The Legend of Byberry

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Growing up in Levittown I heard a lot of creepy stories about Byberry. Officially the Philadelphia State Hopsital, it was a mental institution off Roosevelt Boulevard that opened in 1907. After it finally closed in 1990, urban legends spread about insane patients being released to the streets, Satanists roaming its vacant halls and secret underground tunnels. It turns out all of these were true, but it pales in comparison to the real horrors that took place while the asylum was still in commission.
Toshiba Digital CameraAs a teen in the ‘90s, I was a fan of horror movies and the macabre (still am). I was never one to hang out in cemeteries, but my curiosity led me to several, locally legendary sites such as the alleged Cry Baby Bridge, Gravity Hill and Satan’s Church. I love that creepy stuff! From what I heard passed down from a friend that had a friend who heard from a friend that explored the abandoned asylum, it seemed like Byberry was the grand daddy of local haunts. And, that was no urban legend. This remained the case until all of its buildings were razed in 2006.

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While deserted, Byberry attracted all manners of urban explorers, ghost hunters and graffiti artists who, apparently, met little to no resistance while trespassing.

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Even creepier is the story of Byberry while it was still open. The institution was notorious for being over overcrowded, understaffed and corrupt. Think of the worst portrayals of mental hospitals you have ever seen on the silver screen and you’re close to the real life terror patients experienced at the Philadelphia State Hospital. Public awareness campaigns tried their best to expose what was going on, but Byberry remained northeast Philly’s dirty little secret.

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You can read more about the sad, yet fascinating history of Byberry in this City Paper article by Patrick Rappa:

What did we learn from Byberry?

You can also read more and see additional images on the urban explorer and photography site Opacity.

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If you’re looking for more than just an article or two, you can get a more comprehensive telling of the Byberry legend in J.P. Webster’s recently published book The Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry: A History of Misery and Medicine. You can read a review here or purchase your copy from Barnes & Noble or Amazon. It’s also available as an eBook from both retailers.

50 thoughts on “The Legend of Byberry

    • Susan Likely those that were ‘released residents’ of Byberry are no longer alive. its been shut down for almost a quarter century.

    • Yes, I was at Neshaminy Mall the day they released, and the mall was teeming with them.
      I miss the tunnels, and scaring people in the morgue,they were the best.

    • Susan Quinn while many hospitals were shut down due to inhumane practices, There are hospitals that are available to the community currently. Norristown state hospital is still open for example. After the expose on pennhurst in the 70′s community group homes were opened up in place of living in institutions. Now its more common for the former patients of byberry to be living somewhere in the community. Some could be your neighbor(s) and you would never know because they are human.

      • Even though this comment is years old, im going to put in my two bits from experience. I had a clinical rotation at Norristown State Hospital. The people there were being released to group homes in the community. One such character was considered an “aggressive” pedophile, as in hes been convicted multiple times but still goes after children. How can you release people like that back to neighborhoods? And If I read the above correctly, this knucklehead thinks its ok because they’re “human”. They had a guy in norristown state building 10 from South Dakota if I remember correctly. You know he was there? Because the entire state of South Dakota didnt have a place for this clown. Norristown state hospital was apparently the closest hospital left of its kind. This is only two examples. I have quite a few more stories from my 5 weeks spend there.

  1. As A young boy my friends and i spent a lot of time exploring old byberry, we knew pretty much every inch of it and the tunnels

  2. As a teenager in the late 80′s, my friends and I would roam through Byberry buildings just about every day. Even slept back there on occassion. Saw alot of weird and crazy things going on and some groups that would frequent the Hospital who were said to be Devil worshipers. A whole lot of memories from there.

  3. That’s great! I’m Radical Ed, the guy in the black ‘n’ white photo under the word “Mob”, up above. ^^^
    It’s a shame someone lifted the photo from one of my forum threads without asking but it is what it is.
    I used to hang out there all of the time from 1984 until it’s demolition and it brings back so many great memories. The guy next to me in the photo had a comprehensive historical book published about Byberry. It has rare archival photos and a terrific history on the asylum. The book is entitled “The Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry: A History of Misery and Medicine” by JP Webster. He also has an amazing website about Byberry called “The Story of Byberry” and is easily found at the top of any websearch.

    • Our apologies, Radical Ed. It came from a google image search and we should have researched it further. We love the pic, but could take it down if you prefer. Or, let us know if you’d like us to include information about John’s book or anything in our article to help promote it. Thanks for sharing your story, Ed!

  4. My mom who would be 88 on her next BD. used to volunteer at Byberry to help the nurses. There were a lot of church volunteers. Medicine for mental illness back then was not the same as it is now. We know so much more about the mind and can help alleviate so much of the symptoms of mental illness now a days than back then. Thank God, a lot has changed. I wanted to add, that even though Byberry had many stories of horror, they’re were good people, doctors, nurses and volunteers who did try to help.

  5. There was a series of in-depth investigative reports that blew the story open about abuse and neglect at Byberry Hospital. A local news reporter went through so much to get the story out to the public. It was a precursor to 60 Minutes.

