A Walk In Darkness

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Pennhurst Insane Asylum in Spring City, PA is one of those places that I have wanted to visit and photograph. It was a 1,400 acre campus built in 1903 and originally known as the Eastern State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic.  In 1986, local CBS10 correspondent Bill Baldini reported about the deplorable conditions in a 5 part series called “Suffer the Little Children“.  The allegations of abuse led to the first lawsuit of its kind in the United States, a federal class action, Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital.  Terry Lee Halderman had been a resident of Pennhurst, and upon release she filed suit in the federal district court on behalf of herself and other residents of Pennhurst. Pennhurst was finally closed on December 9, 1987.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when entering the few buildings that we were allowed to visit but Jan (my friend and fellow photographer) and I were excited to see what we would encounter.  There was a group of about 10 photographers.  We could follow the person who organized the group, a medium, or go on our own.  Jan and I chose to go it alone because I just wanted to sense and feel the buildings without a group.  There is always anticipation when entering an abandoned place but this one is a little different because we knew some of its dark history.

The first building we went into had much more light than I anticipated and I never tire of seeing how the elements leave their mark on interior walls.  I loved the walls of glass panes that we saw upon entering the space that divides the office area from the small hospital like rooms.  Many of us that are drawn to abandoned places seem to gravitate to windows because they can be the eyes of the space. Graffiti covers the walls, and as you will see, some of it lends itself to the macabre.

Walking into the small rooms that still have some of the hospital beds is strange because you know that there were a lot of adults as well as children who were strapped down in them day and night. Every room had a window, so as I stood there my thoughts were of these windows being a patient’s only opening to the outside world.  Instead of being creepy it was just a stifling sadness.  The room with the adult crib was the most disturbing for me.  This truly begs that age old adage…if these walls could talk.

As Jan and I were moving through the building we ran into a couple that actually worked for the owners of the property and knew a lot of the history.  The couple invited us to go on a tour of the basement. There was no lighting but I had a couple of LED flashlights so off we went.  First we went  to “Candy Land”, a large open room where the children played.  It had scenes of children on the walls which really was eerie. The temperature was about 15 degrees cooler down there.  A playroom for the children in the basement, where it was so cold and dark was just bizarre to me when  all the rooms upstairs were flooded with light and seemed a much better place to have a happy space.  Next we wanted to checked out the tunnels.  Once we got there they were gated up so we weren’t able to go into them.  I must tell you that it was the only place where I experienced any remotely strange feeling.

The second building was a little more clean and it seemed some areas were staged, but at least it did give us a sense of how it probably was when the building were being used. These buildings weremassive and it boggles the mind that as big as they were, in the end they were grossly over crowded. I was a little disappointed that we were only given permission to enter two of  the buildings because of safety hazards.

Once outside the couple who led us into the basement saw us standing around the administration building and asked if we would like to go to the hospital (we had been told that was off limits).  On our way down she told us we couldn’t explore the building, but we could at least see the ambulance tunnel and part of the hospital.  It was almost totally overgrown and looked so small until we got on the other side of the ambulance tunnel and it was massive.  I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to get inside but it was definitely off limits.

We ended up the morning by taking photos of the outside of the buildings.  The architecture was beautiful and the size of this place was enormous.  The buildings are all so beautiful even in the current state of decay.  It’s hard to believe that something so big and beautiful hid such pain, sorrow and even horror.  One lasting impression for me was the abandoned playground with the slide and one swing set sitting there rusting away with vines just about covering them up.  One has to wonder who were the lucky children who got to play outside in this playground and how many were standing in the windows wishing they could.

I have read most of the history I can find and watched the video “Suffer The Little Children”. If you are interested in the story of the asylum I would encourage you to at least watch the video.  Many people who were placed in Pennhurst by court order were there not because of being mentally ill but because they were unwanted or abandoned by their families.  One child was committed because his  mother remarried and the stepfather didn’t want him around.  Although I know that probably many were helped and treated with decency, there were just as many who suffered in silence locked away from a world they should have been part of.

If you are interested in seeing historical photos click here

“Suffer The Little Children” video, click here

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  1. johncostenoble October 30, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    Great work Terie, kinda spooky for me though!!

    • xmas65 December 3, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

      It was an awesome place to photograph. Too busy trying to find good compositions to be spooky for me LOL.

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