A Publication of WTVP

Tales of the bewitched, bewildered, and beleaguered bedevil the former Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville. In 1902, the first patients entered what was then known as The Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane. In a 1920s book titled simply The Bereft, Dr. George A. Zeller, facility superintendent from 1902 to 1913 and from 1921 to 1935, chronicled mysteries associated with the institution he headed.

Asylum Light – Stories from The Dr. George A. Zeller Era and Beyond, a recently published book by James S. Ward, M.D., and associates including Arlene Parr, reprints a number of Zeller’s stories. His eerie report of Old Book and the Graveyard Elm appears, as well as mysteries, too strange to be fiction, drawn from Dr. Zeller’s 1930s autobiography, Befriending the Bereft.

In providing an overview of 20th century psychiatry in central Illinois, Asylum Light documents the unusual people and institutions that often led the discipline in insights and practice, according to Ward’s preface. "Nonrestraint, humane treatment and drug research are areas where we led the country and the world," Ward writes of this significant part of local heritage. The book also includes sections on Galesburg Mental Health Center and Galesburg State Research Hospital, and Zeller Zone Center (later Zeller Mental Health Center), where Ward served as first superintendent.

In 1907, the stigma of "incurable" was removed from the facility’s title. Two years later, all the state institutions became known as state hospitals. Zeller, however, favored the "fine old word asylum that suggests a haven, a refuge, a place where hospitality and restfulness prevail."

Clearly, Zeller was the guiding spirit, focusing on patient strengths and working toward improvement and discharge whenever possible. In an institution that, in 1904, contained "the most violent, destructive and habitually untidy patients of any in the state," his constant aim was to restore individuality and remove every suggestion of imprisonment. He crusaded for better understanding of the mentally ill, inviting reporters and the community to visit. Various stories attest to the high respect he engendered.

Zeller created an on-site museum that included completely barred beds and heavy chairs, as well as leather muffs, anklets, wristlets, and canvas straitjackets once used to restrain patients. "The State wants to move this collection to Springfield, but we really would like it to stay in Peoria," says Parr. "It’s part of our history." 

The pride of the professionals and the gratitude of patients and families are reflected in the reminiscences collected by Parr. The book also notes changes in types of patients, from epileptics to alcoholics, and from syphilitic and tubercular to the drug-abusers.

At its peak in the 1950s, Bartonville housed 2,800 patients. When closure was announced in 1972, patient census had dropped to 600. Medications, many researched in Galesburg, proved therapeutic, and community- based care became the norm. Zeller Zone Center, later Zeller Mental Health Center, which opened in Peoria under the leadership of Ward in 1965, changed its mission and focus numerous times, often driven by shifting political winds, before closing in August 2002.

Zeller died in 1938. The book’s epilogue details today’s vulnerable constituency and notes the need for "a George A. Zeller now armed with 2004 insights."

"When we give talks about the book, the teenagers who’ve come want to know about the haunted buildings and the cemeteries and the occult. They’re disappointed when I try to debunk that," said Gary Lisman of Bartonville. Lisman took many of the photographs and researched the hospital for a history thesis.

Nonetheless, his cover photo shows a deserted edifice, its blank windows starring onto a bleak, snow-covered landscape of barren trees. The book also tells of the four cemeteries there, burial sites for the 4,132 who died at the hospital.

Lisman and Parr are now at work on another book to focus strictly on the Bartonville institution. Already, they’ve acquired more information regarding the political scandal associated with the earliest construction on the site. An 1898 newspaper quoted Illinois Governor Tanner: "The transactions of the Altgeld board of trustees of the Peoria asylum for Incurable Insane form one of the most lurid chapters in the long story of dishonesty, incompetency and reckless expenditure of public money which characterized that administration."

From the earliest days, when Peoria Women’s Club leaders lobbied the legislature for an institution for the insane-those previously hidden away, jailed, or sent to an almshouse-the history of mental health care has had a political subtext. The state has sealed many of the records, denying names to the 568 graves marked only by numbered slabs.

Asylum Light-a tribute to the past and gift to the future-is available at local bookstores and several area libraries, including Alpha Park, where some materials from Peoria State Hospital are archived. AA!