By Jennifer Surdam
At the time of its approval for creation in 1903, the Pennhurst State School and Hospital was considered to be a marvel and perhaps even ahead of its time. The idea was that Pennhurst would be a school as well as a hospital, and that it would function as its own independent “town,” by being self-sustaining and self-reliant. A railroad line was to run into a small substation to deliver any outside supplies that the compound couldn’t produce on its own.
What began as a Utopian idea, where children and even adults with disabilities and epilepsy could temporarily live while being habilitated and rehabilitated, rapidly fell into the gutter. Almost immediately, Pennhurst was beset by lack of funds and overcrowding. Amid the chaos, the disabled fell by the wayside and became the subject of abuse and torture, not only by their own caretakers, but amongst one another.
It was thanks to allegations of these abuses and the investigation of a news crew that the travesty that was Pennhurst was finally shut down. For some of the people who lived at Pennhurst, it was the only home they ever knew. Many were known to roam the halls, even after it was closed, because they didn’t have a place to go; they felt homeless, and while Pennhurst was a sort of living hell, it was what they knew. Others were rehomed.
Today, Pennhurst is considered one of the most haunted places in America. With full-bodied apparitions (also known as FBA’s), partial apparitions, objects that move without reason, whispers heard when no one is seen, and visitors enduring a creepy feeling of being watched, few who tour the site walk away the same as when they went in. Many paranormal investigation teams have been to Pennhurst to try to substantiate or debunk the claims of hauntings there and most seem to be convinced that there is something to the reports.
Now lying in ruins, there is much debate as to what the future holds for Pennhurst with a few groups interested in being a part of its future. Some would have it preserved and rebuilt as a museum, providing a reminder for the atrocities from the past. For it is often in remembering that we can learn about the past and prevent it from occurring again. However, others would prefer to see it make money in different, perhaps more profitable, way. At this point, Pennhurst’s future may lay with the public and what it has to say.
BRIEF HISTORY & REASONS FOR CLOSURE
In 1903, the Pennsylvania legislature made a decision that would affect over 10,000 people ranging in age from less than 6 months to over 70 years. This decision would lead to a landmark lawsuit down the line that would forever change the way that Americans looked at the lives of those intellectually and otherwise disabled by deciding that there was a need for institutionalize care of these individuals. Back then, very little concern was given to how anyone might feel about these labels, or that “retards” might even have feelings. They were considered cast-offs, capable of criminal acts, prone to insanity, and, truth be told, less than human.
At the turn of the 20th century, eugenics was considered an “enlightened” idea, even leading to the Nazi agenda of securing a “perfect race”. In labeling people who were considered less than desirable and removing them from the population at large, those who favored eugenics were able to attempt to control the population from reproducing a lesser quality human. Should a lesser-quality human be produced, having an institution where he or she could be placed was considered ideal, so that the person could be immediately removed from society, and therefore unable to reproduce more of his/her “kind.”
The original name for Pennhurst was the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic. A commission was created to determine exactly how many people were in need of what would become Pennhurst, and construction began in 1903. Over a hundred acres on Crab Hill in Spring City, Chester County, PA, were set aside for this purpose. The roughly 112-acre campus would eventually contain over 20 Jacobean Revival-style buildings. It overlooked the Schuylkill River, adjacent to the Schuylkill River Trail and within the Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area. Routes 422 and 724 bracket the campus.
The main buildings were finished in 1908, and it was late the same year that Pennhurst State School and Hospital was opened. Additional buildings were added, being built brick by brick by Pennhurst’s most able patients,. A tunnel system connected 26 of the most frequented buildings. The remaining buildings and staff were essentially meant to make Pennhurst a self-sustaining community, which would require very little state funding and outside help. The buildings, beyond the campus buildings and dorms, included a firehouse, general store, barber shop, movie theatre, auditorium, and greenhouse. In addition, all electricity needed at Pennhurst was generated by its own power plant; there was a cemetery on the property, as well as baseball and recreation fields.
Within the first 4 years of being fully operational, Pennhurst became over-crowded, understaffed, and under-funded, with still constant pressure to take in more patients. Pennhurst was never meant to detain criminals, nor the criminally insane. In fact, it was never meant to be an insane asylum at all. Never intended to be an orphanage, took in more orphans, mentally or physically handicapped or not, than it did taking legally admitted children or adults with mental or physical disabilities.
While the planners at no time intended for the facility to run rampant with abuse and neglect, amidst the lack of funds, the overcrowded dorms and hospital beds and the reduced staff, according to one former employee, “it was a mistake from day one…” Due to the overcrowding and understaffing, what few employees were available were required to care for so many patients that they became completely overwhelmed.
