The Inspiration to Freeing Linhurst
The story of Jack and Celia racing through Linhurst is meant to be fun, suspenseful and a bit spooky. But make no mistake…
Places like this really do exist.
In the 19th century, societal attitudes about the care of people with mental illness were undergoing significant shifts in the United States and other western industrialized nations. The thinking at the time was that the most effective and humane way to provide for those struggling with mental illness was institutionalization. In this model, a person struggling with mental illness is removed from the home and community, separated from the rest of society, and placed in an institution specializing in the care of such individuals.
In the United States, a massive push to construct state run institutions took hold in the mid-1800’s, and by 1890, every state had at least one publicly supported facility. These places went by various names: insane asylums, lunatic asylums, psychiatric hospitals, state hospitals, and mental hospitals. They were founded on principles of moral treatment, and the desire to provide an alternative to the horrors of imprisonment, hospitalization, and other inappropriate and inhumane options. Over time, overcrowding and underfunding at these facilities (along with misguided approaches to treatment) led to abuse, neglect, and terrible suffering for those who called these places home.
The setting for Freeing Linhust is based on one such institution—Pennhurst State School and Hospital located in Spring City, Pennsylvania. Though it’s purpose originally claimed to focus on education as those deemed to be “defectives,” Pennhurst’s history isn’t far from other asylums now closed. In 1908, Pennhurst opened its doors to Patient Number 1 and roughly 10,000 residents followed until it was closed in 1987 following legal action based on allegations of overcrowding, lack of care and patient abuse.
I was barely in middle school when Pennhurst first appeared on my radar. Though my father’s job required us to move quite often, Southeastern PA was home base, and you can’t live in the Royersford/Spring City area without hearing about the infamous old property. Many of Pennhurst’s former residents were fixtures in the community. By the time we finally settled in the area for good, I was in high school, and had nearly forgotten about Pennhurst . One day after school, a friend invited me to go exploring, and after a moment of hesitation, I agreed.
I will never forget that adventure (the first of many). It was a rite of passage of sorts—a badge of courage—for local teens. We reveled in the thrill of recounting new discoveries to our friends; retelling and perhaps embellishing the legends about what had happened in the dentist chair (where staff pulled the teeth of biting residents) or the padded rooms (where some residents were locked up for days on end). As teenagers, our thoughts didn’t wander beyond the feeling of fear Pennhurst’s abandoned buildings conjured up. It was like stepping into a horror movie—we savored the adrenaline rush, but failed to consider what it all meant or why a place like Pennhurst ever existed.
After leaving the area for college in Philadelphia and starting a career, then doing what adults do (buying a car and a house and starting a family and so on), I found myself returning once more to Pennhurst. This time, I went with my brother. He too had taken his turn at exploring its buildings as a teenager, finding hidden corners of the property my friends and I had never discovered (until he showed me, I never knew a there was a movie theater on campus until that day!)
By then, 15 years since my last visit, plant life had taken hold and the landscape was quickly reverting to forest around the crumbling buildings. Every structure was boarded and sealed up more tightly than he and I could remember. Eventually, we climbed and shimmied our way in, but once inside, found it hard to recapture the exhilarating rush we’d savored as teens. In its place was an eery sense of discomfort and urgency. We made it through a few buildings before finding ourselves at the entrance to the tunnels. Without flashlights, we agreed it would be foolish to venture inside (though I suspect nerves played a part in the decision as well, whether we had light or not).
As I reflected on that trip, I was struck with the thought that while the horrors of Pennhurst are numerous and real, the reality of what occurred there is often overshadowed by the varying interests of those who visit it today, or make plans for the property’s future. For the teenagers, it’s a proving ground, for the elders, it’s a bad memory that should be ignored, for the ghost hunters it’s a platform for fame, for the middle-aged it’s standing in the way of something new.
As Tommy Lee Jones said it in Men in Black:
“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”
While Freeing Linhurst doesn’t intend to come close to touching on the daily horror that was Pennhurst, it is meant to do at least these few things:
- Recall how it felt as a teenager growing up in a small town that ignored a prominent facility where people were once imprisoned and kept from normal society.
- Bring to light the ideas of what power and greed can do to people.
- Touch on the idea of how we are all connected as one through an energy that travels through all things living and not.
If you would like to learn more about Pennhurst and the people that onced lived a worked there, Pennhurst Memorial and Preservation Alliance was established to protect and preserve the Pennhurst property in order to “promote an understanding of the struggle for dignity and full civil rights for persons with disabilities.” Their goal is through education to assure that we never repeat such atrocities.
The alliance wishes to create a world-class museum in honor and memory of the ongoing civil and human rights struggle of Americans with disabilities at a location of international significance. I encourage you to check them out.
I hope you enjoy Freeing Linhurst.
About Pennhurst State School and Hospital
National Trust for Historic Preservation