It’s that time again. Ready for our annual ghost story? This is the true account of a strange occurrence at Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville, Illinois, by the late George Zeller, superintendent of the asylum at the time (1910). It’s creepy but also surprisingly touching.
When I took charge of the Peoria State Hospital for the insane, I recognized that the disposal of the dead must have attention. We buried only the bodies of the friendless and unclaimed; the remains of the well-to-do were handled by friends and relatives.
The burial corps consisted of a reliable employee and a half dozen male residents. Of these, the most unusual was a bookbinder. He had been working in a printing house when his mental aberration manifested itself in the loss of coherent speech. Later, as he could not express himself in writing, the clerk of the court gave as his name that of his calling; thus, he was committed to us as A. Bookbinder. Soon he became known as Old Book.
He developed an interesting trait at the first funeral in which he participated. At the end of the ceremonies, Old Book removed his cap, began to wipe his eyes, and finally gave vent to loud lamentations. When at each succeeding burial his feelings overcame him, it was realized that Old Book was possessed of a mania that manifested itself in an uncontrollable grief.
Old Book never varied the routine of his mourning. He would step back, spade in hand, in an attitude of waiting. First his left, and then his right sleeve would be raised to wipe away a furtive tear. As the coffin began to descend into the grave, he would walk over and lean against the big elm that stood in the center of the lot and give vent to sobs that convulsed his frame and which were heard by the entire assemblage. The tree was known as the “Graveyard Elm” and was recognized as one of the finest of its species.
It came Old Book’s turn to be carried to his last resting place. The hour was set for noon on a beautiful October day. More than 100 uniformed nurses gathered, in addition to the staff and several hundred patients.
I officiated. The coffin rested upon two crossbeams over the open grave, and four sturdy men stood by ready to man the ropes by which it was lowered. Just as the choir finished “Rock of Ages,” the men grasped the ropes, stooped forward, and, with a powerful muscular effort, prepared to lift the coffin in order to permit the removal of the cross beams and allow it to gently descend into the grave. At a given signal, they heaved away the ropes. In the next instant, all four lay on their backs. For the coffin, instead of offering resistance, bounded into the air like an empty eggshell.
The nurses shrieked. Half of them ran away, while the other half came over to the grave. In the midst of this commotion, a wailing voice was heard, and every eye turned toward the Graveyard Elm whence it emanated. We stood transfixed, for there was Old Book, weeping and moaning in earnest. No one moved or spoke, and a paralytic fear came over us.
Finally, I summoned the helpers to remove the coffin lid. Their hands trembled as they loosened the screws. I nerved myself up to peer into the coffin but just as they lifted the lid, the wailing sound ceased and we gazed upon the calm features of our old mourner. Everybody was invited to identify the remains. After casting a glance at the corpse, every eye wandered over to the Graveyard Elm. The tree stood there in all its stateliness, the apparition had vanished, and the funeral was completed.
A few days later, the Graveyard Elm began to wither, and over the next year, it died. Later, after the dead limbs had dropped, workmen tried to remove the huge trunk, but they stopped after hearing at the first cut of the ax an agonized despairing cry of pain emanating from the heart of the tree.
I suggested that they burn it, which they tried. However, as soon as the flames got going around the tree’s base, the men quickly extinguished them, saying to me later that the roar of the flames had become a sobbing, crying sound as often heard at funerals.
The Peoria State Hospital closed in 1973 and was deconstructed in 2017. On October 31, 2010, Phil Luciano of the Peoria Journal Star reported that Bill Turner, who had worked as an activity therapist at the asylum from 1962 to ’73, had purchased a gravestone for Old Book in 2006 and had it inscribed as follows: “In each death, he found great sorrow. He wept at each, passing tears for the unloved and forgotten. Now, ‘Old Book,’ we weep for you.” The Graveyard Elm is nowhere to be seen. According to Turner, it burned to the ground after having been struck by lightning years ago.