Old Book Ghost of Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville, Illinois
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When you think of a haunting, the image that comes to your mind might be an old house, hotel, or maybe even a cemetery—but when you think of a scary haunting, one that conjures up nightmares and belongs in a horror movie, you might suddenly think of a crumbling, abandoned hospital, or a creepy asylum full of graffiti, broken glass, and rusty gurneys.
Places like hospitals and asylums have been the source of spooky legends and the subject of ghost hunts for decades. It's so common, in fact, that it's no surprise for any building once used to house the sick to have its own stories of spirits. There's one such place in Bartonville, Illinois, a hospital with an unusual history and plenty of stories of ghosts haunting the deserted grounds.
Bartonville is a village in Peoria county, Illinois (not to be confused with the city of Peoria). A Post Office opened in that part of Illinois in 1878 and was named in honor of W.C.H. Barton of the Barton family from Central Illinois.
The Bartons owned vast swaths of land in Illinois, which housed businesses like farms, distilleries, saw and grist mills, and banks. Mining was one of the biggest industries, and back in the early days of Bartonville, it was said to be "populated by dogs and drunken miners." The village didn't offer much in the way of entertainment back then except for saloons.
Bartonville voted to incorporate in 1903, a few years after Illinois General Assembly decided to establish the Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane and build it right in Bartonville.
Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane
No modern hospital uses the word "asylum" anymore, probably because of the well-documented and horrible history of electric shock treatments, barred windows and doors, solitary confinement, bloodletting, ice baths, and lobotomies in early state-run institutions built to house people with mental illnesses and keep them away from "sane" society. Some traumatic events like the ones I just listed can create the circumstances surrounding ghostly or even poltergeist activity.
But what of the Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane? What was it like? What could have caused the stories of hauntings on the hospital grounds?
Construction began in 1895 and was completed by 1902. The first building of the thirty-three was torn down and rebuilt almost immediately, although accounts of why vary somewhat.
On February 10, 1902, the Illinois Hospital for the Incurable Insane began operations. Patients deemed "incurable" from all over the state were transferred to Bartonville and placed under Dr. George Zeller, the first hospital superintendent. Twenty-five years later, in 1927, the hospital's patient population was 2,650, and 13,510 patients had been admitted.
During Dr. George A. Zeller's time in the hospital, the ghost stories began. In a time of asylums with bars like a prison, ice baths, and lobotomies were commonplace, what horrible, awful, terrible things were Dr. George Zeller and the staff doing to the patients? It was something that medical professionals came from around the world to witness.
The answer may shock you.
George A. Zeller, MD, believed in considerate, gentle treatment and care of the mentally ill. Some of his innovations included: non-restraint of patients, non-imprisonment of patients (removing all bars and gratings from doors and windows and eliminating solitary confinement), and limiting staff work hours to eight hours per day. He also put women in charge of the men's wards instead of men, and Zeller completely abolished administering narcotic drugs as he considered it a medically induced form of restraint, believing that patients who became agitated needed personal care and attention—not physical or medical restraints. In addition to all of these radical ideas of the time, he also built out the entire hospital grounds, all 33 buildings, to have a more "home" atmosphere in both design and operation, and included social events and amenities for patients.
I know, right?
Actually, Dr. George A. Zeller may have singlehandedly changed the entire trajectory of the treatment of mentally ill people and pushed medical practitioners around the world in a much better direction. He's well-known and well-respected. This breaks the idea of ghosts coming about due to traumatic, violent, and stressful events. So, who are the ghosts, and where did they come from?
Old Book Ghost & Other Hauntings
Dr. Zeller himself wrote about hauntings around the hospital in his diary, and reports of ghosts continued for decades. The most well-known of these is called "Old Book." Its name comes from a patient named Manual Bookbinder, or "A. Bookbinder," buried in the grave marked "713" in the hospital cemetery. Old Book, while living, was supposedly mute, so no one knew his real name. He worked in a printing house before being brought to the hospital. Old Book was among the most popular patients, and the staff loved him. During his time at the hospital, he worked as a gravedigger, and after burial services took place for a patient, Old Book would lean against an old elm tree, where he wept for the dead.
