The ruins of Bartonville Asylum, or as it is more commonly known, Peoria State Hospital, are located west of Peoria in the small town of Bartonville, which lies directly across the Illinois River. Troy Taylor popularized this location via several books including Haunted Illinois (1999, 2004) and Haunted Decatur Revisited (2000), although it had long been an object of local curiosity. The property owners have not been amused by the asylum’s growing notoriety, and police regularly patrol the premises looking for trespassers.
According to Taylor, Bartonville State Hospital began its life in 1885 as an empty shell and faux medieval castle. No patients were ever housed or treated in the building and it was torn down in 1897.
The institution was rebuilt and reopened in 1902 with a new name and a new superintendent. Now called Peoria State Hospital, a progressive physician named Dr. George A. Zeller took over the facility and instituted new, more humane treatments for mental illness. Small cottages were built to house the patients and a dorm housed the full-time staff. Essentially a self-contained community, the grounds also contained a store, a bakery, and a kitchen.
The main story associated with Bartonville Asylum concerns the unusual circumstances surrounding the death of one of the patients, A. Bookbinder. Dr. Zeller assigned Bookbinder to the hospital’s burial corps, and he performed his job admirably. Old Book, as he was sometimes called, mourned the passing of each and every person he helped intern in the cemetery.
When Bookbinder died, Dr. Zeller wrote that four hundred staff and patients observed his ghost mourning at his own funeral just as he had for countless others while he was alive. They even opened the coffin to confirm that Old Book was really dead. His corpse was securely inside.
The strange story does not end there. The elm tree on which Bookbinder had leaned and cried began to wither and die. Work crews attempted to remove it several times, but each time they were scared off by moans that seemed to come from within the tree itself. Years later, the elm finally succumbed to nature when it fell over in a storm.
There have been other reports of paranormal experiences at Bartonville, but none of them are very specific. In their Field Guide to Illinois Hauntings, Jim Graczyk and Donna Boonstra generically claim “numerous other events have been known to happen throughout the various buildings.”
The Peoria State Hospital for the Incurable Insane, along with many other similar institutions, closed during the 1970s. Since then, despite the owner’s best efforts, it has been taken over by curiosity seekers and vandals alike. The hospital’s fate is a familiar one. We can only hope that one day it is cleaned up and put to good use.
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Legends and Lore of Illinois Vol. 2 Digital Edition
Order all 12 issues of the Legends and Lore of Illinois from 2008 in a special digital edition for your favorite e-readers. Places covered in Vol. 2: Archer Cemetery, Sunset Haven, Peoria State Hospital (Bartonville Asylum), Airtight Bridge, University of Illinois, Calvary Cemetery and ‘Seaweed Charlie,’ Lakey’s Creek, Peck Cemetery, Blood’s Point Road, Old Union Cemetery, Hartford Castle, and more! Plus, read letters from our readers, book reviews, ghostly games, and put your knowledge of these locations to the test with challenging trivia questions. Don’t miss these classic issues from the archives of the Legends and Lore of Illinois.