Date: January 20, 2013
You may not know this about me, but I have a long history of mental illness. I suffer from severe depression, which has resulted in a history of suicide attempts, self-mutilation, and other self-destructive behavior. I’m medicated now, so I’m mostly okay, but I still have seasonal depression that plunges me down into the depths twice a year.
It is for this reason that abandoned asylums have a special place in my heart. When I walk along the grounds, I’m reminded that in earlier times, I would have found my home here, with the other chemically-imbalanced misfits. The cemeteries are impossibly sad, with the patients not even being granted the dignity of a name on their grave markers. Just numbers. Society pushed them away, out of sight, because nobody wanted to deal with them; and even in death, their individuality, and their worth as a human being, is being denied. It just makes me wish I could tell their stories and give them the voice they were denied in life.
The Illinois Asylum for the Incurable Insane in Bartonville was opened in 1902. It immediately become an infamous location known for corruption, incompetence, and violence. The following is an article from the January 29, 1908 Chicago Tribune:
FIVE VIOLENT DEATHS IN ONE YEAR AT BARTONVILLE.
Investigating Committee Will Find Good Subject for Inquiry in Non-restraining Asylum.
Peoria, Ill. Jan. 28. – [Special.] – When the investigation committee of the Illinois legislature comes to Peoria next week it will find on record during the last year the deaths of five inmates of the Bartonville asylum from violent causes. The deaths are of the following patients:
November, 1907 – Mary Polack of Dunning; found dead in ravine two miles from institution.
November, 1907 – Arena Longmeir; found dead in ravine near institution.
November, 1907 – George Wright died as result of pneumonia and a scald while being bathed.
January, 1908 – Lucy Anderson; burned to death in tuberculosis camp.
January, 1908 – William Patchett, escaped patient; killed man at Chestnut, Ill.
First – To ascertain whether carelessness has caused any of the deaths and whether they can be laid to lax methods.
Second – To discover how many of them are the result of the “nonrestraint” system as it has been practiced at the Bartonville asylum by Dr. Zeller, the superintendent.
The nonrestraint system has been watched with the utmost interest by authorities in insanity over the entire country during the last two years or more. It was instituted in 1905, at which time Dr. Zeller took down $6,000 worth of heavy wire screens and stored them in the cellars, took out every “crib,” “camisole,” straitjacket, threw away handcuffs and chains, and likewise the keys to all but the violent wards.
The system has generally been admitted a success as far as discipline and general results go. The patients have improved in disposition, the outbursts and “disturbed” periods have been much less frequent. Women nurses have been able to accomplish without force what has required men nurses and chains in other institutions.
In spite of this, however, the principle of nonrestraint now faces its most serious crisis in the investigation. If it is found that at Bartonville the percentage of escapes is higher in a marked degree that in other institutions of the state and that the disasters resulting from them are much more numerous, it may be decided by the legislature that the safety of the few outweighs the comfort of the many and the experiment may come to an end.
It is not expected the investigation of the two accidental deaths on the grounds will lead to any sensational results. They were deaths such as happen in any institution
under the most rigid care…
In the case of Wright, who was scalded Nov. 15, he was being bathed and the nurse in charge was running more hot water into the tub. In spite of the nurse’s efforts, the patient stuck his foot into the water and received a scald. He was confined to his bed and while there was attacked with pneumonia, dying eleven days later.
At the request of the hospital authorities the coroner’s jury ascribed the cause to the scald, though there is doubt about the real cause of death.
Lucy Anderson of Champaign had been an occupant of the tent colony for consumptives for a year and a half. On the 18th of January, during the early evening, she ignited her dress from the stove in the tent. Two nurses and a physician who were close at hand chased the screaming woman all over the grounds, but were unable to catch her before she was fatally burned.
At its peak in the 1950s, Bartonville housed 2,800 patients. By 1972 when its closure was announced, the patient census had dropped to 600. Most of the asylum grounds have been demolished now, but the administration building remains – a home to ghost tours and various other festivities. I haven’t been inside the building – which is boarded up and doesn’t look like it’s in very interesting shape – but I did visit the hospital and the sad cemetery, filled with numbers without names.
On the same day that we went to Bartonville – a freezingly cold day in January, 2013 – we also went to a few other miscellaneous abandonments around the area. Did I mention it was cold?