The idea of Pennhurst was always to improve the life of a mentally or physically disabled person. However, it seemed that the longer a person stayed, the more delayed he or she became. For patients who were able to indicate certain basic needs, such as using the restroom, the longer they remained at Pennhurst, the more of those abilities were lost, and many became “walking vegetables,”. Their demeanors became vacant, and they sunk into themselves, as if they could no longer identify the outer world around them.
NBC news may have become responsible for Pennhurst’s most devastating and tragic reputation. In 1968, Bill Baldini, an NBC news reporter, took cameras in, and NBC news ran a 5-part exposé on exactly what conditions were really like behind closed doors. It was titled “Suffer the Little Children,” and it can still be seen on YouTube today.
What began as an attempt to unveil the torture inside of Pennhurst, unleashed a rush of lawsuits by family members to pull their kin out of the facility. Following this, lawsuits abound ultimately reinventing how the mentally and physically handicapped were treated and viewed.
Pennhurst now stands, even in ruins, as a landmark for those battling disabilities and the unjust treatment of others. It also stands as a monument to what being labeled “the other” can mean in a society. It symbolizes the ways a society, a populace, or even a nation may have to take a stand against tyranny and aggression.
REPORTS OF HAUNTINGS
Almost from the moment the doors closed in 1987, Pennhurst has been reported as haunted. The decline of the buildings, inside and out, has done nothing to help its reputation as a haunted site. In addition, following the closure, many homeless moved into the area, even into the school itself, so some early reports may have been exaggerated. However, considering that reports have continued from virtually the moment Pennhurst closed and into present day does lend some credence to the possibility that Pennhurst may indeed be haunted.
Reports of paranormal experiences at Pennhurst include a woman in white and a young girl with blond hair as well as several children playing on the broken-down swing sets; disembodied voices, screams and cries that some claim may be from former patients; doors slamming, banging noises, voices and whispers echoing throughout hallways; shadows and shadowy figures, dragging sounds, piano music being played and the feeling of cold breezes brushing past. Other incidents include partial apparitions peering around corners and outside windows, items being thrown by unseen hands, objects (such as wheelchairs) move seemingly of their own will, footsteps, visitors being pushed by an unseen hand or unseen hands, and the uneasy feeling of being watched.
The medical buildings are where most activity is centered. According to witnesses, anywhere they wander in the hospital complex, there are people talking and moving about, even when witnesses stop and are quiet. Though nothing seems negative, witnesses often mention that there’s an energy that seems to surround them while in the hospital complex as well. In addition, even though Pennhurst is surrounded on all sides by fairly deep woods, no nature sounds can be heard in the area.
One witness who lives nearby the ruins claims to hear gunshots and screaming almost nightly. However, the gunshots might belong to the Military Police who protect the property and have a camp set up roughly in the middle of the property. Portions of the campus have been re-purposed as homes for American Veterans. Pennsylvania’s Air National Guard uses a percentage of the site as an armory.
Rumor has it, that on a night with a full moon, the ghostly howling of patients can be heard, and people have claimed that year-round, spectral images can be seen in many of the photos they take anywhere on the property—that is, if their cameras work. Many people claim that their cameras malfunction while on Pennhurst property, but off-site the cameras work just fine…
There have been a number of paranormal investigators and teams invited to investigate Pennhurst in order to debunk or find proof for previous claims of paranormal phenomena. Among them are Ghost Adventures (GA), Ghost Hunters (or The Atlantic Paranormal Society—TAPS), Shore Paranormal Research Society (SPRS), Pennhurst Paranormal Association (PPA), Research and Investigation of the Paranormal (RIP), Alexandria Paranormal Investigations (API), and Extreme Paranormal.
When GA investigated Pennhurst, they obtained quite a bit of evidence and were rather pleased with their visit during the second episode of their third season. Zak Bagans, Nick Groff, and Aaron Goodwin make up the Ghost Adventures team, and they definitely seemed excited and perhaps a bit anxious to get started on their Pennhurst investigation.
During the investigation, the team heard a number of unexplained sounds, including vomiting, footsteps, breathing, non-specific noises, door slamming and opening, bangs, female voices, screaming, and even hissing. A number of electronic voice phenomena (or EVP’s, which are voices—words and/or phrases, whether intelligible or not) were captured, including phrases such as: “Go away,” “Hello,” “What are you doing?” “Get out,” “Sweet!” “Help me,” and “The girl did it.”
