The Mystique of "Boo berry"
Wednesday, December 11th 2002
To people who live near it, the former Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry is a nuisance and an eyesore.
To the business community, the 153-acre site along Roosevelt Boulevard in the Far Northeast is a potential commercial redevelopment windfall. But to young people in the Northeast and well beyond, the overgrown state property with dozens of large, abandoned and environmentally hazardous buildings, as well as underground tunnels connecting it all, has long been seen as an amusement park.
And according to numerous sources contacted by the Northeast Times, at least one of the people hired to protect the site from trespassers actually gave a group of teens and young adults free run of the site for much of last summer and into the fall. Due to a crackdown by local police at the former psychiatric hospital since early October, as well as the onset of cold weather, trespasser interest has cooled for the time being.
But numerous Web sites touting it as a curiosity-seeker's delight and paranormal buff's paradise are alive and well.
Although these sites expressly warn Web surfers that it is both illegal and dangerous to visit Byberry, interest doesn't seem to be waning. "This is one persistent thing. They will never give up trying to get into Byberry. To them, it reads like a Michael Myers story," said Philadelphia police Sgt. John Dougherty, referring to the murderous "bogeyman" character in the Halloween series of films.
Dougherty is a supervisor in the 7th Police District, which arrested more than 30 youths and young adults for trespassing on the property between early October and mid-November.
Two former security guards confirm his assessment of the site's popularity. During their relatively brief on-site tenures, both guards saw an endless parade of young people trying to sneak onto the property and into the buildings. And many succeeded.
"One night, we caught twenty-nine of them and missed another twenty," said Jeff Minner, a security guard at Byberry from mid-August to early November.
Although that night was unusually busy, the guards are good for catching at least a few trespassers each night, said Mark Goles, who worked there last April and May before quitting the $7-an-hour job to pursue a career as an independent filmmaker.
But with just two guards on duty at a time and a large piece of ground with cavernous buildings to cover, the security force is at a big disadvantage in stopping trespassers.
A Scranton, Pa.-based company, Statewide Security Group, holds the state-funded contract to guard the site. The contract is administered through the Department of Public Welfare. It commenced on Nov. 7, 2001 and is scheduled to continue through next June 30. In total, the contract can be worth no more than $342,611 to the vendor.
According to both Goles and Minner (who claims he was wrongly fired for allegedly showing up for work drunk), one particular guard was so determined to sway the playing field in his favor, he literally befriended some trespassers last spring and summer, allowing them free run of the property. Ultimately, several of the young people were captured in the recent crackdown.
Goles claims that the double-cross was all part of a stated plan by the other guard, who first contacted the young people via the Internet.
"He was letting kids in for a while, then he busted them because he couldn't catch them," Goles said. "That's about the time I quit. Basically, he found their "screen" names from (America Online) and started talking to them. He knew what he was doing. I saw him hanging out with them. He told me on one occasion what he was planning on doing."
Both Goles and Minner allege that the same guard allowed the young people to spend the night inside the Byberry buildings, many of which contain airborne asbestos, according to a 1997 inspection report by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The guard also gave his cell phone number to at least one youth, Minner alleged, so that the teenager could report any other trespassers he saw on the site. Northeast resident Rob Courtney, 16, claims he was that teenager.
Courtney says that the guard sent so-called instant messages to him using the screen name Byberry2626. The two communicated for about two weeks, Courtney said, before the guard supplied him with a telephone number and the two arranged to meet on the site via phone. The guard did not identify himself as a member of the security force, Courtney said.
"He said he and his brother were "taking over" the place and knew all of the security schedules," Courtney said. "He made us trust him and stuff. I didn't think it was security, that they'd take their job that serious, that he'd do stuff like that."
Courtney believes that the security guards recognized him by his screen name, Sniper, which he scribed in graffiti on many locations inside the Byberry buildings. Courtney and a friend had been visiting the site regularly for more than a year, he claimed.
"(The guard) knew who we were by our "tags" on the walls," Courtney said. "We were there the most, so he tried to get in touch with us."
The Northeast Times contacted the guard named by all three individuals with a telephone number provided by Courtney. The guard, whom the Times will not identify because there have been no official charges filed against him, had no explanation for how Courtney obtained his phone number.
The guard, who still works there, denies that he allowed trespassers into Byberry or that he communicated by Internet with them. He contends that he has been the target of a smear campaign by disgruntled former employees and individuals captured for trespassing.
Courtney and several of his friends were captured at Byberry by a different guard on Oct. 20 and were arrested by Philadelphia police. Rather than contest the summary charge of criminal trespass and subject himself to a possible fine, Courtney agreed to perform three hours of community service and attend a conflict-resolution class, which cost him $90.
"I am the worst-hated person there because I am the one who catches most of the people," the unnamed guard said. "They're coming in either to break in and vandalize or to cause trouble for us."
Pat Curly Jr., president of Statewide Security, said he was unaware of any allegations that a guard intentionally allowed unauthorized people onto the Byberry property. State officials overseeing his contract visit the property three times per month, doing spot checks of each of the three eight-hour shifts that provide around-the-clock security at Byberry.
"We do checks from our office as well," Curly said. "The state's been happy with everything we've done so far.
"You'll never stop kids from going in there."
A spokesman for the state Department of Public Welfare, which controls the security contract, said that the state has no current complaints with Statewide, although there was at least one problem with a guard in the past.
During one of the regular site visits, an inspector was unable to locate one of the guards, said Jay Pagni, the DPW spokesman. After about an hour, the guard was observed emerging from one of the buildings, smoking a cigarette. "He was fired on the spot," Pagni said.
