I live quite close to an amazing abandoned mental asylum, the Peoria State Hospital. You say "haunted mental asylum", and your mind automatically goes all American Horror Story on you, and you assume that there was pain, and fear, and abuse. It is my privilege, and my great joy, to tell people about the true history of this particular asylum. This was a place of safety for the patients, a place where they could find help and refuge from the confusing world outside.
Early on, a patient was brought to the Peoria State Hospital because he'd had a nervous breakdown at work. His breakdown was so total that he was rendered mute, unable to tell the intake nurses his name. All anyone knew about him was that he had worked in a factory, binding books. His name, therefore, was written down in the intake ledger as A. Manual Bookbinder. He became known familiarly as "Old Book".
Bookbinder was encouraged, as were all the able-bodied inmates, to find useful work to do at the asylum to keep his mind and body occupied. It became Book's duty to care for the cemeteries on the hilltop. This included grave digging detail.
At the first funeral Book attended, he was standing next to the grave, and his shoulders began to hitch. Tears leaked from his eyes and tracked silently down his cheeks. A sob escaped him, and he walked over to the large elm tree that stood in the middle of the cemetery. There, he leaned against the trunk of the tree and wailed, crying as if his heart was breaking. When the short service was over, he collected himself and came back to fill in the grave.
Old Book did this at every funeral he attended, and he attended every funeral that was held on the hilltop. Once, when he was ill, he saw a hearse passing by, with a body that was destined to be put on the train to be returned to a family for burial in a family plot. Book became quite agitated at the thought that he might be missing the chance to wail at a funeral, and Dr. Zeller, the superintendent, had to quickly assure him that the body was headed elsewhere, and not to a hilltop grave. Old Book became such a fixture at asylum funerals that he became an urban legend of sorts. If a patient felt that they were on their deathbed, they would snag a passing nurse and request, "Please make sure Old Book cries for me, else I won't get into Heaven."
In 1910, Old Book himself passed away. (He may have died of tuberculosis, but there was also a pellagra epidemic raging through the asylum at the time, so that may have been the cause of his death.) Old Book was a well-known and well-loved character at the asylum, so his funeral was very well attended.
What happened next comes to us from the memoirs of Dr. Zeller himself. He said that the mourners had just finished singing Rock of Ages, and were preparing to lower Book's coffin into the grave. Four men grabbed the ends of the ropes that were slung under the coffin, and heaved to lift it so the boards underneath could be slid out. The coffin, though, bounced up into the air as if it weighed no more than an eggshell.
And just at that moment, everyone in attendance heard a wailing and crying coming from the Graveyard Elm. They turned in horror to look -- and there was the ghost of Old Book, leaning against the tree in his accustomed place, moaning and carrying on as if his heart was breaking.
Astonished nurses fell to their knees, or scrambled to get away. Dr. Zeller ordered the coffin opened. Someone grabbed a crowbar and jimmied the lid off. As soon as the coffin lid was raised, the wailing stopped, the phantom vanished -- and there lay Old Book, in his coffin. He was undeniably dead. Dr. Zeller wrote, "It was awful, but it was real. I saw it. One hundred nurses and three hundred spectators saw it."
The story of Old Book doesn't end there. After about six weeks, the old elm tree started to die. Workers poured buckets of water on it -- no one wanted to see Old Book's tree go -- but the tree kept on dropping leaves, and soon it was obvious that the tree was dying. Dr. Zeller was a very safety-conscious guy, he didn't want a limb coming down and injuring someone, so he sent a work crew out to chop the tree down.
The crew came back less than an hour later, with a terrifying tale. They said that at the first stroke of the axe, they'd heard a wailing coming from the trunk of the old elm -- a wailing that sounded a lot like the voice of Old Book.
Dr. Zeller sent out a fire crew to burn the tree down. The crew piled kindling around the dying tree's trunk, poured a bit of kerosene on it to get it going, and touched the match to it. But in the smoke that began to curl up, they swore they saw the face of Old Book, drawn with sadness. And in the crackling of the flames, they heard Book's sorrowful cries. They threw water on the flames and came running back to Dr. Zeller, saying they didn't want any part of destroying Book's tree.
So the old tree was allowed to die on its own. And legend has it that when the tree did finally fall, it fell right between the rows of gravestones, and didn't damage a single stone as it fell. Groundskeepers rolled the carcass of the big tree into the ravine that borders Cemetery Two, where it returned to the earth, just as Old Book had done.
Is it a cool story? Darn right. Is it true? Well ... okay, no, it's not.
You see, Dr. George Zeller was known to his peers as "the Ruydard Kipling of America". And THE Rudyard Kipling (of England) wrote to Dr. Zeller complimenting him on his short fiction.
After Book's death, some supervisors of other institutions began to write to Dr. Zeller, telling him that they'd been hearing of a ghost story being told about his asylum, and was there any truth to the tale? Dr. Zeller eventually gave in and 'fessed up. He wrote a blanket letter, which was published in several journals to which he was a contributor. (It even appeared, oddly enough, in the Journal for Psychical Research, the well-known newsletter for paranormal studies.) In this letter, Dr. Zeller said, in effect, "We have a lot of many wonderful characters at our asylum. Sometimes, some of them make it into my fiction."
Was there a patient at the Peoria State Hospital named Manual Bookbinder? Yes, there was. Did he dig graves on the hilltop? Yes, he did. Did he cry at every funeral? Yes, he did. And Dr. Zeller thought that it was a shame that no one would cry at Old Book's funeral.
So he made it happen.
(I've written a few books about the history and hauntings at the Peoria State Hospital. If anyone's interested, please feel free to check them out on Amazon. Titles include Fractured Spirits, 44 Years in Darkness, and the brand-new book, Fractured Souls.)