Northeast Times

Inside Byberry

Loc­al au­thor ex­plores the former men­tal hos­pit­al’s his­tory in a new book.

Wel­come to By­berry: Fox Chase res­id­ent John Web­ster (above) stands out­side the nurses’ res­id­ence at the former men­tal in­sti­tu­tion in Somer­ton. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

By­berry was at first a mis­chiev­ous lark for Fox Chase res­id­ent John Web­ster, but later it be­came an ob­ses­sion. Now, the long-gone Somer­ton men­tal hos­pit­al is the sub­ject of his first book, The Phil­adelphia State Hos­pit­al at By­berry: A His­tory of Misery and Medi­cine, which was pub­lished by the His­tory Press in mid-May.

For Web­ster, now 35, it all star­ted in 2002 when he was in his 20s and friends asked him to go ex­plor­ing in the aban­doned asylum’s build­ings.

“What re­mained of By­berry in 2002 was 138 acres of weeds, bushes and large, fore­bod­ing build­ings, 23 of them … they looked like a scene out of a post-apo­ca­lyptic war zone,” Web­ster wrote in his book’s last chapter.

The closed hos­pit­al’s al­most for­got­ten story in­trigued him im­me­di­ately and then be­came his pas­sion.

“When I first dis­covered the place, it seemed like a dif­fer­ent plane of real­ity. Like a dream or a weird movie,” Web­ster told the North­east Times. “The world slowly faded out of ex­ist­ence as I walked onto the prop­erty. Noth­ing made sense, just hall­ways and rooms.”

After his first vis­it, Web­ster not only reg­u­larly ex­plored the old hos­pit­al’s build­ings dur­ing what be­came weekly trips, he also met oth­er “By­ber­ri­ans” who he said re­li­giously came to the place.

He had found in By­berry’s easy-to-enter empty build­ings a fra­tern­ity and a cul­ture spe­cif­ic to the grounds.

“It was a place with no law, no church, no last call and no ad­mit­tance fee,” he wrote. “Tres­pass­ers took full ad­vant­age of the un­gov­erned met­ro­pol­is. The con­nect­ing hall­ways provide easy pas­sage between all the build­ings, and the po­lice rarely at­temp­ted to pur­sue tres­pass­ers.”

Teens from nearby Carter Road fre­quently were in By­berry, Web­ster said. People didn’t just ex­plore the al­most lim­it­less curi­os­it­ies; they partied in the old empty build­ings, he said. They sprayed “co­pi­ous amounts of graf­fiti.” They even grew marijuana, he said dur­ing a late May in­ter­view out­side S-10, a nurses’ res­id­ence that is one of the struc­tures that re­main stand­ing on the south side of Southamp­ton Road.

The years of tres­passing, drink­ing, ex­plor­ing and mis­chief star­ted to come to an end for the By­ber­ri­ans in June 2006 when “the over­grown hos­pit­al sign was ce­re­mo­ni­ously knocked down” while Gov. Ed Rendell, May­or John Street and de­velopers looked on.

The hos­pit­al had star­ted as By­berry City Farms 100 years pri­or. In 1926, Web­ster wrote, the city opened it as the “Phil­adelphia Hos­pit­al for Men­tal Dis­eases.” Con­trol was trans­ferred to the state in 1938, and By­berry was re­named again as “Phil­adelphia State Hos­pit­al.”

At one time, the hos­pit­al had 56 build­ings and 1,100 acres of grounds, he said.

At the peak of state con­trol in the 1950s, he wrote, By­berry housed a max­im­um of 3,600 pa­tients.

But it once had many more pa­tients.

In the late 1930s, he wrote, when the max­im­um ca­pa­city was only 2,200, “it held a ri­dicu­lous 7,000.”

By­berry, which throughout its ex­ist­ence made news be­cause of stor­ies of greed, cor­rup­tion, neg­li­gence, cruelty and crimin­al­ity, close for good in 1990.

Now, still un­fin­ished homes cov­er the site north of Southamp­ton Road near the Roosevelt Boulevard, Web­ster wrote in his book’s con­clud­ing pages, “but por­tions of the hos­pit­al’s road­way sys­tem are still in place.”

Web­ster said he col­lec­ted many By­berry ar­ti­facts over the years as well as in­form­a­tion. While trolling the In­ter­net, he found a photo of a corner­stone be­ing ded­ic­ated. Soon after, he found that corner­stone.

“I smashed it open and I got a lot of good­ies out of it … aer­i­al pho­to­graphs, a copy of the hos­pit­al’s news let­ter. … That stuff would have gone to a trash heap.”

Web­ster’s re­search was fol­lowed by cre­ation of his own web­site, www.Phil­adelphiaState­Hos­pit­al.com, in 2003. He began work on his book last sum­mer.

He said he didn’t talk to any his­tor­i­ans spe­cific­ally for the book, but since he launched his web­site in 2003, he said, he’s con­ferred with many.
“I had been in­ter­rog­at­ing people about it for about 10 years,” he said.

Web­ster tells the hos­pit­al’s 100-year story in a brisk, easy-to-read style, and the book is il­lus­trated with 75 pho­to­graphs from the His­tor­ic­al So­ci­ety of Pennsylvania, Temple Uni­versity Urb­an Archives, the Pennsylvania State Archives, the Athen­aeum of Phil­adelphia, Phil­ly­His­tory.org and friends. Some im­ages, he said, he pho­to­graphed him­self.

“I knew from the be­gin­ning how I wanted to lay it out,” Web­ster said of his book. “There’s everything from polit­ics to ar­chi­tec­ture to hor­rif­ic tragedy to hero­ic bravery and self­less sac­ri­fice in there.”

His im­pres­sion of By­berry changed as he wrote.

“When I began work on the book, I thought I had a pretty clear im­pres­sion of the place, but some oth­er points of in­terest sprang up in the pro­cess, and, after track­ing down an­swers … my opin­ion changed slightly again, for the bet­ter,” Web­ster wrote in an email to the North­east Times. “I learned there were caring people there, in fact, her­oes, and their stor­ies were sel­dom heard.”

Web­ster’s ob­ses­sion with the hos­pit­al’s his­tory de­veloped in him a wider in­terest.

I’m very pas­sion­ate about his­tory and have – with­in the last 10 years — come to know a pro­found re­spect for Phil­adelphia’s his­tory, and with it, Amer­ic­an his­tory.” ••

Meet the au­thor
John Web­ster will be at Barnes & Noble Ply­mouth Meet­ing, 2300 Chem­ic­al Road, Ply­mouth Meet­ing,  at noon on Ju­ly 13.

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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