WWII Pacifists Exposed Mental Ward Horrors During World War II, several thousand conscientious objectors who refused to go to war were instead assigned to work in state mental hospitals. Many of the institutions were filthy, run-down and staffed with abusive workers. Charlie Lord worked at one in Philadelphia and secretly photographed the horrific conditions.

WWII Pacifists Exposed Mental Ward Horrors

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122017757/122042915" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Ten million men were drafted into the military during World War II. Of those, more than 40,000 refused to fight. These conscientious objectors often felt the public's contempt despite the fact many still served in noncombat roles. Some 3,000 objectors were assigned to work in places that few outsiders ever got to see: state mental hospitals. They saw squalid conditions and the abusive treatment of patients. Then they tried to change things and tell the world.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: For Americans, World War II was a fight of good standing up to evil. Millions of citizens became soldiers and went to war.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #1: It was two years ago that our boys from Jefferson left for training...

SHAPIRO: This is from a U.S. government film that urged men to join the war effort.

Unidentified Man #1: We had a little parade for them and mothers cried a bit, but we all thought nothing had happened to them.

SHAPIRO: Not so well-known is the story of the conscientious objectors. They rejected war as a way to resolve conflict. Many were Mennonites, Quakers, or from the Church of the Brethren. And although they refused to go to war, they, too, wanted to serve their country. So thousands agreed to work at state mental hospitals. The young pacifists would be changed by what they saw there, and then become a force for change themselves.

One young Quaker, Warren Sawyer, took the city bus to a campus of old brick buildings with fenced-in courtyards. It was the Philadelphia State Hospital, best known as Byberry.

Mr. WARREN SAWYER: Byberry is the last stop on the bus here in Philadelphia. And any young man on the bus, other people knew that we were COs working at the hospital. And they'd make different kinds of remarks, supposedly talking to each other, but hoping that we hear - and, you know, yellowbellies, slackers.

SHAPIRO: Those slurs were harsh - but not nearly as harsh as what awaited the young men inside the gates of the chaotic and overcrowded hospital for people with mental illness and intellectual disability.

Mr. SAWYER: Well, I called it hellholes, the word I used - terribly overcrowded. All we did, and all we could do, was just custodial care. Because when you have three men taking care of 350 incontinent patients with everything all over the floor - feces and urine and all that kind of thing - in the incontinent ward, it took a few weeks before you got used to eating supper, with the smell all through your clothes and everything.

SHAPIRO: The incontinent ward, that's what the men called A Building. It was a large, open room with a concrete slab for a floor. There were no chairs. There were no activities, no therapy, not even a radio to listen to. So hundreds of men - most of them naked - walked about aimlessly, or hunched on the floor and huddled against the filthy bare walls.

Nearby was B Building. It was called the violent ward, or the death house, because angry men sometimes violently attacked each other. In one room, rows and rows of men were strapped and shackled to their bed frames.

Mr. SAWYER: It was in B Building, the death house. This new accident happened on Sunday, 9/3/44.

SHAPIRO: Sawyer wrote frequent letters home to his two aunts on the farm where he'd grown up in New York.

Mr. SAWYER: Due to the shortage of cuffs and straps and restraint locks that has prevailed in B Building for some time, one of the patients was able to get himself loose. He was a very dangerous fellow. He only had one cuff and strap on, and he got out. He had a spoon that had been broken off at the end and was sharpened almost to a knife edge. After he was loose, he went to another patient and jabbed him in the side of the neck on top of his shoulder, and drove the spoon down about one inch deep, just missing the jugular vein.

SHAPIRO: Warren Sawyer's letters provide some of the best surviving historical record of the conditions at the hospital, and the work of the conscientious objectors at Byberry.

Sawyer is 89 now. He lives with his wife at a Quaker retirement community outside Philadelphia.

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible) says, stay there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Among his neighbors are other former conscientious objectors. They gather in Sawyer's living room to share stories. Evert Bartholomew and his brother John, and Neil Hartman.

Mr. EVERT BARTHOLOMEW: There was only one suicide that I can remember from Byberry, and that was very, very sad. He was about 20, 23 years old. And lo and behold, he got out one day and climbed up the side of the wall and then jumped off.

Mr. JOHN BARTHOLOMEW: Sure, I saw that guy. He climbed up and so I said, Marv(ph), we're going to put mattresses on the sidewalk. So we get mattresses and sure enough, after we ran out of mattresses, he dived onto the sidewalk. We tried to help him. What are we going to do?

