“The Shame of Pennsylvania” – Pennhurst State School and Hospital: Part 1

Episode 73 – Originally Released March 2019

Content warning: This episode contains adult subject matter including discussions about physical and intellectual disabilities, patient abuse, and eugenics.  Listener discretion is advised.

Pennhurst State School and Hospital was once called the Shame of Pennsylvania.  It sat only about 25 miles outside of Philadelphia, yet it may have been a world away considering how few people knew about the decline of the institution, and how that decline impacted the residents. 

In 1903, the state of Pennsylvania approved the creation of the “Eastern State Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic.”  Eventually this facility became known as Pennhurst State School and Hospital, a 1400-acre state owned, and state supported institution committed to the “care, treatment, education and vocational training” of children and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

Soon after opening in 1908, Pennhurst was plagued by overcrowding that continued throughout the facility’s 80-year operation.  The campus was self-sustaining, with independent power grids, a fully functioning farm, everything anyone could want except proper care and support for it’s residents which at one point reached over 3500.  

In 1968, NBC 10 reporter Bill Baldini released a five-part series about the conditions at Pennhurst State School and Hospital which forced the public to acknowledge the horrific conditions in which the residents lived; overcrowding was the least of their misery.  Restraints, unnecessary sedatives, physical and emotional abuse were commonplace at Pennhurst.

This is part one of a three-part series about Pennhurst State School and Hospital. In this episode we’ll explore Pennhurst’s history, it’s 80-year operation, the children who lived there, why it finally closed down in 1987, and it’s legacy since then.

Research sources for this episode include:

  • Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News Archives
  • Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance
  • 1968 NBC 10 Series “Suffer the Little Children” by Bill Baldini
  • Pennhurst the Shame of Pennsylvania
  • Images of America: Pennhurst State School and Hospital
  • NPR.org
  • Disability Justice.org – Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital
  • law.justia.com – Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital
  • PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • The ARC.org
  • SpArc Philadelphia sparcphilly.org

TwistedPhilly is researched, hosted, and produced by me, Deana Marie, and available biweekly wherever you listen to podcasts. Follow me on Tiktok and Instagram at twistedphilly to see many of the locations and histories I discuss in the show.