According to Curly, guards are permitted inside buildings if they see or hear trespassers entering them, but not while on regular patrol. Besides having asbestos, the buildings are unstable, by all accounts.
"There are buildings that have long been in disrepair and could pose a safety hazard," Pagni said.
Goles, the former guard, never paid much attention to the safety risks. "Sometimes, I would even go inside by myself to see if there were fresh footprints or whatever," he said. "I knew the buildings like the back of my hand. The first couple of days (on the job), I walked through and made mental pictures.
"When you go into asbestos, as long as you're not kicking it up, it's dormant."
The trespassers have adopted a similar laissez-faire attitude with regard to the health and safety risks. Their attraction to the site is simply too strong. "We like to explore. That's all it is, exploration," said Northeast resident Chad Goldberg, 20, a friend of Courtney's. "I guess it's a common interest. We find it interesting. We're in the neighborhood. When you see it all the time, you have to be curious."
Unlike earlier generations, Byberry has been dormant as long as today's young people can remember. Actually, though, it was shut down for good only 12 years ago.
The hospital was built by the city in 1912, and it extended well beyond its current dimensions. The state assumed responsibility for the property in the 1930s.
In its heyday, Byberry served several thousand residents. The buildings included administrative offices, treatment areas, patient housing, chapels, a theater, and even a morgue.
Over time, portions of the property were sold and redeveloped for commercial and industrial purposes or as parkland.
In later years, allegations of patient mistreatment and a shift in treatment philosophies against institutional settings led to the closing. In 1987, then-Gov. Bob Casey appointed a panel to review conditions at the hospital. The panel recommended closing it.
In 1990, the last patients were released from the facility. Although community theater groups continued to use the auditorium for several years, the other buildings have served no official use since then.
Unofficially, however, the buildings have been a destination for many different groups of people. For a while, metal scavengers frequented them, seeking to strip out the pipes for profit.
Over the years, there have been many reports of homeless people using the place for shelter, too. And rumor has it that cultists and Satanists have performed rituals there, possibly even animal sacrifices.
But the most common trespassers have been and still are the young people, who use it as a party spot and hangout.
Officer Joe McGrath, of the 7th district, has been responding to police radio calls on the site since he joined the district in 1994.
"When I first came up here, it was out of control," he said. "They had some kinds of cults up there. The fire department would be running up there every night. They would be setting fires almost nightly."
A couple of years ago, McGrath explained, some folks organized a formal "rave" party there. They even hired a disc jockey.
It didn't take long for neighbors and police to find out something was up, with dozens of people converging on the site that night. McGrath caught them arriving and leaving.
"I had license plates from as far away as Massachusetts and Virginia that night," he said. "(At one point) two girls got out of a cab from New York, and they got sent back to New York with their cab."
At about 5 a.m., McGrath said, he caught the DJ loading his equipment into a car parked a few blocks from the property.
McGrath and others in the 7th district would later find out just how powerful the Internet can be in attracting interest to a place like Byberry, even telling people how to trespass there.
In a quick search of the Internet, the Times found countless Web pages referring to the former hospital. A handful of sites are literally dedicated to the place, detailing its history, the popular legends about it, and ways hopeful "explorers" can succeed on expeditions there.
One enterprising site contains various maps of the buildings and underground tunnels, as well as a link to an overhead photo. A few of the sites provide "how to" pages, listing the items to bring, the best times to go, and what to watch out for.
McGrath is mentioned prominently on many of the sites, which warn trespassers to watch for him at all times. Actually, McGrath and Officer David Shrek have both made a large number of arrests there.
"(McGrath) works from four until about midnight and he will go into the buildings to catch you," says one site, run by a girl calling herself Shanna. "He'll shine spotlights and search bushes to find you. If you see a car roaming the roads in Byberry, or zipping through them, it is most likely McGrath."
Said McGrath: "I'm an Internet star now, I guess. They give each other hints about avoiding the police and security. I guess they think we don't read it." Another site run by DarkElf advises visitors to "stay home in your nice warm safe houses next to the fireplace," then proceeds to provide a list of things to bring. They include a flashlight, extra batteries, and a "big stick, just in case you meet bums, or people who are not friendly, for scaring-off purposes only."
A site by someone called Spooky sets the scene: "Padded rooms are still left, solitary confinement rooms are still there. Keep in mind that everything is in (crappy) shape, years of weather has taken its toll."
And yet another site-maker, Shaun O'Boyle, is profiting from Byberry, selling photos of the interior. O'Boyle is an accomplished photographer with pictures of many "industrial ruins" on his site, as well as many remote locations throughout the world.
"Byberry is one of the most-searched names for my Web site," he told the Times. "When I look at my Web logs, Byberry comes up at or near the top every month." On DarkElf's bulletin board page, Byberry remains a daily topic of conversation, perhaps buoyed by recent news stories about redevelopment of the site into corporate and residential complexes, as well as a recent media buzz about the trespassers themselves.
"I must admit that the way it has exploded with comments to my guestbook, and the number of hits, is beyond my wildest imagination," he told the Times. "I've gotten a lot of reader submissions from pics to news, to people just saying hi.
I don't know how to explain the attraction to Byberry. Maybe it's because it's illegal. Or just because it's there. . . . Some people say it's haunted, but who knows for sure?"
This article was written by William Kenny and published by Northeast Times on Wednesday, December 11th 2002 and NOT owned by nor affiliated with opacity.us, but are recorded here solely for educational use. The photographs featured in the article are randomly selected from the Philadelphia State Hospital (Byberry) galleries on opacity.us unless noted otherwise; they may not directly relate to the article subject matter except for the site location - any other relation is purely coincidental.