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Sylvia Shults Takes Us Inside Fractured Spirits

Fractured SpiritsSylvia Shults’ new book, Fractured Spirits: Hauntings at the Peoria State Hospital was released this spring by Dark Continents Publishing. The asylum in Bartonville has long been an acknowledged hotspot of paranormal activity, due to what Shults calls “a perfect storm” of circumstances that can lead to supernatural occurrences. Fractured Spirits is a fascinating look at these ghosts. Join us for this Q&A with the author.

Peoria State Hospital is an abandoned asylum, right? So of course it’s got to be haunted…

Hey, hey, not so fast! The PSH is haunted, no doubt about it. You got that part right. But not for the reasons you might think. For one thing, the village of Bartonville, where the asylum was located, is in the center of a perfect storm for paranormal activity. Let’s take a look.

Way back in the early days of Illinois history, the land that’s now Bartonville used to be a Native American settlement. We’re not sure if there was an actual village there, or just a burying ground. But investigators have recorded the sounds of ghostly drumming, and what appears to be fragments of Native speech.

The geology of the hilltop where the asylum was built is set up for paranormal activity. There’s limestone all over the place. In fact, the Bowen Building (the old administration building and world-famous nurses’ college) was built out of limestone from the oldest quarry in the United States. The hilltop is also honeycombed with natural springs, and the ravines encircling the hilltop are sometimes filled with the rush of running water. To add to this powerful psychic attractant, the Illinois River runs just a few hundred yards away from the hilltop. It’s the longest river in the state, and the source of lots of history all on its own.

When the state closed the asylum in 1973, the buildings sat empty for a while, while the village of Bartonville tried to sell them. Not many businesses wanted to buy, because of the lingering stigma of mental illness. So the cottages were eventually bulldozed, and the rubble pushed into the ravines. There are still dishes and plates and all sorts of other rubbish down there to this day. That’s a big reason the spirits still hang out – all their stuff is still here.

So we’ve got a Native American presence, loads of limestone, artifacts, and running water all over the place, any one of which is a great conduit for spirit activity. But what makes the Peoria State Hospital so very haunted is this: a lot of people lived here, and died here. But! The asylum was one of the very best places for psychiatric care in the world for most of its history. This was not a place of fear and pain and abuse, like many asylums. Far from it.

The first superintendent, Dr. George A. Zeller, removed all patient restraints. This means that the bars on the windows came off. He repurposed those bars into cages for a zoo on the grounds, and allowed the patients to care for the animals. This means that the straitjackets were banned. This means that patients were never, ever strapped down to beds, or locked in cribs, or handcuffed in manacles. Dr. Zeller put the straitjackets and cuffs in a museum. Their only purpose from then on was for the staff to point to and say, “Never again. Not here. Not at this hospital.”

The asylum was its own little self-sufficient community. The patients were fed three meals a day of locally grown food. They each had a job to do, to the best of their abilities. They had dances and concerts and other entertainment. Some of the patients lived at the asylum for decades. Many of these people were very happy here. They were treated humanely. Many of them recovered from their illness, and went on to lead productive lives. The ones that didn’t were cared for until they passed. That’s the best reason I can find to say that the Peoria State Hospital is one of the most haunted places in the United States. The spirits just don’t want to leave.

Have you ever been really scared at the Peoria State Hospital?

You know what? No, I haven’t. I used to be a total chicken when it came to ghost hunting. You couldn’t pay me to walk past a cemetery at night. I remember this one time when I was with a group at the Old Bailey House in Macomb. We were in the basement, and I was getting a little freaked out (mostly because we had a powerful sensitive with us who could actually see the ghosts we were after). I nervously kept my back to the wall, until a team member asked me what I was doing. I told her, and that’s when she reminded me (not unkindly), “Uh, Sylvia, you do know that ghosts can walk through walls, right?” Oh crap!

But I’ve been at the Peoria State Hospital so much in the past couple of years that I think I’ve become sort of inoculated against being terribly scared. Now that I know the history of the place, and that it wasn’t a place of pain and torture, but of healing, it’s a lot less frightening. Plus, I’ve gotten a lot more courageous, especially when there are other people around! I still wouldn’t go into the basement alone in the dark, though. I mean, I’m not crazy. But I’ll happily sit in the basement with other people in the pitch blackness. That doesn’t bother me a bit. And I’m totally cool with wandering around any one of the cemeteries in the dark.

What makes Fractured Spirits different than any other ghost hunting book?

The neat thing about Fractured Spirits is that it’s really interactive. There’s a fan page for the book on Facebook, at http://www.facebook.com/FracturedSpirits. When you read the book, you’ll see a cute little ghostie icon in the margin every once in a while. That’s your clue that there’s something fun waiting for you on the Facebook page. If you read about a recording, you can actually go to the fan page and listen to that very same recording. It’s pretty cool. And of course, if you ever go to the Peoria State Hospital yourself, and you have an experience, I encourage you to visit the fan page and tell us about it.

What do you want people to learn when they read Fractured Spirits?

Here’s what I want you to take away from the book: the Peoria State Hospital is an abandoned asylum, and it is haunted as all get-out. But there’s a whole lot of really interesting history to the place, too. People were not abused here. They were cared for with the best treatments available anywhere in the world. The staff that cared for the patients were highly-trained professionals, some of the best in their field. The Peoria State Hospital was a place of healing and of hope. Fortunately for those of us who love this sort of thing, it is also one of the most haunted places in the United States.

Are there any buildings at the asylum that are still open? Can investigators go into the buildings?

There are thirteen of the asylum buildings left (out of sixty five). Most of them are private buildings, used for offices. The Phoenix Club is now a restaurant, but nobody there will talk about ghosts. Stone Country, the former gymnasium, is now a country dance bar. They’ve had investigators come in from time to time.

There are two buildings that remain in nearly the same condition as they were left when the asylum closed. The Bowen Building, which was the nurses’ college for many years before it became the administration building, is in sad disrepair, although volunteers are working hard to restore it. Tours of the building are available. Historic tours last for an hour and are $10. Ghost tours are three hours and cost $25. Overnights are available for $100. For more information, please visit www.peoria-asylum.com.

The Pollak Hospital is also open to guests. This was the tuberculosis ward, open from 1950 to 1973. The volunteers at the building are super friendly, and are delighted to share the history of their building with visitors. The person to call about group tours is Stacy Carroll, at (309) 635-0408. They charge $50 per person for an overnight investigation. They prefer groups of at least five, but they’ll let you in regardless of the size of your group. Visit their website at www.thehauntedinfirmary.org, or visit the Pollak Hospital Facebook page.

Okay, I’m hooked! Where can I get a copy of Fractured Spirits?

Visit Amazon, or check out the publisher’s website at www.darkcontinents.com. Your local independent bookstore would also be happy to order it for you from Dark Continents Publishing.

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  1. […] In Fractured Spirits, Sylvia Shults weaves historical research, firsthand accounts, and interviews with other investigators to explore the haunted Peoria State Hospital. Sylvia will introduce a cast of characters to you that once called the asylum home. Meet Dr. Zeller, Rhoda Derry, A. Bookbinder, the White Lady, and even the Angel of God. Some tales will warm your heart. Some will turn your blood cold. She also addresses the local rumors. As you might imagine, there are many. […]

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