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    Notes For Unsolved: Pennhurst Asylum

    Research notes for Supernatural Season 3 Episode 5

    **Research compiled for Ryan on August 7, 2017 by Lauren Woelfel.

    Pennhurst State School and Hospital

    “Pennhurst was a mistake from day one, but it was a mistake made by all of us, following the dictates of the ‘best minds’ of its time.” -Former Special Assistant to the Superintendent of Pennhurst.

    Location: 1205 Commonwealth Dr.Spring City, Pennsylvania


    • On January 23, 1903, the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Legislature. This institution would later be known as Pennhurst State School and Hospital. This authorization made it the second institution of its kind operated by the state of Pennsylvania.

    • The building was to be large enough to house no fewer than 500 residents.

    • Residents were called “inmates” and later referred to as “patients.” Regardless of their age, all residents of Pennhurst were called children. There were many adult residents.

    • Construction begins May 23, 1903 and continued for 25 years. Other buildings were added later. Buildings T and Q were the first to open for patients. Ten buildings were completed by May 31, 1910. 23 buildings were originally planned for the school.

    • On November 23, 1908, the first patient of Pennhurst was admitted and was labelled as “Patient number 1” in the records.

    • By 1912, the superintendent was alerting the Board of Trustees that people with epilepsy and people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities did not require the same treatment and were therefore incompatible to cohabitate in the same treatment facility.

    • The board was already requesting $25,000 for repairs in 1912.

    • In 1913, the Commission for the Care of the Feeble-Minded was created by the Pennsylvania Legislature.

    • By 1916, the Board of Trustees requested a second campus be built for up to 1,200 female inmates. The buildings in the female sector could be supplied power, water, etc. from the same sources used for the main campus.

    • The Pennhurst Hospital opens in 1921.

    • The female campus at Pennhurst opens three of its eventual five buildings in 1930.

    • On May 31, 1930, it’s reported that there are 1,247 residents at Pennhurst with many more applications coming in. The Board of Trustees urge the Pennsylvania Legislature to provide more funding/support for the school.

    • By 1955, there are 3,500 residents at Pennhurst including two annexed locations. The annexes become their own schools and are no longer under Pennhurst administration in 1961. Pennhurst population lowers to 3,200 in 1961.

    • Residents of Pennhurst rarely received medical attention in their residential buildings as they lived across campus from the hospital and the were too few personnel to attend to them there.

    • According to the opinion in the Supreme Court of Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman half of the residents of Pennhurst at the time were committed based on a court order while the others were committed by parents or guardians.

    • Starting in 1966, several pieces of legislation are enacted that lead to the downfall of Pennhurst beginning with the Mental Health & Mental Retardation Act in the state of Pennsylvania. This act authorized services in the community setting as opposed to the institutional setting.

    • IN 1968, reporter Bill Baldini releases his five-part series on Pennhurst called Suffer the Little Children. *See below.

    • In 1971, the Pennsylvania chapter of the Arc, an advocacy organization for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, files a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In 1972 the lawsuit is settled and establishes the right to attend public schools to all children with intellectual disabilities. Children were previously excluded from school and institutionalized.

    • In 1974, Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman is filed. *See below.

    • In 1984, the final settlement of Pennhurst v. Halderman calls for the closure of Pennhurst.

    • The only building ever demolished was building K.

    • In October of 2010, a haunted attraction was opened on the lower, original campus.

    • Over 10,500 people passed through Pennhurst in the nearly 80 years of operation.

    Suffer The Little Children

    • In 1968, a five-part documentary series about Pennhurst was aired on the local channel 10 in Philadelphia called Suffer the Little Children. Bill Baldini, the reporter, received a tip about the conditions of Pennhurst and went to investigate.

    • Today, channel 10 is an NBC affiliate, but at the time of the documentary it was a CBS affiliate.

    • In an interview with the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, Bill Baldini claims the conditions were so bad that his sound and camera operators wanted to leave. Baldini gave them breaks to emotional reset and the crew filmed for five straight days.

    • Baldini claims that when he brought his footage back the first day of shooting, his news director stated that he had thought Baldini was exaggerating about the conditions at Pennhurst.

    • Baldini claims the reaction from the public was so strong after his first segment aired that he was told to go back and continue shooting.

    • He was working such long hours shooting, writing, producing, and editing that he slept in the women’s room at the news station for only three to four hours a night.