      • Yes the reporters name was bill Baldini who reported and exposed Pennhurst. That place was a horrible inhuman insitituion for mentally changlled children and the rich people who had these beautiful babies would just leave and disown them to rot in there. Talk about abuse. These children were more than just abused. The people who was involed in that place should be still held accountable and charges for murder should be taken. These poor children.

    • I haven’t read it yet but I feel spirts and I have a daughter who sees them as well as talks to them…but I went there and I would go into different rooms and it would be freezing then outta the room super hot then I got sick in other parts like someone went thru me and I’d hear whispering and just freaky things that I couldn’t and can’t explain but never have I been more warn out then going there. Wish I could go back today even though my daughter is 6 she has been the same way since 1 she talked very well and show us who was there talking to her with pictures around the house. I’m truly excited to read your book

    • I always used to hang out in there as a kid. I picked up your book a little while ago havnt gotten around to reading it yet though.

  6. I live 2 blocks away from here on Southampton Rd. They tore down the main buildings and put up a 55+ community and the building across the street from that is still up and used frequently. They made part of it a “self-help” facility. I hear from the old people that the 55+ homes are haunted and weird things happen on a daily basis. Cops are always called there by scared old people thinking someones broken in or trying to get in. Id never live there lol its creepy as hell to walk past there at night to go to or come back from the bus stops.

  7. I think big majority of the people who have hung out in the asylum will die from or come across some form of cancer. I was working for a security firm briefly and was told never to go inside unless you have some kind of respirator with you due to the asbestos that was in the atmosphere. If there is someone who knows more about this, can you please confirm that information? There was so much deer ticks in the area that you would think lime disease was another concern. The buildings were eerie especially at night. I am glad they have torn it down and did something positive with the area now that there are new homes built on the land. I just hope nothing lingers in a negative spritual way after now knowing about the devil worshipping and the possible atrocities that had happened in that place.

  8. I have pictures throughout the entire buildings. On both sides of the street, pictures on the morgue pull out trays, it was super creepy, but I’m so glad we did it, something I’ll never forget.

    • Yet the literally 100′s of times I went in and out i never came close to being caught or confronted.

  9. I was there. All 7 of us stuffed in my 1987 Iroc-Z in the mid 90′s on michief night. Hit me up if you want to hear more. I typed a whole bunch but would post. Any of you 7 can chime in if you want. You know who

  10. As a teenager me and my friends would indulge in psychedelics and roam around in there for what seemed days. I tried so hard to recover a straight jacket or some sort of cool momento, but never had any luck. Thanx for this article

  11. I’ve lived in the NE my whole life. In 1977 I use to volunteer my time from our CCP class at Archbishop Ryan. I only went a few times. I couldn’t deal with it. It was sad yet scary for me. I was 16/17 years old then. Although I have never experienced the frightfulness of running around there. Maybe drove by it a few times and parked on the side road and told stories, but I can’t say for sure if the legends are true or not. It sure did make for some good story telling though. I can’t wait to read the book.

  12. I grew up in Parkwood Manor , one of the neighborhoods adjacent to Byberry . As a kid , my friends and I would wander back to Byberry and explore the buildings and the Catacombs (tunnels) . We were all so fascinated by the legends and mystery behind Byberry . We were frightened to death by it as well … It would be a full day excursion every time we went back there . Some of the eeriest memories I have of the place were the long driveways up to the buildings that were lined with overgrown trees and covered in piles of garbage . Entrance into the buildings was usually pretty treacherous with debris everywhere … Satanic symbols and graffiti were literally everywhere . Usually the basements were flooded making their exploration impossible … I remember wide open elevator shafts and gaping holes in the roof and floors throughout the complex . The mortician’s building , the morgue and the black hallway and the Catacombs were the freakiest locations in Byberry … I remember the word QUACK spray painted on all the overhead pipes in the tunnels (kind of funny because if you didn’t duck when walking under them that was the sound your head would make hitting them ). Thanks for writing the article. It brought back a lot of childhood memories .

  13. Yes, a lot of “crazy” things happened at Byberry, but my Dad (an electrician) and Grandfather (a farmer) were able to support their families working and retiring from the hospital. As children, we would go visit the farm and animals. Loving every minute. The patients worked the farm; it gave them something to do during the day. When the farm was closed, the patients had nothing to do and more bad things happened.

  14. I never been there i used to live in bensalem and id hear stories from my older brother and sister going over there…. Oh and what ever spirits or and negitive that happen on that land stays there it never leaves so im sure the new homes there and new people are going threw hell

  15. It a shame that nothing is mentioned about the harassment and abuse the staff received while employed there, the janitors the nurses and others. My mother was a nurse there for several years and was injured from being attacked on three separate acounts. The third attack left here permanently disabled. Yes there was horrible treatment to the patients, bit it didn’t stop there. The staff was under manned overworked and underpaid. Why not look up those people and ask them what it was like to work there especially when they had no choice to go anywhere else.

