Even If It’s In Dreams

The adventures of a clan of explorers known as the Goonies of Northeast Philly, who usher you into the spine-chilling hallways of the abandoned Byberry Mental Hospital…

by: Carolynn Kingyens

We called ourselves “The Goonies of Northeast Philly” — a gang of pubescent, wannabe urban explorers on hand-me-down bikes, equally bored and curious, a dangerous combination for city kids. Our older siblings would go out into the world first, returning with scary stories to share, like the time Jimmy Russo’s brother swore he heard an old lady call his name from one of the darkened, cobwebbed corridors of the nearby abandoned Byberry Mental Hospital.

“It was more of a cackle than a call,” Tommy Russo explained.

I couldn’t wait till it was finally my turn to visit the ruins of Byberry. The bygone hospital was legend, and perusing its timeworn corridors became a rite of passage in Parkwood.

During soccer practice, on the fields behind St Anselm’s, I’d stare up at one of its more prominent remains, one of many cluster buildings that were connected by underground tunnels, sitting way back from the soccer fields on a slight slope out in the distance, where I, too, felt equally observed.

Byberry Mental Hospital was erected in 1907, starting off as a small farm-work program for the mentally ill. According to its Wikipedia page:

“The hospital was turned over to the state in 1936 and was renamed the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. Conditions in the hospital during this time were poor, with allegations of patient abuse and inhumane treatment made frequently. The situation came to national attention between 1945 and 1946, when conscientious objector, Charlie Lord took covert photos of the institution and the conditions inside while serving there as an orderly. The 36 black-and-white photos documented issues including dozens of naked men huddling together and human excrement lining facility hallways. The photos were shown to a number of people, including then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who subsequently pledged her support in pursuing national mental health reforms. In May 1946, Lord’s photos were published in an issue of Life creating a national “mass uproar.”

In his 1948 book, The Shame of the States, Albert Deutsch described the horrid conditions he observed:

“As I passed through some of Byberry’s wards, I was reminded of the pictures of the Nazi concentration camps. I entered a building swarming with naked humans herded like cattle and treated with less concern, pervaded by a fetid odor so heavy, so nauseating, that the stench seemed to have almost a physical existence of its own.”

Reports of patient abuse were rampant well into the 1980’s. On December 7, 1987, it was decided by the state of Pennsylvania to close Philadelphia State Hospital doors permanently. This would usher in the lengthy period of urban exploration, from 1990 to 2006.

First to arrive were the looters to syphon all the copper piping and other valuable materials left behind. Thereafter, it was a free-for-all: graffiti artists, thrill seekers, rumored devil worshipers, ghost hunters, cool kids, and not so cool kids. Each group had their own reasons for wanting to explore the wreckage.

One of the obsessed “Byberrians,” John Webster, author of The Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry: A History of Misery and Medicine, says in his interview with Northeast Times:

“When I first discovered the place, it seemed like a different plane of reality. Like a dream or a weird movie. The world slowly faded out of existence as I walked onto the property. Nothing made sense, just hallways and rooms. It was a place with no law, no church, no last call and no admittance fee, Trespassers took full advantage of the ungoverned metropolis. The connecting hallways provide easy passage between all the buildings, and the police rarely attempted to pursue trespassers.”

By 1985, the neighborhood kids were already exploring the ruins of “old Byberry,” the creepy, turn of the century buildings in full decomposition that were scattered on old farm land along Roosevelt Boulevard, across from the “new Byberry” that would officially close in late 1987.

In May 1985, at eleven years old, my opportunity to explore Byberry had finally arrived. The City of Philadelphia, at the time, was in the middle of the MOVE conflict with the black liberation group that was founded in 1972 by John Africa, ending in deaths, including five children, and destroying sixty-five homes after a police helicopter dropped a bomb onto their compound. A civil suit was eventually waged by the survivors against the city and its police department, and 1.5 million dollars was awarded in 1996. I remember on the day I left my row house to go on my first, and last, urban exploration, the MOVE news dominating the media airwaves.

My heart felt like it was skipping multiple beats the moment we flung down our bicycles’ kick-stands. I remember the smell of rot, the smell of mold, and asbestos too. Buildings, like people, have their own smell of death and decomposition. I got as far as the entrance to one of the creepiest Byberry buildings on Old Byberry Road, the one I used to stare at from a safe distance on the soccer fields, behind St. Anselm’s. But up close, it was far bigger and scarier. Overwhelmed by fear, I decided to head home on my beloved and trusty bike, leaving my fellow “Goonies” to their brave exploration without me.

By high school, real estate developers had turned the entire area into a typical business park with a number of trucking companies, nondescript businesses, and a few factories — unrecognizable from my childhood. But even today, at forty-six, I can sometimes still smell it, sometimes still see it, even if it’s in dreams.


Carolynn Kingyens’ debut poetry collection — Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound (Kelsay Books) — is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Greenlight, Book Culture, and Berl’s Poetry Shop.  She will be on a radio show in April for National Poetry Month. Today, Carolynn lives in New York City with her husband of 20 years, two beautiful, kind daughters, a sweet rescue dog, and a very old, happy cat.

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