Public Health

A Peaceful War On Mental Institutions

One of the photos taken in the 1940s of Philadelphia State Hospital by conscientious objector Charlie Lord. Charles Lord hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Lord
Patients at Philadelphia State Hospital in the 1940s

One of the photos taken in the 1940s of Philadelphia State Hospital by conscientious objector Charlie Lord.

Charles Lord

Not many people know the story of the World War II conscientious objectors who publicly exposed the horrid conditions in America's mental hospitals. But it's an important part of the history of improving care for people with mental illness and mental retardation.

Some 3,000 men who refused to go to war for religious reasons were instead assigned to state mental hospitals. The conscientious objectors, or COs, came from over 100 religions, but most were Mennonites, Quakers or from the Church of the Brethern.

The violence and bedlam these young men saw behind the doors closed to the public was shocking. Regular attendants tried to maintain order with sawed-off broom handles and rubber hoses filled with buckshot. The COs tried a different tack — to treat the patients humanely. And when the war was over, the young men came out determined to change and improve conditions.

They did so with the evidence that they documented themselves. Charlie Lord was assigned to work as an attendant at Philadelphia State Hospital, also known as Byberry. Lord's photos are stunning —and not just for their shocking content. These black and white photos are masterfully composed. They're filled with telling details: The peeling of brick, a puddle of urine on the floor, the slouch of a body, and sometimes with a surprising moment of beauty — like a ray of sun coming through a window.

Lord's accomplishment is even more amazing when you consider that he didn't have time to set up and think out his photos. When it was his shift to work, he'd hide a small Agfa camera in his pocket. When no one was watching, he'd shoot off a few pictures. These photos, provided to us by Lord, came from just three rolls of black and white film he shot over a few months. Lord, who lives in a Quaker retirement community in Tennessee turns 90 next week. (His son Ron tells us he had successful aortic valve replacement surgery this week and is in a hospital intensive care unit as this piece runs on the radio. We're glad he's recovering well.)

Warren Sawyer, another of the young pacifists at Byberry, wrote weekly letters home to the two aunts who raised him from the time he was a young teen. Those letters are detailed, idealistic, passionate, and filled with lovely writing. In the radio piece, Sawyer reads some of those letters. Here's another.

In one letter, Sawyer wrote about how the men tried to keep true to their pacifist ideals amidst the brutality of the institution. He writes about going to work at B Building, which was called "the death house" or "the violent ward" because men often attacked each other and in one room there were rows of patients shackled to their bed frames.

"This is a perfect setting in which to demonstrate the superiority of pacifism over brute force in handling tense situations," he writes home on April 27, 1943. "If you can convey to patients that you're not afraid of them and respect them as individuals — even though you're shaking in your boots — they return your respect. A few attendants have had their jaws smashed, but they're usually the ones who approach troublesome patients with broom handles and other similar weapons. When patients sense that you feel safe and have the situation in command without the threat of force, they are much more amendable to following instructions. I've already broken up several fights using this technique, and it works."

I found Sawyer, Lord and the other COs thanks to Steven Taylor, a professor of disability studies at Syracuse University. This year, Taylor published a book telling their story, Acts of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious Objectors (Syracuse University Press). I'd first heard the story of the young pacifists from another CO, Alex Sareyan, who wrote a 1994 book The Turning Point: How Men of Conscience Brought About Major Change in the Care of America's Mentally Ill. (American Psychiatric Press).

Sareyan, like many of these men, dedicated his life to working in mental health.



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