If for some reason it wasn’t made abundantly clear by my 1,000-word love letter to pumpkin spice: I’m a fan of the autumn months.
October, in particular. It’s when the leaves start changing; it’s when the heat of the summer finally retreats to the south, and—thanks to Halloween—it’s when spooky stories are in abundant supply.
Yes, I love me some spooky stories. Give me your headless horsemen, your Bell Witch, your dancing skeletons, your Jersey Devil running amok in the pinelands. Can’t get enough of it.
So naturally, my attention is drawn to the setting of Pennsylvania Hospital. Think about it: A 265-year-old health care facility in a major city. What a setting! How many millions have to have gone through its doors? How many spooky stories could that centuries-old architecture tell?
Enter: Stacey Peeples, curator and lead archivist at Pennsylvania Hospital. She’s been there for almost 16 years, and she’s got an answer to the question, “What goes bump in the night at Pennsylvania Hospital?”
Her response: Not much. But she understands where the assumption might come from.
“Obviously when you have a building that’s as old as this one, and you’ve had so many hundreds of patients come through here, people assume there’s bound to be something going on,” she said. “It’s an old institution; there are lots of people who have been here. Some have died here. You can see where people would make connections.”
“Especially when you think about medicine in the past, and how different it was, and how traumatic certain things could be,” she continued. “When you think about the amount of women who died in childbirth, or surgeries where the patient didn’t make it through, I think it lends itself to the fact that you’d assume there are spirits here with unfinished business. That would seem like a natural thing when you’re talking about any hospital, especially one that’s 265 years old.”
Stacey told me that while the setting can, on occasion, lend itself to the imagination running wild, the reality is that the halls of Pennsylvania Hospital aren’t host to any sort of “paranormal activity” you wouldn’t find, say, in your own home.
“One of the stories people also tell when they talk about the hospital—and especially when they do the walking tours—regards lights going on and off,” Peeples said. “People for years have claimed they’ve seen the lights in the amphitheater going on and off.”
Creepy, if you’re alone when it happens—but cause to believe there’s something supernatural afoot? Stacey doesn’t think so.
“I don’t really think there’s anything to that,” she said. “That’s one of those things where it could have been something as simple as someone on security going about their rounds and turning the light off, but people like to read into it.”
Stacey went on to note most of the stories she hears about tend to be things that have happened in the evenings, when the hospital and surrounding buildings are at their most quiet.
“Whether that’s peoples’ overactive imaginations or not is a matter of interpretation,” Peeples said. “Is it that there’s something to it, or is it just that all of the stuff we’ve read and watched is working through our minds—and we’re just anticipating something that really isn’t there?”
Some stories do get more traction than others, though. For example, if you were to—like I did—run a few Google searches for ghosts at Pennsylvania Hospital, you might run across the story of William Penn’s ghost. Apparently, at midnight, ol’ Willy’s ghost climbs down from his statue on the Pennsylvania Hospital grounds and wanders around—presumably to check on whether the Eagles have won a Super Bowl yet.
Stacey has thoughts on that particular yarn.
“I actually think it’s kind of funny, because William Penn didn’t even die here in Philadelphia,” she said. “He died back in England. So it seems kind of ridiculous, but people like the idea of it actually happening. It endures because it’s one of those harmless stories you can tell. They talk about it on the walking ghost tours.”
Okay, so the story itself is kind of silly, but where did it come from? Someone had to have experienced something, right?
“I think it was just somebody’s imagination,” Peeples said. “It was convenient that there was a statue on the front lawn, and when you look at what was going on in the nineteenth century, with the whole idea of séances and contacting spirits, I think that’s where you see the attraction. Back then, people would talk about seeing ghosts dancing on the front lawn. What that has translated to in our time is that people will occasionally hear something in a hallway.”
All that being said, there are parts of the building that seem to breed more reports of random odd occurrences. When asked if there were any such parts of the hospital, Peeples pointed to the west wing, which is where mentally ill patients were taken when that area was added on in 1796.
“When people talk about hearing doors or footsteps, it’s usually in the west wing,” she said. “That’s probably the most common sort of story we hear.”
So if you’re like me, you might get to the tail end of a conversation like that and wish there were more to go on—that maybe there’s someone from another time floating around the halls of Pennsylvania Hospital, doing things that can’t quite be explained.
Stacey gets that. Measured as her response was, she didn’t entirely discount the possibility of ghostly activity. She just thinks us thrill-seekers might be disappointed—and noted that, even if such stories did exist, it’s her job to protect them as she would any historical record there.
“Whatever may or may not exist here, it’s my job to preserve and protect these records—which is really preserving and protecting the histories of whomever was here at Pennsylvania Hospital,” she said. “We want to treat these records with the respect they should be given, and for anyone that may be lingering … the job here is to protect those stories.”