Ol' Book and the Graveyard Elm

by Amy Groh

Part of Dr. Zeller’s plan for the Bartonville hospital was to allow patients who were able to work to be given jobs within their abilities. One patient known as A. Bookbinder, a bigger guy named after the job he held before he was admitted, was put on graveyard duty by Zeller. Those are the historical facts. From here, the truth becomes an elusive thing.

They say that Ol’ Book, as he was called, used to lean up against an old elm tree in the nearby graveyard and sob uncontrollably at each funeral, whether he knew the patient or not. After a family member of deceased patient told Zeller of Book’s apparent care for her relative,Book was put on every burial after that, as Rob Conover tells it, because he was a “PR man.”

When Book died, it’s said that more than 300 people attended his funeral, including over 100 nurses and Zeller himself, who delivered the eulogy. During the eulogy, the casket was set on boards across the empty grave. Because Book was a heavy man, when the time came, the men pulled very hard on the ropes holding the casket so they could remove the boards and lower it into the ground. But when they did, the casket flew up in the air as if nothing was inside, and all those present heard crying coming from the graveyard elm. Looking over, they saw Ol’ Book standing against the elm. Zeller instructed the men to open the casket, and there Book was, no longer by the tree.

Save the Bowen, Inc. is a nonprofit organization recently created by Richard Weiss to purchase the historic Bowen building of the Peoria State Hospital with the hope of restoring it. While many ideas of paranormal tours have come up, Weiss emphasized that the building “is not being purchased to establish ghost hunting tours; this is merely an idea discussed to generate funds for the building to be stabilized.” Such tours would only be offered after work on the structure was completed, assuring safety to all who would enter. Not all tours would be centered on hauntings, but the historic nature of the facility as well, which had tremendous impact on mental health care in the State of Illinois and the country. For more information, visit savethebowen.com.

About a year later, the graveyard elm began to rot, and Zeller sent someone to cut it down. But after awhile, he returned to Zeller and said he couldn’t cut the tree down because every time he hit it with the ax, he heard someone crying. Then the fire department was sent to burn the tree down, but that didn’t work either. The fire chief went back to Zeller, saying they lit the tree on fire but had to put it out because they saw someone standing in the smoke crying. Zeller gave up on his efforts to remove the tree, and about a year later, it fell over on its own. Ever since, people who went by the graveyard at night would say they heard Ol’ Book crying by the graveyard elm.

That’s how the story goes. Is it true? The fact that it was witnessed by over 300 people makes it seem credible, but to his credit, Gary L. Lisman, author of Bittersweet Memories: A History of the Peoria State Hospital, makes a good point: If the story about Book’s burial is true, and if it was witnessed by so many people, why did only one of them write it down? Zeller’s medical journal is the only source of the story. Not a single nurse or staff member, visitor or patient told the same story that George Zeller did. Fact or fiction, we don’t know, but that’s how the story goes. a&s