    • By the fifth day, he no longer had a voice to read his script. John Facenda read the script instead saying this before he began, “It is with great regret that I tell you that reporter Bill Baldini who has worked continuously on this series has practically collapsed from sheer exhaustion and is unable to read the words which he has written to finish the series. So it is with considerable pride I conclude this report for him.”

    • He also claims that many of the administrators were happy to give him information to get the word out on how dire the situation was at Pennhurst. Baldini insist that most of the personnel were there to help and that they did an incredible job for resources they were given.

    • Baldini claims he walked into a room containing two attendants and 80 children ranging in age from 6 months to 5 years old that were all sitting in metal cribs, or cages as he calls them. When he asked why the kids were contained to these “cages” and couldn’t walk, he reports that the attendant told them they did not have enough staff to set up the mattress on the floor for the children to learn to crawl. The children simply remained in the cages without learning how to crawl or walk.

    • Baldini says there were patients who would lie in their own excrement for days.

    • In an interview with Dr. Jesse Fear (yes, that’s really his name), the doctor explains that they punished residents who acted out by “downgrading them a little bit.” He claimed this punishment would “offend their dignity” as they were locked in a residence with residents with severe mental disabilities.

    • He then admits that this punishment isn’t always effective.

    • “What we’re trying to do is degrade him to a certain extent amongst his fellows here. They make fun of him then for a while afterwards. But, I don’t think there is anything inhumane about it or anything if that’s the word.”

    • Dr. Fear recounts another time when he wanted to punish resident, Ernie, for allegedly giving another resident a large welt on the back of his head. Dr. Fear threatened the resident by saying,”You touch one of my boys again, and I personally I’m going to take care of you myself.” When Ernie told him not to touch him, Dr. Fear responded, “Well, before this day is out, you’re going to find out what I can do to you.” While trying to figure out a punishment for Ernie, Dr. Fear asked one of his staff members for the most painful injection they had that would not cause damage. Dr. Fear later injected Ernie and claimed, “he really hit the ceiling over that.”

    • Baldini makes a comparison in his report between Pennhurst and zoos in the United States.

    • He states that the largest zoos spent $7.15 each day on each animal whereas Pennhurst only spent $5.90 per resident per day at the time of the airing.

    • The superintendent claimed the capacity of Pennhurst was 1,984 residents, but at the time their were 2,791 residents.

    • He mentions he would like to have 1,500 personnel on staff, but that they would need $4 million to pay for the additional 700 people.

    • This means there were 800 staff members to nearly 2,800 residents.

    • The business manager, Elmer McSurdy, recounts the process of requesting bras for the residents. His order for bras was cancelled and he was asked to justify the order. McSurdy then commented that it was “self-evident.” His request was returned again asking for more justification. McSurdy then asked one of Pennhurst’s doctors to write a justification. After all the back-and-forth, they did not receive the bras.

    Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman

    Conditions at Pennhurst:

    • The conditions of Pennhurst were described and “undisputed” in the case. “Conditions at Pennhurst are not only dangerous, with the residents often physically abused or drugged by staff members, but inadequate for the ‘habilitation’ of the retarded. Indeed, the court found that the physical, intellectual and emotional skills of some residents have deteriorated at Pennhurst.”

    • “While at Pennhurst, the residents regress, both intellectually and behaviorally; instead of learning self-care skills, they lose them. Maladaptive behavior and regression result from overcrowded wards, lack of privacy, lack of training programs, and an oppressive environment.”

    • One resident who with intellectual disabilities who was also blind was strapped to a wheelchair even though she could walk. Staff claimed to do this so they would always know where she was.

    • Many residents were physically harm by either abuse or neglect by the staff including death.

    • The lawsuit includes the details about one resident who was restrained for a total of 2,692 hours over the months of June, August, September, and October of 1976. That a total of more than 112 entire days restrained.

    • “There is often excrement and urine on ward floors.”

    • The lawsuit also describes the use of drugs at Pennhurst as “extraordinarily high.”

    • According to the lawsuit, the average age of a resident of Pennhurst at the time was 36 years old and on average spent 21 years of their life at Pennhurst.

    • Residents that were over the age of 18 and wished to leave were not permitted to do so. Staff would state that they were not ready to re-enter the community or that there simply wasn’t a place for them to go, and the residents were then court ordered to stay.

    • “The residents are not mentally or emotionally ill and are not a danger to society.”

    • In 1978, the remaining 1,230 residents of Pennhurst were order to move into community living settings in the area by a federal judge.

