New book delves into terror at Byberry hospital
"Byberry State Hospital" tells the real-life horror story of Northeast Philadelphia's notorious mental institution.
HANNAH KARENA Jones, 23, still has vivid childhood memories of wondering about Byberry State Hospital when her parents drove her past it on Roosevelt Boulevard as the family headed to the Palace Roller Skating Center.
Jones, who grew up in Langhorne, remembers asking about one especially grim-looking building behind the spiked iron fence. Her mother, whose college psychology professor had been a Byberry doctor, told her: "They did lobotomies there."
"I was always interested in what went on with the patients behind those walls," Jones said.
For the past couple of years, she's been finding out. Her new Byberry State Hospital book, in Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, tells the real-life horror story of Northeast Philadelphia's notorious mental institution, shuttered since 1990, in a meticulously detailed narrative and 200 historical photographs.
Jones wanted to research original materials for her book, so she spent months immersing herself in the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg.
"There were all these boxes of stuff donated by the Department of Public Welfare," she said. "It looked like they had just swept everything into those boxes years ago and the boxes hadn't been touched since."
She dug into the obituaries of people who used to work at Byberry, then contacted surviving relatives, some of whom showed her scrapbooks and photographs.
From Ruth Malins, she learned about Iron Man Joe Grim, a Philadelphia boxer nicknamed "the human punching bag" who, Jones writes, "was a lightweight known for losing nearly every fight but being almost impossible to keep down for the count."
Eventually, Grim's 500 punishing bouts caught up with him. He spent the final year of his life at Byberry, dying in 1939 at age 58.
Jones' balanced portrait of life at Byberry State Hospital ranges from photos of therapeutic art and music classes to graphic evidence of wards where patients spent all day naked in grotesquely unsanitary, overcrowded conditions.
"A lot of these people got trapped in Byberry and this was their life for decades," Jones said. "First, I realized they weren't getting good mental-health care. Then, I realized they weren't getting good custodial care either."
Jones said she got permission to use the more disturbing photos on condition that patients' faces are blurred out to prevent individual identifications.
Byberry State Hospital is on sale at Smith's Hardware on Torresdale Avenue near Disston in Tacony, at Walgreens on Bustleton Avenue near Byberry Road in Somerton, at SEPTA headquarters' gift shop on Market Street near 12th and at area Barnes & Noble stores.