    • Thanks for mentioning that side, when I was growing up, late 50′s early 60′s my mother went every week and volunteered there. There were people who cared and did there best to help those who were suffering. There is another side to this story.

  16. Very cool. I grew up in Newtown and had the chance to visit Byberry twice with my friend (Chris C.) and his friend whom was our ‘tour guide’ so to speak. Don’t recall his name but it was a great time. I was able to pilfer one of those old school giant pill bottles as a souvenir. Our tour guide also told us how a few of the patients never really left and set up home in the tunnels (I think?) on some dirty mattresses. Well, apparently some assholes set the mattresses on fire and ran them out. If you’re reading this now you’re a fucking scumbag for that.

  17. Very cool. I grew up in Newtown and had the chance to visit Byberry twice with my friend (Chris C.) and his friend whom was our ‘tour guide’ so to speak. Don’t recall his name but it was a great time. I was able to pilfer one of those old school giant pill bottles as a souvenir. Our tour guide also told us how a few of the patients never really left and set up home in the tunnels (I think?) on some dirty mattresses. Well, apparently some aholes set the mattresses on fire and ran them out. If any one of them is reading this now, you’re a scumbag for that.

    -Matt B

  18. Hello, Mr. Kelly, a little over a year ago I found something of interest at my college but didn’t know what to do with it: perhaps it may be of use or interest to you. In a large box of old projector slides headed for the trash, I discovered a collection of images from inside Byberry while it was still operational. I am sure for the slides to have ended up there, they must exist elsewhere as well and I doubt they are valuable, but the images are so sad and stark. If you want them, contact me and you can consider them yours.
    I have a junk Gmail I’m comfortable with putting online, which is just plasticfacesandpaintedsmiles.
    I hope to hear from you.

  19. Wow the memories I had of that place.the black floating mists in parts of that place.the tunnels were Creepy as hell IF you could get in them.the article said it was easy to roam about.that’s not true and if you were caught you paid a good hefty fine.our one friend ”lanky” or Kevin Long.if you went there in the late 9o’s you knew who he was.talked slow and deep voice…..and tall as hell.Lol.he became a celeb @ that place because he would always be there for some reason….I remember even finding a ”satanic” I don’t know bible or prayer book in the trees there one time.I’m glad they cleaned t up but I feel bad for the old people who live there but really.who else f I hold live there.All the soul not at rest while people raised families in that area I don’t think would be a great idea.I remember cry baby bridge as well.gravity hill was a great trip to take as well.there was also a ”haunted” high school we would visit after gravity hill.it was on the Jersey side and you would have to walk up a steep drive to get to it.I.remember a baby stroller rotting into the ground out front and the 2nd floor was really dangerous once yougot up there….being teens and early 2o’s the dumb stuff we all use to do lol.Thanks for the great memories you brought up from there

  20. Very sad place and the things they done to the patients even back in the 1930′s until the 80′s. There was even murder commented here. I read many horror stories and seen many photos of the patients, there was one woman was there her whole life, the problem was that she couldn’t even speak English.. I remember the corn fields in the back when I was little kid when we would go visit there.. Now I understand the fear they had of this house of horror. ;[

  21. As a teen we would drive that creepy road to go hang out there heard voices and a lot of weird stuff would been seen . With that being said never told my kids about it and My son went in the recovery side about two years ago . He only stayed three days when I asked him why he left he said in the buildings that are still standing where they do recovery he heard chains hitting the walls and voices at night and the rooms would go hot an cold to the point you could see you breath he said if he didn’t get out of there he felt like he was going to lose his mind …. Then I explained to him what we all saw and heard back there growing up …

  22. The underground tunnels lead to where all the nurses stayed which is now rehab for drug addicts and I work there with them for two years and we would go down those tunnels into the asylum and shoot paintball guns at each other we were never afraid but one time it was at night and we kept hearing a banging noise and echoes we were actually looking for where it came from but could never find anyone else in there I truly believe it is one of the most haunted places on Earth because of all the torture people endured while being there and many many many died there with no explanation to the families

  23. In the 50′s,60′s and 70′s my uncle and his sister were in Bayberry. I remember that use to give electrical shock treatments on them . They would look like zombies after this treatment, just starting into space. After it wore off they would go nuts and the would repeat the treatment over again. They both died from cancer at a young age probably because the building was full of aspesto’s. It you were messing around in the building way after it closed, with all that crap being disturbed you may have been exposed. That wouldn’t be so fun than!

    • Electric Shock treatments are a proceedure So just because they did this at this hospital is no thing of concern. My deceased husband who had acute bi-polar had 10 sets of these. And it helped him out of his depression. They do work. See here a note off webmd. ECT is one of the fastest ways to relieve symptoms in severely depressed or suicidal patients. It’s also very effective for patients who suffer from mania or a number of other mental illnesses. ECT is generally used when severe depression is unresponsive to other forms of therapy.

    • No worries, I just wanted to express that shock therapy is a helpful thing to those who do need it. Thank God though that there have been many new encouraging advances in mental illness since those times back then, through science and study of the brain, the doctors today know so much more how to treat mental illness.

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