Bryn Athyn, PA and Urban Legends

Until I was 12, our family lived at the edge of Willow Grove, in Upper Moreland Township. We were a short walk from a forested area of the township along Edge Hill Road, abutting Huntington Valley and Lower Moreland Township. Not far from our house was a wooded area with a ravine that was known as Fox’s Den. We never saw any foxes there, but we had fun playing war there.

Even today, the area down around the intersection of Edge Hill and Huntington Roads is still fairly rural, especially south of the Abington Hospital’s June Fete fairgrounds. I have a vivid memory of driving down Huntington Rd. past several fieldstone houses with my father and grandfather. My father wanted to show us the 19th-century stone bridge that crossed the Pennypack Creek and then the now defunct Reading Railroad Fox Chase-Newtown line near the site of the deadliest train accident in the history of the Reading Railroad in 1921 that resulted in 26 deaths. I recall the three of us walking to the creek side and admiring the bridge, now sadly gone, and the deep woods beyond when a PA state trooper approached us and suggested that we might want to leave since there were some “bad people” in the area.

A few years later, my next-door neighbor Ricky McNamara and I were playing one evening when his older sister Linda’s boyfriend, Larry, suggested that we join them for a little ride. To my horror, Larry drove down to the same stone bridge and told us about the Hookman, an urban legend that is widely retold all around the country.

In Larry’s telling, the Hookman was the son of prominent Swedenborgians from Bryn Athyn, a somewhat insular community beyond the Pennypack Creek known for its stunning cathedral and the palatial residences of the Pitcairn family, the Swedenborgian Church’s benefactors. The Pitcairn fortune derived from their ownership of PPG Industries.

The son had been committed to the notorious Byberry State Mental Institution, a Dickensian complex that was the site of ghastly surgeries and misery. It was closed down in 1990 and razed later. During his stay there, he lost his right hand in an accident and was fitted with a stainless steel hook. According to Larry, he escaped and was living in the woods, perhaps receiving covert assistance from his family. While many readers are familiar with the legend, in this version high school students (I recall from Bishop McDevitt) used to drive over the stone bridge and the railroad tracks to a Lover’s Lane in the woods. The couple in the legend were making out in the car when the AM radio disc jockey interrupted the program to warn teenagers that an escaped Byberry patient had been spotted in the Pennypack Woods. The girl suggested that they leave the woods immediately, but her boyfriend protested that it was probably a hoax. A few minutes later they heard trampling noises near the car whereupon the teens finally pulled out of the woods and raced home. When the girl opened the door, she was horrified to find a hook caught in the door handle.

I’ve retained a morbid curiosity about this area, still secluded and rural despite its proximity to the Philadelphia city line. Now the area has been converted to a superb conservancy, with miles of trails and preserved farmland.

The village of Bryn Athyn is particularly intriguing. It is the Vatican of the Swedenborgians, followers of the Swedish theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose gravesite I happened upon when visiting Stockholm’s Old Town in 2002. The denomination is officially the General Church of the New Jerusalem. As a child, I was fascinated to see the Gothic tower in the distance, looming above the woods.

The cathedral was built in the English Gothic style in the early 20th century, with Norman and Romanesque accents. Glencairn, the original Pitcairn mansion next door, is now the church’s Glencairn Museum. The village also is the site of a college and private day school associated with the church.

The Asplundhs are a well-known Swedenborgian family. They own a national landscaping and tree maintenance company. One of my high school classmates married into the family.

The exquisite residential neighborhoods of the village feature trophy assets. My sister stated that it’s difficult to buy a house in Bryn Athyn since many of the sales are private “pocket” listings.

During the same week in late 2018 I also did a 50-mile round trip on the Perkiomen Trail and connected to the northbound Schuylkill River Trail at Valley Forge. For years, I’ve enjoyed hiking along the trail to its starting point in Green Lane Park. Like the Pennypack Trail, it runs along a long-abandoned Reading Railroad line. At the halfway point, I saw a hulking abandoned factory looming above the trail on the Chester County side of the Schuylkill River, just above the old industrial town of Spring City. After researching the site, I discovered that it was the old power plant for the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, another notorious state institution originally called the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. As in the case with Byberry, media investigations of the horrors visited upon the largely teen and preteen inmates at Pennhurst led to its closing in 1987. Reportedly, some parents committed their unwanted children there. It’s said to be haunted and the abandoned institution has been used as a Halloween horror house in recent years. Seeing the abandoned power plant on an overcast November afternoon was spooky enough. The three images below are from photo archives.

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