WWII Pacifists Exposed Mental Ward Horrors

In September of 1942, Warren Sawyer, a 23-year-old conscientious objector, reported for his volunteer assignment as an attendant at a state mental hospital. The young Quaker was one of thousands of pacifists who had refused to fight and instead were assigned to work in places few outsiders got to see — places like Philadelphia State Hospital, best known as Byberry.

"Byberry's the last stop on the bus here in Philadelphia," Sawyer recalls. "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.' "

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 disabilities.

The young pacifists would be changed by what they saw in places like Byberry, and then become a force for change themselves.

Serving The Country At Home

Ten million men were drafted into the military during World War II. But more than 40,000 refused to go to war. These conscientious objectors came from more than 100 religions. But most were from the traditional peace churches: people from the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites and Quakers. Still, they wanted to serve their country. Many did serve in the military in noncombatant roles. Others did alternative service, like the 3,000 who were assigned to 62 state mental hospitals around the country.

wide: Charles Lord, 89, was a conscientious objector during World War II.

hide captionCharles Lord, a conscientious objector during World War II, was assigned to work at a Philadelphia mental institution known as Byberry. He later became a professional photographer and a social worker.

Katie Hayes for NPR

"Well, I called them hellholes," says Sawyer. "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."

The smell got into his clothes and was so strong that even after he washed them, the smell lingered. "In the incontinent ward," he says, "it took a few weeks before you got used to eating supper with the smell all through your clothes and everything."

The "incontinent ward" was 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 one another. In one room, rows and rows of men were strapped and shackled to their bed frames.

Sawyer wrote frequent letters home, and those letters provide some of the best surviving historical record of the conditions in those grim wards and of the work of the conscientious objectors at Byberry.

"It was in B Building, the death house," he started in a letter written in September 1944 that explained one day of violence. "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."

Testing Their Ideals

Sawyer is 89 now. He lives with his wife (who also worked as a volunteer at Byberry) in a Quaker retirement community, in Medford, N.J., outside Philadelphia.

These four men were all conscientious objectors during World War II.

hide captionThese four men were all conscientious objectors during World War II. For each of them, the experiences they had serving their country at home influenced their future career choices. From left to right: Neil Hartman, Warren Sawyer, John and Evert Bartholomew.

Joseph Shapiro/NPR

Among Sawyer's neighbors are other former conscientious objectors, including Evert Bartholomew and his brother John, and Neil Hartman. In Sawyer's living room, they tell stories of the horrific conditions there. They talk about the young sailor who climbed to the top of a building and jumped off to commit suicide and of the time Sawyer made checkerboards for the patients but administrators took them away because they feared the thin boards could be used as weapons.

Sawyer's Letters

Sawyer wrote frequent letters home, detailing the conditions at Byberry and the struggles of the conscientious objectors.

Sawyer describes daily life working as an attendant at Byberry, the second largest mental institution at the time with over 6,000 patients.

Sawyer writes that respect earns respect, though "a few attendants have had their jaws smashed."

Sawyer writes about the rampant decay and the building literally falling apart around them.

"Our work was to try to get attendants to realize these were ordinary people with a little problem and they needed help," says John Bartholomew.

Working in such a brutal and chaotic place tested the men's own ideals of nonviolence.

"But I found out there, the difference between violence and force," says Hartman, who at the time was a young Methodist. "We used force. We'd grab a man and we'd 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."

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.

Hartman says the patients came to appreciate the gentler manner of the conscientious objectors. "Cause 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," he says.

Making A Lasting Impact

Still, the young pacifists worried that it wasn't enough simply to show kindness. With the end of the war nearing, the conscientious objectors soon would be gone, but 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. Sawyer wrote about it in one of his letters home:

"We are working on a carefully laid out plan to blow this place open in two months," he wrote. In secret, they went to newspapers, with details of the scandal inside the institution. "If we COs do nothing about this place to improve it," Sawyer continued, "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."

One of those other fellows was a conscientious objector named Charlie Lord.

Today, Lord, 89, lives in another Quaker retirement community, this one in Tennessee. In the living room of his brick bungalow, he flips through old yellowed photographs. "Here's the original one. Here, 1946. This is the day room with dozens of naked men along the left wall."

At Byberry, Lord sneaked a small Agfa camera in his jacket pocket. It was the camera he'd borrowed to take on his honeymoon. But he'd dropped it in a lake and then felt he had to buy the damaged camera from his friend. Now he could use it to take pictures to show conditions in the A and B buildings.

When no one was watching, he'd quickly shoot a picture without even looking through the viewfinder. "I'd try to fill the frame," he says. "You know, not just have little people far away. I'd get up as close as I could. I was aware of composition. But the main thing was to show the truth."

Over a few months, Lord filled three rolls of film, with 36 exposures each. His pictures showed the truth, in black and white. In the past, reformers and journalists like Dorothea Dix and Nellie Bly sneaked into institutions and wrote exposes about the horrific conditions there.

But Lord was one of the first to ever expose institutions by using the power of photography. "I just thought this would show people what it was like. It's not, not somebody writing to describe something," he says. "They can use flowery words or you know, do whatever they want. But if the photograph is there, you can't deny it."

One of the first people to see the photographs was Eleanor Roosevelt, in September 1945. A meeting was arranged between Roosevelt — whose husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, had died just a few months before — and a couple of the conscientious objectors from Byberry. They brought along Lord's disturbing photos. But Roosevelt at first doubted them.

According to Steven Taylor, a professor of disability studies at Syracuse University, Roosevelt assumed these were photos from some institution in the South. She said she knew about those kinds of conditions in Mississippi or Alabama. When told that they had actually been taken at an institution in Philadelphia, Roosevelt then promised to support the reform campaign and wrote about what she'd seen to government health officials and journalists.

Going Public

Lord's photographs would have their biggest impact several months later, when they were published in Life magazine in May 1946.

Taylor says the images of thin, naked men lined against walls echoed some other disturbing images Americans had just seen. "The immediate reaction by many people to these photographs were that these look[ed] 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," he says. "So it created a kind of mass uproar, nationally."

Of course, one 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 has written a new book about the World War II conscientious objectors called Acts of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions and Religious Objectors, says the photos punctured a national sense of American superiority.

"We saved the world. We stood for human rights; we condemned the Holocaust," he says. "America's 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."

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 the vulnerable people who lived in those state institutions.

The COs from Byberry continued to work for social change, in political activism and in the jobs they chose.

Charlie Lord became a professional photographer and a social worker. The Bartholomew brothers both went into social work. John Bartholomew worked for a mental health group that moved people out of institutions and into small group homes.

Neal Hartman was a teacher. Warren Sawyer sold real estate and is proudest of the way he helped integrate neighborhoods.

Sawyer says what he saw at Byberry — and what he saw could be changed — fortified his dedication to work for human rights. His work at Byberry, he says "changed my life in terms of appreciation of people who are forgotten. It makes me want to make people aware of the many things that need to be done, that people need to be involved in doing things."

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