Mystery still surrounds ex-Negro Leaguer, beaten to death at Byberry mental hospital

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An Inquirer file photo showing Philadelphia State Hospital, better known as Byberry, in 1945.

Even today, a copy of Alexander Albritton's death certificate doesn't include an official cause of death.

Instead, the space allotted for that information bears the remnants of a stamp, in all capital letters, which reads "PENDING INQUEST."

That seal that was originally placed there on February 6, 1940, several days after the former Negro League player was beaten to death by an attendant at the notorious Philadelphia State Hospital (better known as Byberry), where - according to a story that ran in the Philadelphia Tribune that same week - Albritton had been committed a year earlier "following a nervous breakdown."

His is a haunting story that mixes the American pastime with a history of racial and social stigma and a chilling history of a now long-gone institution that was for decades rife with mistreatment, abuse and other horrors for its mentally ill patients, people who had been shuttered away from society because of their health condition.

Within a year, hospital attendant Frank Weinand, the man responsible for Albritton's death, was absolved by the legal system. Furthermore, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article on August 24, 1940, stating that despite being "the major target of critical blasts by successive grand juries, [Byberry] was one of six public institutions formally praised yesterday by the August Grand Jury."

The suspicious lack of an official cause of death is not the only mystery stemming from his death certificate. It also states that Albritton was to be buried in Eden Memorial Cemetery, a historic African-American burial ground in Collingdale. But when asked about the details of Albritton's burial and grave, Eden staffers found no record of anyone by that name being interred there between 1939 and 1941.

By all indications, Albritton - who lived on Dickinson Street in Philadelphia and pitched for the Darby-based Hilldale Club, among other Negro Leagues teams, in the 1920s - has been erased from historical record.

Even his birth and roots are shrouded in mystery. His World War I draft registration card states that he was born in Live Oak, Fla., but Florida actually has two towns named Live Oak.

Also unclear is the exact date Albritton was born to parents Mathew and Charlotte Albritton, who themselves were from North Carolina and South Carolina, respectively. His draft card states Feb. 12, 1894, while his death certificate just lists it as "Feb. 12" and that he was 42 when he died.

At some point the Albritton family migrated to Ben Hill County in Georgia, where Alex seems to have spent the bulk of his youth. After marrying his wife, Marie, the couple moved to Florida and then moved to Philly in 1918.

Outside of his baseball career, Albritton filled largely menial jobs - the 1930 U.S. Census dubbed him a construction worker, while his death certificate calls him simply a "laborer" - which was not uncommon at all for Negro Leagues players at the time.

On the field, he was a marginal player at best, never making much of a mark on the history of the highest levels of segregated African-American baseball, even during his peak season of 1924.

In his comprehensive tome, "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues," James Riley wrote that "despite being a hard worker and always ready to pitch [Albritton] never really made it big. ... He was a fair pitcher and could beat the white semi-pro teams but was not effective against black major-league teams."

Albritton's contemporaries concurred.

In 1925, player-manager Ben Taylor, who skippered Albritton on the Washington/Wilmington Potomacs, told the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper that Albritton "is a fair pitcher, but is too light for the big leagues. However, he can beat most any white club and will earn his salary pitching against the semi-pros. He is a hard worker and is always ready to work."

And Modern Negro Leagues historian Gary Ashwill says that Albritton did nothing that really made him stand out among his peers on the diamond.

However, that doesn't mean the story of Albritton's life and horrific demise - he was found dead two days after Weinand violently subdued him after an outburst, seated on a bench with several broken ribs, a punctured lung and bloody contusions scattered across his body - should be forgotten, ignored or marginalized.

At the time, the African-American press in Philadelphia jumped on the fact that Albritton was a local lad who had pitched in the Negro Leagues.

"Ex-Baseball Star Beat To Death in Byberry" trumpeted a headline in the Feb. 8, 1940, Philadelphia Tribune. The story, written by John A. Saunders, stated: "The victim of a severe beating, the results of which were five broken ribs, a punctured lung and lacerated lip, Allbritton [sic], former baseball player with the Hilldale Club, was found dead last Saturday, seated upright on a bench in the violent ward of the hospital. ...

"Known in the sporting world as 'Brit', Allbritton was at one time a star pitcher with Hilldale, the Washington Braves, Baltimore Black Sox and New York Black Yankees. He retired as an active player in 1926."

Saunders reported that Albritton's wife Marie - who didn't learn of her husband's death until the following day - had retained an attorney to press the issue, and an investigation by the local coroner was launched that resulted in Weinand being arrested on a homicide charge, only to later be cleared of any wrongdoing.

Perhaps one of the best testaments to Albritton's tale, and the saga of Byberry itself, came just a couple weeks after his death, in a statement local VFW leader C.L. Hopkins made to the Tribune for its Feb. 15, 1940, edition.

"The death of Alexander Allbritton [sic] at Byberry last week is an example of the deplorable conditions existing in this institution," Hopkins stated.

"It is true that Allbritton is dead," he added, "But do not let the brutality he suffered before his death go unchallenged. As individuals and organizations - clubs, lodges, etc. - we ought to join hands and true to adjust these conditions."

Mysterious, violent and frightening deaths were apparently common at Byberry for decades and Albritton's death serves as an example of the murky and, in many ways, downright creepy history of Byberry.

The hospital, which officially closed in 1990 and most of which was demolished beginning in 2006, was investigated numerous times over its roughly nine-decade history.

At various times those probes discovered not only horrifying living conditions - naked male patients, inmates sleeping in the halls, raw sewage on the walls, abused and exploited patients - but drastic lacks of staffing that crippled the doctors' and staffers' ability to effectively treat patients.

In fact, the investigation that ensued after Albritton's death found that the amount of staff was woefully inadequate. When a 75-year-old patient died mysteriously in 1941, followed by the death of a third inmate two months later, the calls for reform only heightened.

In the early 1970s, the Inquirer published a lengthy article that exposed the sordid, macabre history of the massive facility, including a list of dozens of patients who were killed by other patients or inadvertently by staffers, as well as those who committed suicide or wandered off the grounds only to die of exposure or hunger.

As it is, the ex-Hilldale hurler's life and passing are only remembered by a precious few, or in newspaper archives or other databases.

In a way, the twisted painting that is Alex Albritton's death just faded into the canvas of Byberry's history. If it wasn't for his status as a former pro baseball player, his violent end might have been swallowed up altogether, completely and thoroughly lost to history.