When Old Book died, hundreds of people turned out for his funeral on the hospital grounds. As his casket was being lowered into the ground, it suddenly became lighter, and the crowd heard the familiar sound of Old Book weeping against the old elm tree. They turned to find Old Book leaning against the tree, crying—actually saw him, a full-body apparition. He disappeared, and his casket was immediately opened. Old Book's body was inside, undisturbed, resting peacefully. Within days of his burial, the old elm tree began to die. Several crews tried to remove the dead tree but couldn't go through with it because of the sound of weeping from it whenever they tried. Eventually, one man took an axe to the tree and was met with an ear-piercing wail, as if he'd just struck someone with an axe. Disturbed, the man stopped and left the tree alone. Some years later, lightning struck the old elm tree during a storm, and crews were finally able to remove it, as the crying had ceased.
There has been a lot of other ghostly activity on the hospital grounds over the years, from disembodied voices to a woman in white appearing in windows. The ghost of a girl who likes to play with dolls was known to live in the basement of the Bowen building, and sometimes a shadow chased people up the stairs and out of the basement. People have also reported the sound of heavy boots walking around the Men's Ward, and they've been unable to find the source of the sounds. There are so many stories of strange activity on the hospital grounds that I'd need to write a book about them to fit it all. Luckily for us, author Sylvia Shults wrote two of them (noted below in Relevant & Related), which I'd highly recommend for all of the details about the ghosts of Peoria State Hospital, and she goes into even more detail about Old Book, and what Dr. Zeller had to say about it in his later years.
Peoria State Hospital Now
Not much remains of the hospital now, and the Bowen Building was demolished in 2017. There's still an ongoing effort to save some buildings and preserve the stories of the hospital, staff, and patients. Check out a lot more of the current happenings at Peoria State Hospital & Museum, where you can see more photos, read more stories, and even find information on guided tours. You can even schedule a private paranormal investigation to see some strange activity yourself.
If you can't make it in person, you can also follow along with DustyTreasureHunters on YouTube on a Tour of the Peoria State Hospital Museum.
And, if you want to take a trip back in time, Richard Weiss uploaded about 15 minutes of footage from the 1940s of Peoria State Hospital. It's surreal to watch, and it's evident that the place was full of life and that the patients and staff had a place that was entirely their own and so very different than what the rest of the world was doing. Perhaps some hauntings come about because of the pleasant memories they had during life. Still, there are those shadows that chased people out of the basement. I do wonder what that's about.
Relevant & Related
- Check out a documentary from 2015 called For the Incurable Insane that details Peoria State Hospital, Dr. Zeller, and the challenges facing mental health.
- Follow along in a daytime Tour of the Bartonville State Hospital and another one right here.
- Author Sylvia Shults has a few books available about the ghosts of Peoria State Hospital: Fractured Spirits and another one, Fractured Souls: More Hauntings at the Peoria State Hospital. You can also listen to a fascinating interview with Sylvia Shults about Peoria State Hospital here. Oh, and another interview with Sylvia Shults.
- Gary L. Lisman and Arlene Parr wrote Bittersweet Memories: A History of the Peoria State Hospital, a book that captured the personal memories of patients and staff.
- Ghost Hunters visited Peoria State Hospital in 2013 in the episode Prescription For Fear. I ran some Google Searches on it, but I couldn't find a place to purchase it, especially streaming. You can recreate my Google Search right here if you're interested.
- Season 4 of Ghost Asylum visited Peoria State Hospital in Episode 3—available on Amazon.
- Want to read about some other ghosts? Check out my articles: The Ridgeway Ghost of Wisconsin | Lydia's Ghost at Red Onion Saloon