There have been many documentaries–both historical and fantastical–created about Pennhurst State School in Pennsylvania. Scores of ghost hunting groups have flocked to the location as though it were some sort of paranormal pilgrimage, hoping to find some sort of residual haunting by the souls that once lived there. Aside from the ghost hunters, much attention has been given to Pennhurst, primarily as a result of a television news report in 1968 where the horrors of the place were broadcast to the public eyes for the first time. Over the years, the place has been suspected of being an evil asylum where doctors intentionally tortured and harmed the patients for their own sick and twisted fun. While it may be more riveting for the horror movie fans, it’s not quite an accurate portrayal of what was actually happening within the walls. Instead, the institution was once described as providing groundbreaking treatment, it was a model of an institution to help people, but the stigma left behind today is hard reminiscent of such.
Pennhurst State School was once a hospital dedicated to treat people with mental and physical disabilities. Construction began in 1903 and the first buildings of the campus were completed in 1908. The original campus was completed in 1921. There was a great need for an institution for developmentally disabled persons. Caring for the disabled at home was very rare. If a family was found to have a child that was retarded, it would bring them shame and embarrassment. It was easier to take the affected child or person to an institution where they could receive adequate medical attention and care beyond the scope of what the families could provide. In reality, it allowed the family the ability to free themselves from potential embarrassment and the disgrace that they assumed would come from being recognized by society as creating a retarded child. Pennhurst was quickly growing to full capacity, barely able to keep up with the influx of patients.
Not only were the patients admitted by parents who were ashamed, but it was also advocated by proponents of eugenics. The idea of eugenics was first coined in the 1860’s. The idea was to improve the genetic quality of the human population. The philosophy included the promotion of higher reproduction by people with desired traits (positive eugenics) and reduced reproduction of people with less-desired traits (negative eugenics). Limiting reproduction by people with negative eugenics included sterilization and segregation. By controlling who is reproducing, the idea is to ensure that the offspring will share in the positive eugenics as their parents. The idea is quite sound, when you think about. Imagine that we could rid the world of the anguish of mental retardation and other mental disorders. Imagine a world where the people inside possessed superior traits than what we know today. By removing these people from society, they would be unable to reproduce, therefore create less people like them. Henry H. Goddard said, “Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal. The general public, although more convinced today than ever before that it is a good thing to segregate the idiot or the distinct imbecile, they have not as yet been convinced as to the proper treatment of the defective delinquent, which is the brighter and more dangerous individual.” Of course, there was one person who tried this very thing: Adolf Hitler. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a supporter of Hitler, the things he did, and the atrocities that were committed. I understand what he was trying to do. Perhaps, a softer approach would have gotten him to his desired end without going to the lengths that he did.
The patients of Pennhurst were often young, but the ages ranged from infants to the elderly. They were typically segregated by their IQ, creating several groups: Morons (59-69), Imbeciles (20-49), and Idiots (below 20). The medical terms may look familiar to you. In fact, these terms have become quite common within the American lexicon. Most folks arbitrarily toss these words around without understanding their once medically accepted definitions. Eventually, the terms were changed to more modernized terms from Mild, Moderate, Severe, and Profound Mental Retardation.
To care for the patients required a large staff. They had to tend to the daily activities such as changing diapers, cleaning, mobility, and some educational programs. But with the overcrowding, these tasks were often skipped over, resulting in people living in soiled garments, filthy, and suffering. The low wages and long hours did not help to create a friendly atmosphere as the workers felt underpaid, overworked, and usually disgusted by the sub-par beings they had to deal with. This would provide fuel for abuse and mistreatment over the years. In 1955, there were over 3,000 patients crowded into the campus.
In 1968, a television reporter, Bill Baldini (NBC10), ran an expose on Pennhurst. The five part series shocked the public as they saw the conditions inside Pennhurst for the first time. The documentary, Suffer the Little Children can be viewed here. There were legal cases filed, not long after. Pennhurst remained in operation until 1986.
Today, you can find Pennhurst serving as host to ghost hunters and Halloween spook attractions. Various segments of the campus have been given to different groups and agencies over the years as to not let it go to waste. It will forever remain an icon, however, of a once good location going bad. It might be fair to say that they bit off more than they could chew.
There are plenty of online resources available to those that wish to learn more. Here’s a few that I have collected:
- Trial Transcripts for Halderman v. Pennhurst
- Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance
- Pennhurst Project