Before and during the GA investigation, there were also a number of moving objects captured, some of which were seen with an apparition and a mist. While the team was interviewing an employee and his friend’s son, both of them saw an apparition open and close the blinds in a window above where the interview was taking place. The team ran up to investigate, but when they reached the room where the blinds had been opened and closed, not only was there no longer an apparition there, but there was also no way that anyone could have opened and/or closed the blinds, as they were behind a metal mesh that was impossible to reach through.
Later in the investigation, a rock was thrown at Bagans by an unseen hand followed by a hissing sound and a mist filled hand reached out to Bagans and appeared to grab at his pocket. If it seemed to Bagans as if something were out to get him, perhaps his last experience with a moving object answered that question fairly effectively. The team was working with their word database machine and the word “Hit” was said, then immediately and seemingly out of nowhere, an old-fashioned coat hanger hit Bagans in the side. After reviewing camera footage, they found that the coat hanger was on the other side of the wall. It is believed a spirit had to have moved it and launched it at Bagans. After reviewing audio, it appeared as though a spirit may have responded to Bagan’s question, “Who did this?” by stating, “The girl did.”
In March of 2011, TAPS investigated Pennhurst for the first time and filmed for an episode of “Ghost Hunters,” and they captured some interesting evidence, so they were eager to return for a live investigation. During their March filming, TAPS member Grant Wilson reported hearing a disembodied voice saying, “Spring City,” although it apparently wasn’t captured on audio. TAPS members Jason Hawes and Wilson both saw a shadowy figure, although again, they weren’t able to capture the figure on tape. Members Amy Bruni and Adam Berry both heard dragging noises, but were unable to substantiate them on audio or video, and they weren’t able to determine where the noises were coming from. However, again, these personal experiences add credence to the previous reports of claims that have been made about Pennhurst.
They were however able to capture a couple of pretty clear EVP’s: one was a voice telling the members to “go home!” while the other was what sounded like a girl giggling. This evidence and the personal experiences were what prompted TAPS to return for the “Ghost Hunters Live” investigation on Halloween in 2011. Every year, the “Ghost Hunters Live” Halloween episode has been a largely anticipated event, with numerous guest investigators and a special host. The Live episode for 2011 should be available for viewing on SyFy.com under their Ghost Hunter’s page. Please be aware it is likely to be a large file, as the Live episode runs approximately 7 hours overnight.
SPRS has investigated repeatedly, finding what appears to be pretty solid evidence, such as EVP’s, photos which show possible indications, shadow people seen and captured on film and personal experiences, which although they can’t be used as actual evidence, do back up previous claims.
Not only did the SPRS teams find the amount of paranormal evidence staggering enough to conclude that something was definitely going on at Pennhurst and to substantiate further investigation into the location. Each team and nearly every individual reported experiencing events which helps to backup many of the claims already deeply entrenched in the history of Pennhurst’s paranormal lore while adding a few new instances to the existing mystery.
PENNHURST NOW: PENNHURST ASYLUM VS. PRESERVE PENNHURST
The day that Pennhurst finally closed, it was locked up and left just as it was, with everything that remained simply left behind. There were piles of books, a piano, murals painted on walls, patient charts, wheelchairs, gurneys, and all sorts of toys and even the cribs and beds left in disarray, as if the former patients and staff simply disappeared. It was as if no one had been provided sufficient time to empty the school and hospital of all of the equipment and belongings, and now those things remain as eerie witnesses to all that occurred in Pennhurst’s sordid history.
The issue of what to do with the land has been a massive debate since Pennhurst was forced to close. Truly, it’s not as if everyone would have had Pennhurst close. Many staff and, indeed, even many patients were content to let sleeping dogs lie. While perhaps the majority of patients were being abused and all were living in filth, many patients had lived at Pennhurst for their entire lives—they understood and knew nothing else. To these patients, Pennhurst was home, not just a house, not just a place to live and be. It was a true home, and it meant everything to them.
From the Pennhurst Project Blog: “Pennhurst is not a place to be terrified of; it’s not a haunted insane asylum still full of the criminal element; it’s not a place to go urban exploring or searching for ghosts and entities; it’s a place where there but for the grace of God go your or I. It’s a place where real people and real feelings and vibrant personalities lived out their entire lives with never a moment of freedom or privacy, just because they were different. It’s a place where some were neglected and abused and even murdered because they were considered less than the rest of us. It’s a place where others like Jerry Wheaton and Roland Johnson managed to hold on to their dignity amid the most inhuman and degrading of circumstances. And it’s the only home some like 80-year-old Mike Koval would ever know. Sure he wants to go back there. Maybe it’s just morbid curiosity, but he still wants me to take him back just to see. Just to feel. Just to remember.”
