For many, just mentioning Bartonville Insane Asylum sends chills down the spine. Surrounding by tales of unsettled spirits and ghost sightings, the asylum is well known in Central Illinois and a favorite stopping point for many who are interested in the paranormal.
Bartonville, with a population of about 7,000, is located in Peoria County, Illinois. Situated on Route 24, this small town is also the home of the 182nd Airlift Wing of the United States Air Force. It further touts itself as being the hometown of major-league baseball player Jim Thome. In 1885, however, the buzz in town was all about construction beginning on a new hospital facility – the insane asylum. The buzz wouldn’t last for long. Not this time, at least.
According to the website prairieghosts.com (http://www.prairieghosts.com/barton.html), construction on the insane asylum was completed in 1887, and the structure resembled a medieval castle. Just 10 short years later, the structure would be demolished when huge cracks began to appear in the structure. It was discovered that the asylum had been built on an abandoned mine, and the settling of the building, with nothing much to support its underbelly, was literally falling apart. However, five years later, the asylum would once again be up and running.
Prairieghosts.com goes on to say that Dr. George Zeller was passionate about the asylum and the care of the patients. He refused to place any bars over the windows or to use restraints, something very unusual for that day and age. Zeller also saw the immediate need for the development of a system to bury patients that had passed away, and quickly set about implementing a plan for that. The asylum ended up with four cemeteries, all located behind the main building.
The older cemeteries bear only numbers on their headstones, largely because many of the patients came to the asylum with no names. I have visited one of the older cemeteries, and it is sad to look upon the small headstones and see only numbers etched into them; no names to tell us who rests there, no dates marking the milestones of birth or death. The newer cemeteries do bear the names of the patients whose names were known.
Dr. Zeller entrusted the burial duties and care of the cemeteries to a patient who had come to them with no name. Believe to have worked as a bookbinder in the Chicago area, the man was brought to Bartonville Insane Asylum after suffering a nervous breakdown. Completely mute, the man could not tell anyone is name. Because his occupation was listed as “a bookbinder,” he became known as A. Bookbinder, and was often called Old Book.
Old Book completed his duties well. Dr. Zeller was surprised, however, to see Book remove his cap and weep at each burial that was conducted. Funerals were help mostly out of respect for the patient, as no one really knew much about the patients, not even the staff. But Old Book conducted himself as if he’d lost a life-long friend or a loved one. He’d stand by an elm tree in the cemetery and grieve. The tree became known as the Graveyard Elm.
By the time Old Book himself passed away, he had become well-liked among the staff. They all attended his burial in the very cemetery where Book had laid so many others to rest. What happened that day was documented by Dr. Zeller and those writings were found many years later. The tale he told led some to believe in unsettled spirits, while others believed the doctor himself to be insane.
Zeller wrote that when the ropes were being removed from the coffin so it could be lowered into the ground, the coffin offered no resistance but instead felt so light, they thought it empty. At that moment, wailing was heard coming from the Graveyard Tree, and when all eyes turned toward the tree, Old Book was seen standing there, weeping.
Dr. Zeller immediately ordered the coffin opened, and inside he and the spectators saw the body of Book. It was at that moment that the wailing stopped.
The doctor claims that approximately 100 staff and 300 spectators were there that day to witness the events. Naysayers are quick to point out that it’s most likely the 300 spectators were patients, all with mental disease and disorder who could never be credible witnesses to the days happenings. Doubters also claim that perhaps Dr. Zeller had been working at the asylum far too long and had himself begin to develop some type of insanity.
Within the few days that followed the burial of Old Book, the Graveyard Elm began to die. When, on the orders of Dr. Zeller, crews began chopping the tree down, they claim sobs and wails could be heard coming from the tree. They could no longer bring themselves to chop it. When the doctor ordered the tree be burned, once again the crew had to stop, claiming that as soon as the tree ignited, the same wails could be heard emitting from it.
Book’s unmarked grave remains in one of the asylums cemeteries. There are so many graves surround the insane asylum, it would be virtually impossible to determine which one belongs to Old Book. The remains of the Graveyard Elm were seen by this author when she visited the site, and despite it’s appearance of being mostly dead, it still stands.
The Bartonville Insane Asylum is now privately owned, and visitors are not permitted without express permission of the owner, although many continue to trespass to seek out ghosts or to commit vandalism. Many have claimed to have paranormal experiences while visiting the asylum, and it’s said that one apparition has been captured on videotape during an authorized tour. It has been the topic of local television programs and is featured in several books.
As with any claims of haunting and paranormal experiences, Bartonville Insane Asylum remains one of the most mysterious places in Central Illinois for those believe. Local rumors state that former patients, many unwanted in life and simply dumped at the asylum, lived with such anguish and thirst for love and family, they still cannot cross over to the other side. They are left to wonder the halls of the asylum, apparently waiting for someone to come and give them the peace of mind they need to leave this world and move on.
More information about the asylum can be obtained by visiting PrairieGhosts.com, a very informative sight created by Troy Taylor. Also visit http://www.eco-absence.org/il/bartonville/. A video of the complex can be viewed at http://www.eco-absence.org/il/bartonville/.