Inside Philadelphia’s Byberry Mental Hospital House Of Horrors

Published December 5, 2017
Updated May 4, 2018
Published December 5, 2017
Updated May 4, 2018
A doctor sticks a patient with a needle

Wayne D. Sawyer Papers in Civilian Public Service: Personal Papers & Collected Material (DG 056), Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania via civilianpublicservice.orgA staff member administers a shot to a patient at Byberry mental hospital. 1944.

“The Water Cure”

A 1946 newspaper article from the Philadelphia Record describes Byberry’s “water cure”:

“[An attendant] soaked a large towel in water. After wringing it out, he clamped the towel around the patient’s neck. The attendant pulled the ends together, and began to twist. First he tightened the noose. Then he gave the towel a slow turn to let the patient know what was in store for him. The patient begged for mercy. But the twisting continued. The patient’s eyes bulged, his tongue swelled, his breathing labored. At length, his body fell back on the bed. His face was a dreadful white, and he did not appear to be breathing. Fifteen minutes elapsed before he showed signs of returning to life. The patient was ‘subdued’.”

This act left no physical marks on the body, and could easily fly under the radar of investigators.

As was the case with the water cure, other beatings and assorted abuses by staff members at the Byberry mental hospital likely went unnoticed. One conscientious objector working at the hospital reported that attendants were careful not to be seen when using “weapons or fists upon patients,” attacks which undoubtedly resulted in life-threatening injuries and death.

Misuse Of Medication

Some of the most excruciating abuses at the Byberry mental hospital came during the course of “treatment.” Doctors pulled teeth without administering novocaine, for example, and performed other medical procedures without painkillers.

Larry Real, a psychiatrist who trained briefly at the Byberry mental hospital in the 1970s, recalled a Byberry staff member trying to give a patient stitches sans painkillers. “The doctor had been taught that people with schizophrenia did not feel pain.”

In stark contrast to the underuse of painkillers, other medications were overused in ways that were just as dangerous. Thorazine, for one, was once hailed as the next miracle drug, and administered freely at Byberry.

The pharmaceutical company Smith Kline-French even opened a lab inside Byberry, and did extensive (and morally questionable) testing of the drug there.

Unable to fully understand and consent and in some cases without family members to notify if a fatality occurred, patients were coerced into “volunteering” for these drug trials. Ultimately, hundreds of patients at the Byberry mental hospital died during these trials.

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist, and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.