, things took a turn for the worse.

In The Middle

In 1946, there were only seven physicians serving over two thousand patients at Pennhurst with no room for the thousand still on the waiting list for admission. Overcrowding was becoming even more apparent in 1955 when the patient census peaked at three thousand five hundred residents. Money wasn't coming in fast enough to care for all the people inside the facility and conditions began to get worse. The funding problem also put a stranglehold on the maintenance of the buildings, and the daily budget for each patient sunk so low that some basic needs could not be met.

Bill Baldini’s 1968 five-part television report entitled “Suffer the Little Children.” Film footage of half-clothed children wandering aimlessly on the ward, the sights and sounds of everyday institutional life, and Baldini’s own sparse narrative revealed a hidden world of neglect. This is what caught the nations eye and dubbed Pennhurst "The Shame Of Pennsylvania."

Bill Baldini's "Suffer The Little Children"

In The End

Pennhurst was often accused of dehumanization and was said to have provided no help to the mentally challenged. Rumors of lobotomies, starvation and abuse abounded. It was showcased in several civil rights lawsuits filed in the 1970s, including the groundbreaking Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital. This lawsuit asserted that the mentally retarded have a constitutional right to living quarters and an education.

Terry Lee Halderman had been a resident of the school, and upon release she filed suit in the district court on behalf of herself and all other residents of Pennhurst. The complaint she put forward alleged that conditions at Pennhurst were unsanitary, inhumane and dangerous. She spoke of living conditions that violated the fourteenth amendment, and that Pennhurst used cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments. After a thirty-two day trial and an immense investigation, prosecutors concluded that the conditions at Pennhurst were not only dangerous, with physical and mental abuse of its patients, but also inadequate for the care and rehabilitation for the mentally retarded. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania also concluded that the physical, mental, and intellectual skills of most patients had deteriorated while inside the walls of Pennhurst. In 1986, Pennhurst was ordered closed.

Since that day, it has been deteriorating ever so slowly, leaving a shell of a model institution and tales of haunted buildings and ghosts abounding. If one thing can be learned from this atrocity, one should see that segregation and isolation only make matters worse. Had there been adequate funding for this facility, the horrors inside would not have been as severe. A human is a human, no matter the deficiency. None should have to suffer because of a lack of education or training in professionals who were there to help them. Every person has a reason to succeed in life, no matter what.

Dainty...yet...horrifying.
Dainty...yet...horrifying. | Source

The images below showcase the conditions inside the facility since its closing in 1986. Ruins of buildings are left in shambles. Clothing is scattered around in rooms. Water has damaged many rooms due to a lack of upkeep. Playgrounds on the premises no longer see bright young children running around. It is an eerie sight to gaze upon.

An eerie doll left by a child of Pennhurst.
An eerie doll left by a child of Pennhurst.
Let's play on the playground!?!?
Let's play on the playground!?!?
The children's playroom.
The children's playroom. | Source
To think that children slept in these cribs.
To think that children slept in these cribs. | Source
Would you want your teeth worked on here?
Would you want your teeth worked on here? | Source
All alone in a vast room.
All alone in a vast room. | Source
Informational packets given out from Pennhurst.
Informational packets given out from Pennhurst. | Source
Found in the laundry room.
Found in the laundry room. | Source
Medical practice at Pennhurst.
Medical practice at Pennhurst. | Source
How to admit a child into Pennhurst.
How to admit a child into Pennhurst. | Source
Time for dinner!
Time for dinner! | Source
A panoramic view around Pennhurst.
A panoramic view around Pennhurst. | Source

Take The Poll

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Whether or not you believe in the paranormal, Pennhurst has the history that may ultimately make you a believer of life after death. I can only hope that those restless souls will someday find peace and be able to reach the heavens. Time will only tell.

Pennhurst graveyard.
Pennhurst graveyard.

I leave you with some chilling images of the real faces of Pennhurst. Those who may have lived, worked and died on the premises. You be the judge. If your entire life revolved around Pennhurst and you knew nothing else, would you stick around for all eternity?

Historic Pennhurst

Beating The Odds In The End

Despite all the atrocities that we all know about that happened within the walls of Pennhurst, there are some remarkable stories of beating all odds and prospering. This was especially true of the individuals who made up the "working patient" group. This was the one astounding part of my research on this location. Some individuals who seemed to be coherent enough to get by with little help from the staff, eventually ended up helping other who could not help themselves. Even the most severely disabled found ways to assert their individuality and retain their humanity in the face of a system that dehumanized them in a million different ways. To think that many people who were told for years that they could not succeed beyond Pennhurst's gates proved the "professionals" wrong. Some left Pennhurst and were able to live independent lives of worth and value in the community long after the administration building's great oaken doors slammed shut for the last time. Just as we remember the sadness of those that were lost, we need also acknowledge these quiet triumphs of the human spirit. Not every person with a disability is a loss to the community they reside in.

Final Thoughts

A former Special Assistant to Pennhurst's Superintendent has said, "Pennhurst was a mistake from day one, but it was a mistake made by all of us, following the dictates of the 'best minds' of its time."

It goes to show that even the brightest minds of the day can still reek havoc on the world around them, without the proper training and knowledge. God Bless all of those who where affected by the atrocities and one can only hope those souls who passed can move on and rest in peace.

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    • CYong74 profile image

      Cedric Yong 15 months ago from Singapore

      Those images are like, picture perfect for a survival horror movie/game. That they are the remnants of an actual human tragedy makes them all the more unbearable.

    • bearnmom profile image

      Laura L Scotty 2 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      Being from Pennsylvania and unaware of Pennhurst, this article brought to the forefront of my mind what it means to fail in trying to help those who can't help themselves. It may be an atrocity but the intent was there.