Jim Werner: Pennhurst School and State Hospital

Written by: Frank Iacono

In 1903, the Pennsylvania Legislature authorized the creation of the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. The institution, which officially opened its doors on November 23, 1908, was the second such state-operated facility and served the mentally and physically disabled individuals of Southeastern PA.

From the outset, the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution was overcrowded. Designed for epileptics and persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, there was tremendous pressure to admit many different persons whom society, steeped in the eugenics movement, wanted removed from the gene pool, including immigrants, orphans, criminals, etc.

Unfortunately, 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.

In 1968, Philadelphia CBS correspondent Bill Baldini produced an exposé on the institution entitled “Suffer the Little Children” which uncovered the atrocities of the facility and created a sympathetic public sediment. His exposure led to a massive lawsuit. In 1987, the facility officially closed its doors and the network of buildings was neglected and left to the tortured, sad spirits.

In 2010, to the shock and dismay of many – especially those in the mental and physical disabilities community – Pennhurst owners worked with Randy Bates of The Bates Motel Halloween attraction located in Glenn Mills, PA to turn Pennhurst’s historic lower campus into a commercial Halloween “haunted” attraction.

In this edition of The Creative Spotlight, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Werner, the Operations Manager of Pennhurst Asylum, and asked him about the history, the eugenics movement, the five-part news report, the annual haunted attraction and “good to know” facts concerning the Pennhurst State School and Hospital.

Q&A Session

The Creative Spotlight: When the Pennhurst School and State Hospital opened its doors on November 23, 1908, how did the Eugenics movement influence the purpose of the institution for the feeble minded and epileptic and what problems ensued?

Jim Werner: At the time, when the Pennhurst School and State Hospital opened its doors in 1908 in Spring City, Pennsylvania, people with special needs were perceived as a subclass very similar to how African Americans were regarded. Pennhurst was part of a national trend to segregate individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities from mainstream society. To that extent, I feel that the Eugenics movement was a flawed science in that it truly discouraged aiding the sick and poor. In the prior century, the ongoing idea was that by pulling those with special needs out of society it both protected society and also gave them a place to live safely. We know that without knowledge there can’t be change and as society was never exposed to the disabled, they were seen as an almost non-existent and unknown population.

TCS: Can you provide us with at least three historical facts about the Pennhurst State School and Hospital that the average person wouldn’t know?

JW: Three “Good to Know” facts about the Pennhurst School and State Hospital, include:

  • When the facility opened in 1908, the administration building had not yet been completed so the Philadelphia building was actually used as the original Admin building.
  • There was a time when train cars could travel all the way up from the main tracks to the middle of the lower campus in the area of the Dietary building
  • The Pennhurst School and State Hospital was never actually an asylum.


TCS: How many building encompassed the Pennhurst facility and what were the buildings used for?

JW: At its height, the Pennhurst School and State Hospital encompassed more than 30 buildings. The earliest of which, designed by Phillip H. Johnson, were constructed of red brick, terra cotta and granite trimmings and are connected by a series of underground tunnels that stretch for miles. Pennhurst was a self-sufficient community as its 1,400-acre site contained a firehouse, general store, barbershop, greenhouse, hospital with a morgue, auditorium, farm, power plant, and even a graveyard.

TCS: When Pennhurst was built how many patients was it initially built to accommodate and how many occupants did it have at its fullest capacity? Additionally, what was the ratio of doctors and nurses or employees to patients?

JW: The Pennhurst facility was initially designed to house around 500 patients, by 1912 the institution was almost immediately overpopulated. Once in, every patient was given a classification of mental prowess, either as an “imbecile” or “insane” and physically as either “epileptic” or “healthy.” Many of the people that were placed in the School and State Hospital should not have been. In 1946, there were only seven physicians serving over 2,000 patients with no room for the 1,000 still on the waiting list for admission. By the mid-1960s, the facility, housed 2,791 people, most of them children, which was about 900 more than the administration thought the buildings could comfortably accommodate. The staff was extremely overwhelmed and unable to properly care for the patients.

TCS: In your opinion, do you feel that Pennhurst predominantly assisted in providing a positive learning experience for the patients or do you feel its programs and resources caused more harm than good?

JW: For some of the patients, the answer is “yes” and for others the answer is “no”. The high functioning patients could work and live a pretty full life on site without the persecution of the general public raining down on them. However, with a budget shortfall and staffing issues the low functioning patients were not cared for in a manner that would help to improve their condition. By the mid-1960s, only 200 of the residents were in any kind of art, education, or recreation programs.

TCS: In 1968, Bill Baldini, a local CBS Philadelphia newsman, opened the eyes to the horrors of Pennhurst when he exposed it during a five-part series entitled Suffer the Little Children. How did this expose change the daily operations of Pennhurst and Pennsylvania laws concerning the treatment of the mentally disabled?

JW: Bill Baldini, then a fledgling TV reporter, heard about the Pennhurst School and State Hospital facility and went there one day to visit and was immediately appalled at the conditions. Baldini has said that when he left that day, he cried the entire way home in his car. His five-part exposé outraged the public and truly painted a picture of neglect and abuse in the Chester County, PA institution. Many of the regular news viewers found it very difficult to stomach the coverage. This state-funded school and hospital center was at the heart of the human rights movement that revolutionized this country’s approach to healthcare for the mentally and physically handicapped. This facility was one of the most striking examples of the maltreatment that was characteristic of such institutions––at one point, papers labeled it “The Shame of the Pennsylvania”.


TCS: Who and how many are buried in the Pennhurst Memorial Cemetery? Can you tell us if these were patients of the hospital and why didn’t family members come to claim their bodies?