    • The case eventually made its way to the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 1975, which assisted states with a federal grant to help ensure the care and treatment of people, merely encourages habilitation in the “least restrictive environment” (community-living settings) over institutionalization and does not require a certain level of care or conditions to be obtained by the states receiving the federal grants.

    Roland Johnson’s accounts of Pennhurst

    • According to the autobiography of Roland Johnson, a former resident of Pennhurst who moved in in 1958, he witnessed a boy thrown out of a window.

    • While the attendants were changing over for their shifts and not looking, someone pushed the boy out of the window.

    • Johnson stated that he didn’t believe the boy would live, but he did with a broken hip and leg.

    • Johnson equated the smell of Pennhurst to a doghouse.

    • “It just smell like feces. Rats crawling, roaches crawling all over…feces and pee on the floor, flies coming in the windows.

    • Johnson explains that this was the state of the “low grade wards” meaning the wards with residents with low mobility.

    • Johnson claims that residents were threatened and beaten by staff members.

    • He claims that staff members warned residents that if they told their parents what was going on inside Pennhurst, they would be punished.

    • Punishments included moving to a punishment ward, a beating with a broomstick, and cleaning up other residents excrement.

    • According to Johnson, the punishment wards were M-1, U-2, K-1, V-2, K-2, and I-2.

    Reported Paranormal Activity

    • The Mayflower building is rumored to be the building with the most paranormal activity.

    • One former tour guide and photographer of Pennhurst once it was abandoned, Melissa June Daniels, claims that a large male guest about 6’3” tall was disturbed by his experience on the third floor of the Mayflower building. He claimed he felt pressure on his neck and saw a ghost lunging at him in an attempt to strangle him.

    • Daniels claims the man held her hand in order to pass the room to exit the building.

    • A young hunched-over girl with long black hair and dangly arms has been reported.

    • There have also been reports of shoving and scratching.

    • According to a medium, there is a demonic force within the building.

    • There have been three separate reports of a nurse wearing an old-fashioned uniform.

    • Voices have been heard echoing loudly out of the Philadelphia building even though no one is inside.

    Strange Occurrences

    • On January 2, 1937, 15-year-old Eugene Statler died of a brain hemorrhage and shock. Statler was being questioned by 24-year-old William McGraw, an attendant at Pennhurst, for allegedly stealing 95 cents. Four other male residents claimed McGraw told Statler to put on boxing gloves for his punishment. Statler received several blows to the head against a wall by McGraw.

    • McGraw claims he was interrogating Statler when he received a phone call. Upon his return, he found Statler unresponsive.

    • McGraw was held on charges of manslaughter.

    • Statler had been at Pennhurst for six years at the time of his death.

    • On May 10, 1978, Richard Greist, an aide at Pennhurst, “stabbed and mutilated” his pregnant wife. His wife and the unborn baby both died. Greist also “slashed” his 6-year-old daughter, Beth Ann Greist, and his 71-year-old grandmother, Anna Gresko. Both survived. Greist reportedly ran from him home but was taken into custody by Chester County police. He was placed under observation at Chester County Hospital. Greist had worked at Pennhurst for eight years.

    Pennhurst Asylum

    • In 2008, businessman Richard Chakejian purchased Pennhurst.

    • In 2010, he opened up the school and hospital as a Halloween attraction naming it Pennhurst Asylum.

    • The haunted house is a collaboration with Randy Bates who runs another haunted house in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania called the Bates Motel and Haunted Hayride.

    • The haunted house was originally titled “Pennhurst Institute of Fear.”

    • The haunted attraction makes about $1 million in profits each year.

    • However, there have been strong opponents to the attraction. The Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance have encouraged boycotts of the business claiming the attraction, “portrays people with disabilities in a demeaning and degrading fashion. Demonizing people with disabilities as a profit-making entertainment is offensive to everyone.”

    • The haunted house begins in the administrative building and even tours some of the original morgue and underground tunnel system.

    • The “Ghost Hunt” that is also offered at the Pennhurst Asylum goes through the Mayflower building.

    Additional info for Ryan’s script

    • Parents told it would be a safe environment for their children with disabilities.

    • Quaker Hall was used as the “low functioning ward.”

    • The Philadelphia Building was originally used to house the administration offices until the actual Administration Building was built.

    • Limerick Hall was originally used as on-campus housing for staff. It was then used for the residents of Pennhurst.