Byberry Mental Hospital wasn’t your run-of-the-mill treatment center—it was a landscape of horrors

Quick notes:

  • Byberry Mental Hospital was one of the cruelest psychiatric institutes in history

  • For over 80 years, the institute got away with abusing, restraining, neglecting, and killing its patients

  • After its collapsed, the inhumane setting spurred nationwide debate about the inhumanity of mental institutions across the country

While many modern psychiatric hospitals aren’t malicious, institutions before the modern medical era were often destructive and traumatizing. Philidelphia State Hospital was amongst the worst. Widely known as Byberry Mental Hospital, this institution may have closed its doors 30 years ago, yet its legacy of cruelty has remained relevant to this day.

Byberry’s disastrous start

From the day it opened, Byberry was on course for disaster. The hospital was formed to help relieve some of the burdens of overpopulation from other facilities in the area. Soon, everyone was knocking on Byberry’s doors, and they didn’t have nearly enough staff to accommodate the influx of patients.

How did they cope with this issue? Did they set a cap on the number of patients they were willing to admit? Nope. Instead, they allowed Byberry to become severely overpopulated. Rather than hiring individuals with experience or training in psychiatric treatment, they began to employ anyone who applied for a job at Byberry, whether or not they were adequately qualified. (Hint: Most of the time, they weren’t).

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A plummet into dysfunction

Due to the mass population of patients and the lack of trained staff (even those who had good intentions), the hospital was chaotic. Patients lived in squalor, struggling to get a quality meal, receive a bath, or have their clothing washed. Staff members, many of whom were veterans in need of psychiatric care themselves, often took out their frustrations on the patients. They would beat, restrain, and abuse them for lengthy periods.

In 1987, the Daily News reported:

“A report given to the state…alleged that patients were overmedicated to compensate for inadequate staffing, put in restraints too often…and beaten by staff members. Other allegations included the pulling of teeth without Novocain and a physician so arthritic he couldn’t help a choking patient…Because of staff shortages, the workers wrote, showering, shaving and changing patients’ clothes often was neglected.”

These certainly weren’t the first signs that something very wrong was happening at Byberry. As far back as the 1940s, newspapers began publishing first-hand accounts from staffers, patients, aides, and more who had experienced the hospital of horrors. Somehow, even after these reports came to light, these horrifying conditions continued to be overlooked.

A series of jarring murders

Can Byberry get worse? You might want to strap in. During its years of operation, a whopping 59 deaths occurred within the institution’s grounds. If you think it’s all due to the crummy living conditions, terrible food, poor hygiene, and the spread of diseases, think again. We’re talking about cold-blooded murder. Sure, the institution saw its fair share of deaths from malnutrition, infectious diseases, and suicides, yet plenty of malicious fatalities occurred.

During its years of operation, a whopping 59 deaths occurred within the institution’s grounds

Some of the orderlies (who were never screened for their mental stability) strangled their patients to death. Many patients were also forced to be guinea pigs in unstable drug trials that led to an excessive number of deaths. To make matters worse, Byberry was housing violent criminals awaiting trial along with the general population. The results? Numerous murders.

Byberry finally shut its doors in 1990 after two more patients died on their watch. This included a man who froze to death on the hospital grounds after he couldn’t get staff to let him inside during the winter. Talk about neglect. Fortunately, Byberry’s legacy helped fuel outrage against hospital brutality, which, in turn, helped reform the mental healthcare system. Still, the cost of human dignity (and human life) wasn’t worth the gain.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

The charged history behind the once-barbaric practice of shock therapy.

Modern mental health treatment isn’t just more humane; it’s also more high-tech.