Pennhurst State's Haunted History
Pennhurst State School, a live-in facility for people with mental and physical disabilities, was surrounded by controversy from its earliest days. In 1908, the state of Pennsylvania built the school as an asylum for patients with special needs. This complex, first known as the State Institution for Epileptics and Feeble Minded, was filled with adults and children with varying disabilities. From its very beginning, the school's history of mistreatment and abuse was quietly underway.
Behind Closed Doors
Over 10,000 patients crossed through the doors into Pennhurst, residing in one of the many buildings in the school's network. Overwhelmed parents dropped off their children who were mentally retarded or autistic, hoping the school would provide for them. Sadly, many of these children were abandoned to become wards of the state. While some patients could care for themselves, many more suffered from severe disabilities. Those patients who couldn't care for themselves became the school's most vulnerable victims.
Despite the high number of patients requiring special care, the state provided the institution with meager funds. There were very few doctors, nurses and orderlies available to meet the patients' needs. Many patients spent their days and nights trapped in metal cribs in horrid conditions. Others were so desperate for human contact that they went to great lengths for attention by injuring themselves or even smearing themselves with their own feces in hopes of a bath.
Cruel punishments were common at the facility. Overworked staff responded to unruly patients by drugging them into submission or chaining them to their beds. Other residents were isolated for such long periods of time that they regressed and lost their will to speak, fight or even to live. One particularly harsh rule chastised patients for biting. When a patient bit someone the first time, he or she was reprimanded. But if it happened again, the patient was sent to a dentist who would pull all of his teeth. Thousands of teeth were removed in a rusty dentist chair that still sits in the tunnels beneath the Pennhurst complex.
The Shuttered Institution
Not all of the residents were abandoned by their family members. When loved ones came to visit, they were appalled to find their children bruised and uncared for. Even in 1912, there were reports on the poor quality of treatment. But it was quickly apparent that outsiders could do little to help, and patients continued to suffer from abuse, rape, even death at the hands of staff and other patients. Society continued to turn a blind eye to the horrors of this state-run institution.
Changes started brewing at Pennhurst in 1968 when Philadelphia television news reporter Bill Baldini produced an expose on the institution. "Suffer the Little Children" uncovered the atrocities and created a sympathetic public. This exposure led to a massive lawsuit. In 1977 Pennhurst's patients achieved a small victory when the school was found guilty of violating patients' constitutional rights. While this decision couldn't undo the past, it certainly made progress for the future.
The facility closed its doors in 1987, and the network of buildings was neglected and left to the tortured, sad spirits. Today caretakers of the property believe that the buildings and underground tunnels are haunted by the angry spirits of patients who suffered and died here. There are reports of slamming doors, footsteps and sounds of vomiting coming from otherwise empty rooms. Some witnesses have seen the spirit of a little girl roaming the buildings, perhaps waiting to tell her own story of sorrow and neglect.