It’s that time of year again. Gold and red leaves swirling in the wind, pumpkins decorating neighborhood porches, ghost stories being told around a bonfire…the time of year when it’s fun to get a good scare. That’s what makes it the perfect time of year to visit an abandoned mental hospital.
On a recent visit to beautiful Pennsylvania I had the chance to do just that. I love to photograph old abandoned buildings that have a rich history and past. Pennhurst State School and Hospital was created in 1903 as the “Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic”. Problems started immediately when it opened it’s doors in 1908. Buildings were overcrowded and patients were admitted whose conditions were not the same for which the facility was intended, including the criminally insane. In 1955 the patient population swelled to over 3,500 while the nurses and attendants only numbered around 360. The overcrowding conditions led to low functioning patients being confined to beds or restrained in chairs, receiving only minimal custodial care such as having diapers changed and no real medical treatment. Although much of the staff was competent and well meaning, they were often completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients. Reports of patient abuse by attendants and other patients became rampant and were exposed in the 1968 five part television series by Bill Baldini. Baldini’s series played an integral part for the eventual closing of Pennhurst.
Moon over abandoned Pennhurst
Pennhurst sat abandoned in rural Pennsylvania for over 25 years. Just how abandoned it is may be up to debate according to some of the folks I had a chance to talk to on my recent visit. Richard Chakejian was kind enough to give me permission to photograph this amazing site. He put me in touch with Jim Soufflas, (“Slayer” to his friends), who is the project manager for Pennhurst Asylum, the haunted attraction in full swing this month in the original administration building of Pennhurst. Jim and his crew were working hard to make the admin building safe and even scarier for customers that would start arriving within the next few weeks.
I began to explore the Pennhurst property. It was like walking back through time. I walked down walkways that were overgrown and cracked. Entire buildings were enclosed in jungle like vegetation. Looking through my lens down a long hallway and focusing on a central rotunda I caught a brief flash of red cross my field of view just before I snapped my shot. As I lowered my camera, all was still and utterly quiet. A trick of the lighting, I supposed. As the sun began to set I passed the long abandoned playground equipment, rusting and melancholy in the overgrown courtyard. As I took photos I wondered what became of the children that had once played here.
Making my way back to the administration building I found Jim and the crew taking a much needed break. As I talked to them they described an incident from the previous night. The youngest member of the crew had been in the basement of the building with the rotunda that I had been shooting earlier, and as he was locking up he caught a flash of red as something went past his flash light beam. Thinking someone was playing a trick on him he called out, only to see the flash of red once again. Turning to leave he saw an old red bandana laying on the floor that he had not noticed on his way in. Picking up the bandana and realizing he was alone, he got out of the building as fast as he could. The next day (the day of my visit) a former Pennhurst nurse had stopped by and talked to the work crew. She had been assigned to the rotunda building during her time at the institution. Jim showed her the old bandana and she said “Oh, that looks like the one that belonged to Willie” According to the nurse he was a patient that had jumped or been pushed to his death from an upper window at Tinicum Hall. When asked what she remembered most about Willie, she replied “His obsession with the color red”.
By now it was getting pretty dark and Jim asked if I wanted to get into some of the tunnels that connected the different buildings. I did, and Dawn Steelman gave me a tour. We explored for the next two hours. Dawn assisted my camera focus by patiently holding a flashlight in the pitch dark rooms. We went through long dark tunnels with wheelchairs sitting empty. At one point we came across a children’s carnival type game that had a painted clown on a board with holes in it to throw a ball through. Dawn said that the crew would move the ball out of the middle of the hallway to keep from tripping on it. No matter where they moved it, the ball would always make it’s way to the same spot across from the clown board.
Now I know why I’m scared of clowns
We found the old pharmacy, complete with a machine that attached labels to prescription bottles. The dispensary was littered with medicine and supplies. Some of wards were completely empty except for names of former patients still painted on the walls. Other rooms still had beds, complete with linens and pillows. The hours passed by too quickly and it was soon time for the work crew to pack up for the evening. I hated to leave with so much left to explore. It was a unique experience that I will never forget.
As I was leaving I turned to look back up at the dark silhouette of the administration building. It was easy to imagine the fear the children felt as they were left behind here by their parents, to feel the hopelessness of believing that once you enter those doors you will never leave again. The memories left behind by these forsaken people are the real ghost of Pennhurst. I hope to return again one day to see what other discoveries wait inside this lonely place.
First view of Pennhurst
“After that long ride up there, it was just horrible. That was very scary. Very, very frightening. I was crying that I would never see them again, my family or sisters. We went out into this great big institution that I didn’t know anything about.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Patients were housed in these buildings.
Same photo, different edits
Mayflower was one of the first buildings at Pennhurst
Quaker Hall was one of the first 2 Residential Halls opened in 1908
“Regulations established a maximum capacity of 16 people on each of Quakers two floors. At one time there were 150 patients, 75 on each floor intended for only 16. The 75 people housed on the first floor of Quaker were all “crib cases” ” J. Gregory Pirmann, A Short History of Pennhurst.
