Spotlight: Bartonville’s Insane Asylum
It has had many names over the past 115 years….Peoria State Hospital, Bartonville State Hospital, Illinois General Asylum for the Insane, and Illinois Asylum for the Incurably Insane . It was first built in 1895 in Bartonville, IL but was never used until 1902 when it was taken over by Dr. George Zeller who operated it as a hospital facility for the mentally ill. Patients from all over who were deemed “incurably insane” were tranferred to the Bartonville Hospital under the care of Dr. Zeller whose new approach to treatment was unheard of in those times. He focused on a patient’s strength and worked toward their improvement and eventual discharge from the hospital. He wanted to change the public’s skewed and negative perception of “mentally ill.” At its peak, the hospital housed 2800 patients and had over 30 buildings . It operated until 1972 when it closed and never reopened. It is currently owned by the non-profit group “Save the Bowen, Inc.” who are trying to restore it.
The Peoria State Hospital isn’t without its ghost stories, since many patients ended up spending their life and dying in the hospital and many died during the influenza outbreak. The hospital’s most famous ghost was documented by Dr. Zeller himself. A patient who never uttered a word was tranferred to Bartonville. The only information the doctors had was that he used to be a bookbinder, so he was known throughout the hospital as “Old Book.” He was beloved by the hospital and staff due to his gentle nature and hard work. He had the job of digging graves for the deceased patients and was known to sit by a particular elm tree after every memorial service and cry. When “Old Book” died, the whole hospital came to his memorial service. When they heard sobbing, over 200 witnesses saw the ghost of “Old Book” crying under his elm tree. Dr. Zeller wrote in his journal that so many saw the apparation that they had to open the casket to be assured that “Old Book” was in there. Since then, numerous reports of apparitions of patients and people in old nurse’s uniforms have been seen.
For a short time, tours were offered to the public to raise money for its restoration (a surprising opportunity as the property had been strictly off limits since it closed). I received this news and immediately went down for a tour, which I loved! Much of the building was in ruin but I loved it because it was more real, untouched by modern devices….a lot of the building didn’t even have electricity. You brought your flashlight, your camera, and your courage. Unfortunately, the building had fallen victim to vandalism and is littered with graffitti and broken windows (a word of warning to the would-be trepassers….the area is heavily monitored by area police). When I last checked the “Save the Bowen” website (http://peoria-asylum.com), they had suspended all tours and are currently battling the local government administration. I hope they can resolve their issues and continue tours to save and restore this vital piece of Illinois history. Below I posted some pictures from the tour I took in 2008 with my friend Emily.