JW: The Pennhurst Memorial Cemetery is located on the grounds of the Pennhurst State School and Hospital. From a time period between 1918 and 1933 there were 40 former residents are buried. Unfortunately, I cannot answer why they didn’t claim their bodies with anything other than just speculation.

TCS: Can you describe for us some of the coverage that the Pennhurst School and State Hospital has received especially on shows like Ghost Finders, Syfy’s Ghost Hunter and the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Paranormal Challenge?

JW: The Pennhurst School and State Hospital site has long been regarded as a paranormal hotspot by some of the shows within that genre and they draw specifically on that reputation.

On Ghost Finders (Season 4, Episode 10 and Season 4, Episode 9 Pennhurst), join team members Rob, Heather and Amber as they capture some incredible evidence caught on camera.

On Ghost Adventures (Season 2, Episode 12), Zak Bagans, Nick Groff, Aaron Goodwin travel to Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Pennsylvania, which was an institution for both the mentally and physically disabled. Pennhurst State closed in 1987 after several allegations of abuse, including dehumanization.

On Ghost Hunters Live: Pennhurst State (Season 7, Episode 21), the Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) team and some special guests spend six hours at Pennhurst State School and Hospital, with live interactive features so that the viewing audience can join in the chase.

On Paranormal Challenge (Season 1, Episode 3), creator and host Zak Bagans invites two teams of amateur ghost hunters to spend the night locked down inside haunted hotspots. During the night, the teams will put their paranormal skills to the test by conducting a ghost investigation with high-tech gear and their own knowledge. The teams will then present their findings to Bagans and a panel of three paranormal experts who judge the teams on teamwork, use of technology and evidence collected during the lockdown.

In this episode, the New Jersey Ghost Hunters Society take a more methodical approach to investigating the looming spirits of Pennhurst State School, while the rough-and-tumble Quest Paranormal Society employ an in-your-face plan of attack.


TCS: While working at Pennhurst, have you personally experienced any paranormal encounters such as shadows, unexplained lights or apparitions? If so, can you please describe where and what happened specifically?

JW: Fortunately, or unfortunately, while I’ve worked at Pennhurst School and State Hospital I have not personally experienced any paranormal encounters.

TCS: In October of 2010, Pennhurst owners worked with Randy Bates of the Bates Motel & Haunted Hayride attraction in Glen Mills, PA was to turn Pennhurst historic lower campus into a commercial Halloween “haunted” attraction. With that, can you share what visitors to the annual event will experience during their trip to the Pennhurst Haunted Asylum?

JW: Visitors to the annual event can enjoy four terrifying attractions featuring the Pennhurst Asylum, The Dungeon of Lost Souls, Containment and Mayflower After Dark.

Pennhurst Asylum

The Pennhurst Asylum is a “Hospital” themed walk through attraction featuring many items and artifacts that are salvaged from the original State School. Located on the upper floors of the old Administration building, which dates to 1908, this attraction features fine detail and realism through a combination of high tech animatronics, digital sound and highly trained actors.


The Dungeon of Lost Souls

Enter the world of the underground as your soul is led down the steps of the past to go back in time to a labyrinth of dilapidated cells, never ending halls, and be forced to confront a series of human experiments that have gone horribly and deadly wrong. This experience includes CGI special effects, illusions, attention to detail and ghosts that have never left the halls.


Containment (Tunnels) New* 2017!

Containment is a new attraction for 2017 that takes you through a 1,200-foot-long gauntlet underneath the Pennhurst complex. Stationed as a government facility hidden underground for decades, you will bear witness to patients being experimented on in the most inhumane ways possible. Lucky for you, this research facility is still accepting patients! The brand-new sets and scares of this attraction are guaranteed to produce horrifying screams and nightmares to come.


Mayflower After Dark

The final attraction, Mayflower After Dark, is a self-guided tour of the Mayflower Building, reportedly the most ghostly active of all the locations on the campus. It’s featured on Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters. No actors or props, visitors are sent at their own risk to wander through the dormitory, left caught in the sands of time just as it was 26 years ago. Search for spirits on your own, or let them find you first. Included is a museum of Pennhurst State School artifacts with real former employees taking you back in time to what life was really like for the patients.


Contact or Visit Pennhurst

Pennhurst School and State Hospital
Church Street and Bridge Road
Spring City, PA 19475
Phone: 484-886-6080
Get Directions

TCS: What can you tell us about the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance?

JW: The Mission of the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance is to promote an understanding of the struggle for dignity and full civil rights for persons with disabilities, using the little-known history at Pennhurst. By sharing this tragic story as well as its landmark victories, they seek to educate citizens in local, national and international communities, to assure that we never go back.

The Vision of the Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance is to be part of an effort to create a world-class museum to honor and memorialize the ongoing civil and human rights struggle of Americans with disabilities at a location of national significance.

TCS: Where do you see the Pennhurst property in the next 20 years?

JW: We very much hope that the essential buildings located on the Pennhurst site can be economically restored. From a historical perspective, we plan to have a museum or other venue on the property to recognize the site’s vast history and display artifacts. Additionally, our goal is to continue to operate and expand the Halloween haunted house attractions on a year-to-year basis.

About Frank Iacono

Frank Iacono Photo

Frank Iacono is a highly skilled results-oriented Strategic Marketing Professional with proven critical thinking, problem solving, and project management skills, developed through more than 20 years of experience concentrated in integrated marketing strategies. Frank brings a thorough, hands-on understanding of marketing strategies and technological platforms as related to applications available for web design, content development, email marketing, site and campaign analytics, search marketing and optimization, service and product marketing, lead and demand generation, social media, and customer retention.

Frank has a BA degree in English/Communications and Marketing from Cabrini College, and he received his Webmaster Certification from Penn State Great Valley.

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