“In the summertime I saw this young boy get thrown out the window. I saw it ’cause I was in the day room. On some of these low grade wards they had these kind of screens that you can’t push out, that you lock with a key. Now this was a bright ward; they didn’t have screens in the window. It happened like three-to-eleven shift; the staff was coming on–the change of staff; the attendant was doing something. This other person threw him out the window, pushed the person oustide the window, all the way out, when the attendant was not looking. I saw that happen.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Fallout Shelter in Basement of Tinicum Hall
Buildings at twilight
Once busy walkways are now silent
Hidden Lamp Post
Sunset at Courtyard of Pennhurst
“Things looked different to me- because it wasn’t like a house that I lived in. I’m out here in this gray institution with three thousand people that live in it. It was just something that I didn’t like. They had a playground there as you come to a dead end. And then the office.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Slide and Swing Set
“They had swings down on the playground and every time it would snow we used to go sledding. They would put a rope on the truck and pull us up the hill. Yeah, I had a lot of fun.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Shadow and Light
Tile Relief, Administration Building
Basement of Dietary Building
One of several huge ovens in the kitchen
This deep fryer still had oil in it from the last time it was used
“They had a woman there that takes care of job placement. She figured where I was going to work. That was just getting me ready to go out on the outside, preparing you for the outside. She transferred me into the staff cafeteria. That felt good because I was getting good food in there. The patients would get horrible food.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Deset World.
Kitchen with giant mixer in the foreground
Bright plates and bowls still stacked in kitchen cabinet
Old light cover and napkin holder left behind in a kitchen storage area.
“Trucks would come in with big boxes of cereals, frozen vegetables, and we would shoot them down into the kitchen, would put then in the freezer, and the dry stuff, like sugar, we would store them in the storage area.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Warmer to keep food warm after it was prepared
Food trays and straws
Windows and shades
tumble down chairs
I would say I’m a person that was lost and lonely and just in a desert world. And no one to talk to. Just out there in a big institution all by myself. All lonely. That’s how I’d ‘scribe it. I thought I would be there forever. I was kinda thinking that on that issue –that I would be there, if I didn’t stop doing the things that I used to do, I would be there for a long time.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Desk and Chairs
windows, plates, desk organizer with American flag
One of the many tunnels at Pennhurst
“We had to go outside or we went down across the subway. The subway was underground; we would walk through there when it snowed, rained. We would walk through underground, the subway to the dining room. It was a big, big subway; it was hard for me to figure it out; all the buildings was connected.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
The tunnels were disorienting at Pennhurst, very eerie with just my flashlight
Light at the end
Years of debris piles up on stairs
View of the sunset from Pennhurst Hospital
Day Room were patients would congregate during the day
Keep Door Closed
The Pharmacy doors where patients lined up for meds
“They would be going to the hospital with cut heads and sores on the backs and Dr. W. would come around: “What’s all these patients being hit for?” And Dr. W. would write out prescriptions for nerve relaxers and Thorazines and stuff like that. The medicine cabinet would be open– and somebody got themselves a bottle of Thorazines, liquid Thorazine, and drunk a whole bottle and got very sick and they put him in the hospital –they was trying to pump the stuff out of him –and he died the next day. Lord knows where the attendants was at.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost and Desert World.
Dispensary, littered with medicine
This machine would label prescription bottles. It still had labels and tape on it.
Small restroom at pharmacy
Colorful cubby holes for storage. This was in an area that looked like a school room for children
This was in the classroom and was probably used to teach children dexterity by tying shoestrings and using buckles
Classroom chairs and Red Window
Lonely chair in a classroom
These Christmas decorations that include tinsel, tree and angel were found in a classroom closet
“At Christmas someone would get dressed up as Santa Claus and to to the low grades wards and give out candy and sing Christmas carols. I know, I was punish on one of the wards.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost and Desert World.
See Saw found in a PITCH dark tunnel. my camera could not really focus on this even with a flashlight
Me and my shadow and a spooky door
Padded Safety Chairs in Day Area next to a Ward
“It sounded like vibrations: crazy people was going out of their heads, out of their wits. It just sound like people that need to belong there. It sound to me, in my personal feeling, that people was just doing things that should not have happened. So that’s what it sounded like — fear; that something not right. It was just scary — a frightened, scary place.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Exercise mat and safety couch
A Patient Room
Fan and Walker. There were several beds on each side of the division of this “lower ward”
“To tell you the truth Pennhurst smelled like a doghouse. …Rats crawling, roaches crawling all over; this was on the low grade wards. Holes in the wall, big holes in the floors It was awful to see. You would cry to see people living in that kind of filth. Horrible. It was a lot of wards with lower function — C functions they used to call ’em. I don’t know why that is, but it’s something to do with their mobility; they can’t address themselves. The real, real low.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Names still left behind on the Ward Wall
Davidson Printing Press
Down the hallway of Tinticum Hall
There is still a pillow and linens on this bed
“Everybody had a locker. The attendant had a key to open up the lockers; nobody could have their own keys. Attendants would mark the clothes with your name in it, so they when they sent the clothes out to the laundry they know this is your clothes, they’re nobody else’s clothes. Anything that you get for Christmas they would lock ’em up in the locker.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Crib bed for an Adult
“I cried when my mother left; I cried before she left and after she left. And I cried when I left out – when they transferred me to the ward, to D-4.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Pennhurst Administration building
“If you had spent your time up there, you wouldn’t like it. You wouldn’t like it. If you was in my shoe, you would cry.” Roland Johnson, as told to Karl Williams in Lost in a Desert World.
Stars over Pennhurst
Special thanks to: Richard Chakejian for allowing me to take these photos, Eugene Chakejian for helping obtain permission, and the crew that I met at Pennhurst: Jim Soufflas, Dawn Steelman, Michele Zajac, James Corolla, Neil Young, Raul Aguilar, and Chris Riddle. I appreciate the use of the super cool, really big flashlight, the stories you told me before I went to explore, and your loving ridicule of my southern accent. Hope to see you all again soon!