Suffer the Youth of Pennhurst State Hospital

Updated on November 29, 2017
Phyllis Doyle profile image

The history of psychiatric hospitals and the stigma of mental illness are subjects Phyllis believes society should be more aware of.

Aerial View of the Hospital , 1934

Pennhurst State School and Hospital , 1934
Pennhurst State School and Hospital , 1934 | Source

And the "Feeble-Minded" Were Shut Away

Originally called Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, Pennhurst State School and Hospital, was built in the early 1900s. The first buildings went up from 1903 to 1908. A person labeled "Patient Number 1" was admitted November 23, 1908, when the institution opened. This was the first indication that patients would be losing their identity and respect.

Children who were not perfect and considered "feeble-minded" were shut away from society, their families, and everything they knew. There was one little boy, Johnny, who was there in 1968 because he was considered "delinquent and uneducated".

Children were admitted to this institute if they were strabismus (A visual defect in which one eye cannot focus with the other on an object because of imbalance of the eye muscles), had other defective sight or hearing problems, were mute (or even semi-mute), had imperfect speech, were paralytic, epileptic, blind, had an imperfect gait, imperfect comprehension, deformity of face, head, limbs and/or feet, micro cephalic (abnormally small head), or hydro cephalic (congenital condition in which an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the cerebral ventricles causes enlargement of the skull and compression of the brain, destroying much of the neural tissue). Even children who had "offensive habits" were admitted.

Every Child has a Right to Explore Meadows and Blow Dandelion Seeds

Dandelion seeds and buttercups
Dandelion seeds and buttercups | Source

Sufficient Reasons ?

I find it so hard to believe that these conditions were considered sufficient reasons to shut children away from society. The Commissions for the Care of the Feeble-Minded, which was appointed by the legislature in 1913, stated that the disabled were unfit for citizenship and posed a menace to the peace, and thus recommended a program of custodial care. In the Biennial Report to the Legislature submitted by the Board of Trustees, Pennhurst's Chief Physician quoted Henry H. Goddard, a leading eugenicist in his report:

Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal. The general public, although more convinced today than ever before that it is a good thing to segregate the idiot or the distinct imbecile, they have not as yet been convinced as to the proper treatment of the defective delinquent, which is the brighter and more dangerous individual.

— Henry H. Goddard

"Every feeble-minded person is a potential criminal." This is heartbreaking to read and to know that this belief was ever accepted as truth is like a sledgehammer hitting the Liberty Bell.

Pennhurst State Hospital Admin Building

Pennhurst Admin Bldg, July 2010
Pennhurst Admin Bldg, July 2010 | Source

Ground-breaking Report

In 1968 a shocking and ground-breaking report by NBC10 exposed the sad conditions and shameful care of patients at Pennhurst. Twenty-eight-hundred children were still in the institute, some had grown up there and were now adults -- abandoned as children, they still had no one to love them or help them. Hyperactive children and delinquent children were admitted and treated as insane, or idiots.

WARNING: The following video is heart-breaking, shocking, alarming, and not at all pleasant to view -- but, I watched every second of it to become more aware of what Bill Baldini wanted to express to the public and show conditions the mentally ill had to live with. Even today there are people who once lived at Pennhurst and deserve to have their dignity, respect and love restored to them. There are people who died there who deserve to have dignity and respect restored to their memory.

Bill Baldini Investigation

Bill Baldini, who was the journalist who went to Pennhurst and investigated, interviewed doctors and patients and exposed the conditions, could not finish the final segment. He collapsed under sheer exhaustion and was unable to complete his final report. Bill Baldini deserves respect and appreciation for his dedication and courage for what he accomplished.

Badini's 1968 documentary led to cases presented in the Supreme Court about conditions at Pennhurst State School and Hospital and allowed the nation to see the way the residents at Pennhurst lived -- these people had broken spirits, they were unloved, uncared for, and their constitutional rights were denied them.

A class-action case against Pennhurst State School and Hospital was ruled by U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Broderick in 1977, where the institution was found guilty of violating patient's constitutional rights. Pennhurst State School was forced to close by 1987 following several allegations of abuse, beginning a De-institutionalization process that would last several years.

Its 460 patients were discharged or transferred to other facilities. Pennhurst was responsible for discussing treatment plans with each patient's family to decide what would be the best for each patient.

Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital

The allegations of abuse led to the first lawsuit of its kind in the United States called, Pennhurst State School and Hospital vs. Halderman, which asserted that the mentally retarded have a constitutional right to living quarters and education.

Terry Lee Halderman had been a resident of Pennhurst, and upon release she filed suit in the district court on behalf of herself and other residents of Pennhurst. The complaint alleged that conditions at Pennhurst were unsanitary, inhumane and dangerous, violating the fourteenth amendment, and that Pennhurst used cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments, as well as the Pennsylvania Mental Health and Retardation Act of 1966 (MH/MR).

While the District Court agreed that certain of the patient's rights had been violated, upon appeal, the case was eventually overturned at the U.S. Supreme Court which found that the federal courts cannot order state officials to comply with state laws, due to the Eleventh Amendment

Pennhurst was closed in 1987.


What was meant to be a place of beauty and help for the mentally challenged is now a haunting place of sorrow and bad memories.

