We don’t have much truck with ghosts here at Hidden City HQ, or those phony ghosts tours, but there is something haunting about standing in an abandoned place where thousands of people suffered over the course of many decades. That’s the feeling one gets at Holmesburg Prison, with its history of riots, abusive guards and medical testing on inmates, and that was what drew what later came to be called “urban explorers” (along with scrappers and partying teens) to the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry after it closed in 1990. Indeed, the history of the two institutions turns out to be intertwined. The land Byberry was built on was previously used as a farm by Holmesburg Prison, and like Holmesburg, Byberry also allowed extensive, and largely unregulated medical testing on patients, in its case by Philadelphia pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline & French.
Byberry’s fortunes tended to reflect those of the Philadelphia city government. During those “corrupt and contented” years between its founding in 1907 and the start of World War II, many officials were incompetent, and conditions ranged from inadequate to appalling. An expose by the Philadelphia Record brought the situation to the attention of the general public in the late 1930s (as it did in a 1922 investigation of Holmesburg Prison) There was an outcry, hand-wringing, and finally a wave of new construction, expansion, modernization starting in the early 1940s, and lasting through the 1950s that mirrored the rise of reformist mayors Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth. Yet even during this period, the institution was still underfunded and understaffed, leading other exposes, this time from Life magazine in 1946 and again in 1951. The 1960s were the beginning of the end for Byberry, as mental health advocates questioned the wisdom of warehousing thousands of patients in one location. Downsizing started during the Kennedy Administration, but somehow funding and staffing always shrank faster than the number of patients.
Bleak conditions, shocking crimes and newspaper exposes continued intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s. Life at Byberry was not all bad–there were plenty of dedicated nurses and fine doctors–but the overall drift was downward. The State finally shuttered Byberry in 1990. This was not the end for the massive complex, however. The buildings and grounds had a second life as one of the most popular spots in the country for what came to be called “urban explorers.” A kind of community developed over the course of the decade, who had to contend with a flood of new visitors in the early 2000s who had read about the spot on the Internet. The end came in 2006, when the site in Northeast Philadelphia was bulldozed. Click HERE for an excellent history of Byberry by Goddog, who has probably explored more abandoned places in Philly than anyone else.