Mystery and Madness at Manteno State Hospital

Manteno State Hospital, one of two former mental health facilities in Kankakee County, Illinois, opened its doors in the early 1930s. Since the hospital’s closure, many visitors have come back with strange stories. They claim to have seen apparitions of patients and nurses, and heard voices over long-defunct intercoms. Since Morgan Cottage, the last abandoned building on campus, was demolished in 2015, only these tales remain to satiate the curious.

Like Peoria State Hospital, Manteno State Hospital was originally laid out in a “cottage plan,” which meant the patients were housed in a series of separate buildings, rather than in one single institution. It took several years after the purchase of the property in 1927 for the sprawling mental hospital to be completed. When it first opened, Manteno accommodated 5,500 patients and 760 staff.

It did not take long for tragedy to strike the hospital. In an incident that Time magazine referred to as the “Manteno Madness,” 384 patients and staff came down with typhoid fever (47 died) in 1939. At first, Ralph Hinton, the director of Manteno State, believed the affliction to be nothing more than a common case of diarrhea, but state welfare agents stepped in as the number of ill dramatically increased. Panic gripped the hospital.

“Patients lay moaning in bed,” Time reported. “Others, whipped by mad fear, beat against the screened windows, grappled with attendants… Every night kitchen boys and orderlies disappeared. Over 45 ran away in all.”

Kankakee County State’s Attorney Sam Shapiro, who would go on to become governor of Illinois, dragged the director of the state’s Public Welfare Department, Archie Bowen, to court over the incident in 1940 even though Bowen had sent a truckload of typhoid vaccine to Manteno at the onset of the outbreak.

At first, Bowen was convicted, but the State Supreme Court overturned the conviction because, as the Kankakee Daily Journal reported, “Shapiro had failed to show that the epidemic was caused by polluted drinking water.”

Manteno State Hospital was later renamed Manteno Mental Health Center, and closed in 1985 along with many of the other such mental health facilities in Illinois. Its campus was divided up and sold off. The north side of campus became a veteran’s home.

Other buildings were consolidated into the Illinois Diversatech Campus and rented to businesses. The main administration building became a bank. Despite public health concerns, a housing project called Fairway Oaks Estates was recently built at the location.

Manteno has attracted many curiosity seekers since its closure, including its share of ghost hunters. While throughout its history patients at Manteno State Hospital frequently tried to escape, a new generation of men and women are desperate to find their way inside. Accounts of ghostly sounds and encounters have filtered down from those adventurous—or fool hearty—enough to explore the old tunnels and buildings.

“Over the years I have had many reports of people who entered the old buildings and saw nurses and doctors and even patients still dressed in their gowns,” Chad Lewis recently told the Daily Journal. Amateur investigators have taken dozens of strange photographs in the old buildings.

The quiet town of Manteno has done its best to erase the memory of this place, but there will always be stories.

Further Reading

  • Daily Journal (Kankakee) 31 October 2008.
  • ”Manteno Madness,” Time, 23 October 1939.
  • Daily Tribune (Chicago) 2 November 1939.
  • Troy Taylor, Haunted Illinois: The Travel Guide to the History & Hauntings of the Prairie State (Alton: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2004).

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