Grave Concerns Association

Laurel Lemke of Grave Concerns Association in Lakewood, Washington, is a valued friend of mine. It is Laurel who led me to the history of Pennhurst State School and Hospital. It is because of Laurel and the people who work with her -- it is because of the people who have suffered in the past due to the stigma of society regarding the mentally ill -- it is because of the people today who still suffer from mental illness and do not get proper care, love and help, that I have dedicated my time and effort to write this article and others to follow. Laurel, you and your co-workers are truly Angels on Earth.

© 2010 Phyllis Doyle Burns


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    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      5 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Bill. Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate your visit. We can be grateful that medical and psychological care has progressed far beyond what it was in the past.

    • profile image

      Bill C 

      5 years ago

      Hi Ms Doyle. I can't stand the thought of the atrocities committed against these types of people in the past and often wonder where the severely afflicted are in today's society since the deinstitutionalization movement of years ago. I haven't gotten up my nerve to watch the video yet but I'm sure I will soon. I can't see a difference between Pennhurst and Auschwitz or any other such facility.

      Thanks for the hub. I have been researching Pennhurst and other such institutions.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Jana. Thank you for stopping by and reading. I understand your concern. I have had several questions about "Johnny" and you can review all my replies in these comments.

      I do not have any personal information on the highly confidential information of any of the patients who were at Pennhurst and I would not allow any such information to be posted here.

      I truly believe that the best thing we can do for Johnny is to leave him in peace and pray that he found a good home and has had a good life since then. That is the most respectful and honorable thing we can do for Johnny.

      If you are a relative of Johnny's, you may be able to access records through the state where Pennhurst was located, or in court records from 1977 (A class-action case against Pennhurst State School and Hospital was ruled by U.S. District Judge Raymond J. Broderick in 1977, ...)

      There is no other information I can give you.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I really want to know whatever happened to little boy johnny once Pennhurst closed..he would have been around 29 by then. does anybody know??? there was nothing wrong with him! so so breaks my heart...and the others as well

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Shyron, it is hard to believe, but I am sure there are some places where patients do not get proper care. The psychiatric and medical professions have a lot more understanding and knowledge now on how to heal patients with mental illness, but, there are still problems here and there. I believe that what helps more than anything is public awareness. It is up to families to make sure their loved ones who are ill receive the best care possible.

      Thank you, Shyron, for your visit and votes, I truly appreciate it.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      6 years ago from Texas

      Phyllis, this is so sad, people are still being treated this way.

      Voted up, interesting and shared.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      I do not think it was meant to be a punishment because the interviewer, Bill Baldini, would not have condoned such punishment. He was there to break the story and do what he could to help the patients by bringing the story to the public.

      I am certain the blind-fold was to protect the child's identity.

      Thank you for commenting, Mathew.

    • profile image

      Matthew Smith 

      7 years ago

      I noticed in a video (Suffer the Little Children) that the boy named Johnny, when interviewed, was wearing what looks like a blindfold - any idea why? Was it a punishment or some other reason? I notice that the interviewer did not ask him or the doctor.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      7 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Dahlia Flower, thanks for stopping by. You are right, there were many, many more institutions like Pennhurst, all over the world. Most psychiatric hospitals of earlier days were not in touch with the real problems of each individual, so patients were not given the unique care and treatment they so needed.

    • Dahlia Flower profile image

      Dahlia Flower 

      7 years ago from Canada

      Very sad. I didn't watch the videos, but I can imagine well enough. Tragedies every day there -- on American soil and in our era. Unfortunately, it was not the only institution like this in the United States or Canada -- and many other countries.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      8 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      I supplied a link to the 1968 Documentary by Bill Baldini -

      Investigation and interviews. If you would like to know more than what "you are reading" then please watch the videos and do some research on the school/hospital yourself. There is a lot of information on this subject on the internet.

      For me, the significance of this school/hospital is part of my research on psychiatric hospitals of the past and the stigma of mental illness that society had.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      What is so significant about this school/hospital? Can anybody give me any information about this place other than what I'm reading? I would like to know more about it. Thank you!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      8 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      You are welcome, Amy.

    • profile image


      8 years ago


      Its ok i figured it would be a long shot anyone actually knowing what happened but i thought i would give it a go. Thank you for getting back to me so quickly though. Much appreciated.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      8 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Amy. Thanks for stopping by. I really do not know personal information on any of the patients and have no contact information except what is in my article. Patient history and contact information is confidential - but, you can do your own research on Pennhurst. Sorry I cannot be of any help to you.

    • profile image

      Amy Jewels 

      8 years ago

      Hi. I was just wondering whether or not anyone knows what happened to the little boy Johnny? I have just finished watching the 1968 documentry on Pennhurst and i really just want to know what happened too him.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      8 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Tracy and thanks for stopping by. The only information I have is contained in the video made by Bill Baldini. Did you watch that video? I have no further information than what is provided in the video.

    • profile image

      Tracy Overway 

      8 years ago

      Great article Phyllis.

      I can not find any information on the names of Doctors and staff as well as names of the Board of Directors. Since it closed in 1987 I would assume the some or most of these people are still alive. Do you have any information on these people?

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      9 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      It is so very hard to believe, Dolores, but it did happen and sometimes still does. People like Laurel Lemke and the Grave Concerns Assoc. help by trying to restore dignity and respect to the memory of the ones who died without proper respects or even identification on their markers.

      Thank you for stopping by.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      9 years ago from East Coast, United States

      It is hard for us to believe how people were treated in the past. But still, I have heard some very cruel and unkind things said about the disabled from people that I know, some in my own family.


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