Mr. NEIL HARTMAN: We were too young - young sailor.

SHAPIRO: To work in such a brutal and chaotic place tested the young men's own ideals of nonviolence. Hartman was a young Methodist.

Mr. HARTMAN: But I found out there the difference between violence and force. We used force, and then we grab a man and we pin him, and then maybe get a nurse, if we could, to give him a shot. But we didn't use violence. And the difference was, it wasn't unusual next day for the patient to come around and thank us for not using violence when we could have.

SHAPIRO: And there was lots of violence at Byberry. Many of the regular attendants were drunks who'd get fired at one state hospital and just move on to a job at the next. Some kept control by hitting patients with things like sawed-off broom handles or a rubber hose filled with buckshot.

Neil Hartman says the patients came to appreciate the gentler manner of the COs.

Mr. HARTMAN: Because they knew, the regular attendants, one of their tricks was to use a wet towel and put it around their neck and squeeze it. It, of course, choked them awful, but it didn't make any mark on them so no state inspector could catch up with them.

SHAPIRO: Still, the young pacifists worried that it wasn't enough simply to show kindness. By 1946, the war was over, and the conscientious objectors soon would be gone. They didn't want to leave behind a place where untrained and underpaid attendants ruled patients by brutality and violence. So the conscientious objectors came up with a daring plan.

Warren Sawyer wrote about it in one of his letters home.

Mr. SAWYER: We are working on a carefully laid-out plan to blow this place open in two months.

SHAPIRO: In secret, they went to newspapers with details of the scandal inside the institution.

Mr. SAWYER: If we COs do nothing about this place to improve it, our stay here has been to no avail, and we have accomplished nothing. Two other fellows and I are heading up this thing to launch a campaign and gather material.

SHAPIRO: One of those other fellows was a conscientious objector named Charlie Lord. Today, Lord is 89 and lives in another Quaker retirement community, this one in Tennessee. In the living room of his brick bungalow, he flips through old, yellowed photographs.

Mr. CHARLIE LORD: Here's the original one. Here, 1946. This is the day room with dozens of naked men along the left wall.

SHAPIRO: At Byberry, Lord snuck a small Agfa camera in his jacket pocket. When no one was watching, he'd quickly shoot a picture without even looking through the viewfinder.

Mr. LORD: I'd get up close as I could. I was aware of composition, but the main thing was to show the truth.

SHAPIRO: Over a few months, Lord filled three rolls of film with 36 exposures each. His pictures showed the truth, in black and white.

Mr. LORD: Look at the walls and the ceiling of that building. Just not fit for human habitation.

SHAPIRO: In the past, reformers and journalists like Dorothea Dix and Nellie Bly snuck into institutions and wrote exposes about the horrific conditions there.

But Charlie Lord was one of the first ever to expose institutions by using the power of photography.

Mr. LORD: Well, I just thought this would show people what it was like. It's not, not somebody writing to describe something. They can use flowery words or, you know, do whatever they want. But if the photograph is there, you can't deny it.

SHAPIRO: Lord's photos appeared in Life magazine in 1946.

Syracuse University professor Steven Taylor says the images of thin, naked men lined against walls echoed some other disturbing images Americans had just seen.

Professor STEVEN TAYLOR (Disability Studies, Syracuse University): The immediate reaction by many people to these photographs were that these looked like the Nazi concentration camps. People could not believe that this was the way we treated people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities in our society. So it created a, you know, mass uproar nationally.

SHAPIRO: You can't equate the conditions in American mental hospitals back then - no matter how inhumane - with the extermination of more than 6 million Jews and others. In fact, among those killed by the Nazis were up to 250,000 people with disabilities. They were mainly people with mental illness and intellectual disability - the same disabilities as the people who lived at American institutions like Byberry.

Still, Taylor, who's written a book about the World War II conscientious objectors, said the photos punctured a national sense of American superiority.

Prof. TAYLOR: We saved the world. We stood for human rights. We condemned the Holocaust. American confidence was soaring in the immediate, post-World War II era. We were morally superior. We were militarily superior. And I think this was a stark reminder that America wasn't perfect; America had its shortcomings.

SHAPIRO: In postwar America, the country turned to righting those shortcomings. Conscientious objectors from Byberry started a national association that helped train and professionalize workers at state hospitals. And most of all, they helped improve the lives of vulnerable people who lived in those state institutions.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.