Not much remains of central Illinois’ Peoria State Hospital, especially after the largest structure, called the Bowen Building, was controversially demolished in 2017. Its ruins 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.
Since then, an attempt was made to rehabilitate the Bowen Building and open it for tours. It appeared on the SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters in 2013 and Destination America’s Ghost Asylum in 2016. This publicity was not enough to save the building from the wrecking ball.
According to Taylor, Peoria State Hospital (originally known as 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 the 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. It was quickly taken over by curiosity seekers and vandals alike.
In April 2012, the Bartonville village board agreed to loan Bowen-Building owner Richard Weiss $340,000 from a village TIF account to rehabilitate the building. Weiss planned to pay back the loan by holding paranormal-themed events and tours at the building. The plan ran into trouble when asbestos abatement proved too costly.
“So much time and passion has brought the building to a way better physical state than it has been in for years; but earning a few dollars per tour isn’t going to realistically raise enough substantial money required to bring that building to code for operation,” Janette Marie, creator of the documentary For the Incurable Insane, said.
According to WMBD News, Bartonville’s board of trustees approved a $400,000 loan in January 2016 to cover the cost of demolishing the Bowen Building. The village hoped to recoup its investment with the sale of the building’s limestone blocks. “Tearing the Bowen down and selling it for scrap would be like selling off people’s memories brick by brick,” said Sylvia Shults, author of a book about Peoria State Hospital called Fractured Spirits.
By September 2017, an empty lot was all that remained of Peoria State Hospital’s venerable administration building. The hospital’s sad fate is a familiar one. Losing yet another historical Illinois landmark to the wrecking ball will be a heavy blow to this central Illinois community.