Haunted Pennsylvania – Thornbury Farm and Pennhurst Asylum

After previously looking at some of the most well-known hauntings associated with the town and battlefield of Gettysburg, our second collaboration with Oakley from Obviously Haunted sees us take a look at two more notorious Pennsylvania locales: former field hospital Thornbury Farm and the notorious Pennhurst Asylum.

Thornbury Farm  

Founded in 1709, Thornburg farm started out as just a stone house, later referred to as the ‘main house’. Over the years more buildings were constructed on the farm, expanding in use until 1812 when the houses were used as stopping points on the underground railroad. The farm is the final resting place for many given that it was the site of the Battle of Brandywine, the largest land battle of the American Revolution. Due to the open terrain, enemy combatants were clearly visible to each other, leading to heavy casualties for both sides.   

The painting ‘Nation Makers’ by Howard Pyle, depicting Continental Army troops advancing at the Battle of Brandywine. Image: Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies

The barn and spring house were both used to hold prisoners and the main house converted into a makeshift hospital. During an era of underdeveloped, often gruesome medical practices, amputated limbs were haphazardly discarded and two mass burials were used to dispose of the corpses of hundreds of soldiers.  

The site has been investigated for paranormal activity many times over the years, and the spirits of nine distinct individuals have been consistently documented by paranormal investigators and mediums 

  • The restless spirit of the original property owner, who took his own life by hanging himself over a well in the basement  
  • A little girl, searching for a missing doll near a covered well  
  • A young and fearful child soldier who had abandoned his post, looking back over the battlefield  
  • The phantom of a man who froze to death in a well  
  • The spirit of a soldier that blocks visitor’s passage through a staircase  
  • An unidentified presence that seems to be attached to the master bedroom, as well as a young girl in the next room who is heard quietly sobbing  
  • The spring house also seems to accommodate the spirit of a disgruntled old man  

Pennhurst Asylum  

The Pennhurst State School and Hospital, originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, was an institution for mentally and physically disabled individuals in southeastern Pennsylvania. It initially opened in 1908 to already overcrowded conditions and with little to no attention given to each individual patient. After years of abuse and neglect to the patients behind its walls, it finally closed its doors for good on December 9th 1987. 

The derelict interior of Pennhurst Asylum.

Pennhurst Asylum garnered an unenviable reputation as one of the worst examples of a lack of compassion or understanding for disabled or mentally ill individuals throughout the early 20th century. Frequently ignored, abused or exploited, the most common solution for dealing with those who were mentally or physically disabled was to shut them away from society, locked away in over-full facilities that lacked funding or respect. Involuntary sterilization was also frequently employed. 

By the 1950s, the public across the country had begun to catch wind of the numerous abuses committed at Pennhurst and other facilities and began to demand change. Many of these grotesque facilities were closed down and left empty over the next decade, haunted by the horrors that transpired inside. Pennhurst, however, would remain open.  

The Pennhurst facility, once known as “The Shame of Pennsylvania”  housed thousands of mentally disabled children and adults alike, often abandoned by their families. Every patient was assigned a classification of either ‘imbecile’ or ‘insane’ and a physical status of ‘epileptic’ or ‘healthy’. Abuse was reportedly rampant from day one, with patients were often tethered to their beds and left alone for hours on end, often in their own excrement, without food or water. If a patient was reported aggressive they would be sedated into submission. Staff reportedly removed all the teeth of an aggressive patient who bit one of the staff, and there is evidence that the practice became commonplace. Years after the asylum was closed visitors have been known to find teeth scattered throughout the facility. This dangerous and inhumane treatment was only a fraction of the torturous abuse of Pennhurst. 

The Pennhurst Asylum campus in 1934.

In 1968, a short TV series on Penhurst would air, inciting rage and inspiring many to seek a legal battle against the cruel establishment. This led to an excruciating 20-year legal struggle and federal judgment before the facility was eventually shut down for good. 

Given the modern infatuation with the supernatural it was inevitable that Pennhurst would attract some curious paranormal investigators. Pennhurst State School and Hospital is now Pennhurst Asylum, a $50 Halloween haunted house event. Many critics object to this use of a building as entertainment for the morbidly curious. given that it is the final resting place of many disabled people, including children, further exploiting these unfortunate souls and potentially disturbing the already restless spirits. Perhaps this is why many have reported hearing disembodied voices telling them to ‘go away’ or saying this such as ‘I’ll kill you’, ‘I’m scared’ and ‘Why won’t you leave?’ 

Records of other paranormal activity are extensive, including copious sightings of shadow people, objects moving on their own, doors swinging open or closed and investigators being pushed or scratched. Many EVP and electromagnetic spikes are recorded, despite their being no power to the building for many years. Disembodied voices and unexplainable sounds have been heard throughout the grounds with and without the use of EVP. 

Many disagree with the use of the once abandoned building as entertainment for the morbidly curious. Touring the final resting place of many disabled children can be perceived as exploiting them once more, disturbing and disrespecting the already restless spirits. Perhaps this is why many have reported hearing disembodied voices telling them to “go away”, and saying things such as “I’ll kill you”, “I’m scared” and “why won’t you leave?” 

As far as other paranormal evidence there have also been copious sightings of shadow people, objects moving on their own, doors swinging open and close, as well as cases of investigators being pushed, and scratched. Many EVP’s (electronic voice phenomena) and electromagnetic field spikes throughout the building when there hasn’t been running through the building in years.  Disembodied voices and unexplainable sounds have been heard throughout the grounds with and without EVP. 

You can read our first article of the hauntings of PA, covering various sites associated with the Battle of Gettysburg here.

Again, many thanks to Oakley of Obviously Haunted for their invaluable help with the piece. You can read more about Obviously Haunted here. They are also a talented artist who is available for a range of commissions, find out more here and here.

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