Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lost Places

My children and I like 'lost places.' I've used photos from one such place, the Belchertown School [asylum], on previous posts. Recently, my son, some of his friends, and I investigated another 'school' for children with various kinds of disabilities, the Pennhurst State School and Hospital - orignally named the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic.

Pennhurst, as it is known among explorers of abandoned sites, has a history much like that of Belchertown and other such institutions. It was founded by people with good intentions, people who hoped to make the lives of the mentally ill, retarded, or severely disabled better than they were when those people were left to the vicissitudes of life among the 'normal.' But time, limited resources, and expansion beyond the reach of any good will turned the place into a failure and a nightmare for many of its inhabitants.

In the late 1970's, a woman sued Pennhurst on behalf of her daughter and others insitutionalized there. The case was Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital (446 F. Supp. 1295, 1327 (E.D. PA. 1978). The Philadelphia NBC station produced a series of reports on Pennhurst, entilted Suffer the Children (viewable here ). Eventually, the legal process led to a Supreme Court case, Pennhurst State School v. Halderman. There were several other legal battles, up through the late 1990's, but it was the earlier decisions that sealed the fate of Pennhurst. As happened with so many other large insitutuions, Pennhurst was closed down and its patients were sent to smaller community care arrangements or to other places, based on individual assessments.

There are the usual horror stories of abuse and neglect at Pennhurst - of children molested and beaten, of people who spent their entire lives there, of people insitutionalized for no more reason than their being inconvenient to their familes. What moves me about Pennhurst and other such places is not the stories of mistreatment, but the poignancy of attempts to do good ending up badly. Pennhurst, in particular, was originally a beautiful place, modestly intended to provide schooling and vocational training for no more than 500-600 men and boys. All too soon, it became a site for 'custodial' care of children and adults who were not expected to ever return to 'normal' life. At one point, Pennhurst housed up to 3,000 'patients.' Skimpy state support, insufficient and untrained staff, and public indifference brought it to its inevitable demise. Abandoned to vandals and scrappers, as well as to the press of nature, much of it is now in ruins. And, yet, one can still see the beauty that was there and feel not only the sorrows the inhabitants experienced but also the hopes that inspired the founders.


  1. Please be sure to visit and sign the online petition to save the Pennhurst property. For more info on Pennhurst and it's history, please visit:

    Thanks! -chris peecho

  2. Hi, Chris.

    I have signed the petition and urge others to do so as well.

  3. Thanks! Cool blog you have here. Are you studying law?

  4. I'm a philosophy professor, but one of my special areas is legal philosophy.