In 2008, about 20 years after Pennhurst closed, the state finally sold a majority of the buildings and the land to a group of investors, Pennhurst Acquisition, led by Richard Chakejian. Pennhurst Acquisition paid approximately $2 million for 110 acres, including the remaining buildings that aren’t in use by the Veterans or the Air National Guard. Chakejian runs a recycling and composting plant, Pennsylvania Organic Recyclings, LLC, which currently operates on 4.5 acres of the property. The PA Department of Environmental Protection will allow Chakejian’s operation to continue so long as he maintains the operation at less than 25 tons.
Since their purchase in 2008, Chakejian and his investors were looking into further development on the property. In 2010, Pennhurst Acquisition, with Chakejian at its head, applied for rezoning. Despite a lawsuit claiming an adverse effect on a neighboring township, Chakejian was granted his rezoning and began a plan to create future “attractions.” In conjunction with none other than Randy Bates, owner of the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride attraction in Glen Mills, the first attraction planned was their version of the Pennhurst Haunted House, complete with its own “new” historical story.
Originally called the “Pennhurst Institute of Fear,” the re-named “Pennhurst Asylum” opened in October of 2010. Bates was mostly responsible for the creation of what went into the “Asylum,” and he had a lot to choose from, given that when the doors closed on Pennhurst, there was so much of the original hospital and school left behind. It made his job almost easy to pick and choose artifacts from the old school and hospital buildings in order to create what was needed for the haunted attraction.
By adding a few features for effect and some actors, the attraction could be a real scream. Chakejian and Bates had a well-received 2010 Halloween season, so they beefed up the action and changed some things around, adding hi-tech animatronics, digital sounds, more fine detail and realism, and more actors for the 2011 season. They added a few more tour areas, including an historical area where visitors could learn more about Pennhurst while they waited to enter the full attraction.
Chakejian and Bates claim that the Asylum not only created 95 local jobs, but that it also benefited local hotels, stores, and other businesses and would only increase in benefiting all businesses throughout the years, as word of the haunted attraction spread.
Advocates who wish to preserve Pennhurst say that those who suffered there deserve a far better memorial than a creepy haunted house with an historical “walk-through” where visitors attending the haunted attraction might take a few moments to learn a little bit about what actually happened there. Jean Searle, co-president of the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance, grew up in institutions similar to Pennhurst. She’d rather forget what she calls “the hell” that she went through living like that, as now she’s able to live on her own.
Pennhurst has been added to the National Register of Historic Places and to Pennsylvania’s list of the Most At-Risk Properties, as well as to the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a worldwide network of historic sites specifically dedicated to remembering the struggles for justice and addressing contemporary legacies. In partnership with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, the PM&PA was able to obtain a grant to complete a re-use design and feasibility study of the campus.
The PM&PA is completely opposed, as a group, to the haunted attraction. The creation of the attraction was a long and complex process of negotiations with Chakejian. The PM&PA feels that the attraction may still portray people with disabilities in a demeaning and degrading fashion, and they are absolutely opposed to any attraction that would do that. Volunteers with the PM&PA have created a petition with a statement attached to it, which is available on their webpage, and they encourage everyone who shares their disgust to sign the petition and boycott what they feel is a travesty.
The main goal of the PM&PA is simple: To honor Pennhurst and the ongoing civil rights struggle of Americans with disabilities. Considering that Pennhurst was once called the shame of the nation, it became a battleground in the tremendous struggle for the last overlooked group of Americans to be able to attain their basic human rights, the privileges that most Americans took for granted to be the national freedoms of all. Now that the battle is over, Pennhurst stands as ground central for the civil and human rights movement, having changed the way that not just the nation, but the world over, saw people with mental, intellectual
and developmental disabilities.
With death surrounding and within the doors of Pennhurst and a gloomy outlook for many of the patients, the environment easily lends itself to creating hauntings. Given the testimony and evidence captured by some of the serious paranormal investigators who have been to the site and spent time and effort really investigating, it would seem that the claims of paranormal activity are not unfounded. However, for anyone interested in heading out and going it alone, please know that the site is protected by US Military Police and is considered Private Property. Signs clearly mark it a “No Trespassing” zone. Anyone caught trespassing is subject to both state and federal laws as well because the property is owned in part by the federal government. Consider yourself warned!