In Fractured Spirits, Sylvia Shults weaves historical research, firsthand accounts, and interviews with other investigators to explore the haunted Peoria State Hospital. Sylvia will introduce a cast of characters to you that once called the asylum home. Meet Dr. Zeller, Rhoda Derry, A. Bookbinder, the White Lady, and even the Angel of God. Some tales will warm your heart. Some will turn your blood cold. She also addresses the local rumors. As you might imagine, there are many.
I always find it fascinating to read about the real-life stories of the people who once lived and worked in such a place. The section about the elimination of work therapy having a devastating impact on the patients had me nodding along in agreement. Leave it to the U.S. government to abolish work (in many cases, work or occupational therapy, was the only thing the patients had to make them feel a sense of purpose) and honestly believe that decision won’t destroy the human spirit.
There are wide beliefs and reasons for what constitutes a haunting, and Sylvia navigates this beautifully. What I found to be very compelling reasons that she notes is that the Bowen is reported to have been carved from limestone from the oldest quarry in the United States, and the Illinois River is very nearby. Further, she reports that the cottage plan resulted in many patients feeling at home in the hospital. When the place shut down in 1973, everything was left in the cottages just as if the patients had never left. Perhaps these spirits truly believe they are coming home.
I was also pleased to read about her experiences using the Ghost Box. She seems to feel the same way about the ghost box as I feel about watching a couple of flashlights react to questions! I recently read this book for the second time and loved it even more, so I sent a few questions over to Sylvia to see if she might share some more details with me. Words from the lovely Sylvia Shults:
Can you remember your first undeniable proof moment of paranormal phenomena? Was it in the basement of Pollak Hospital or was there something even earlier in life that stuck with you?
I’ve been reading ghost stories all my life, but I never had any paranormal experiences until I was quite grown up. (It’s probably a good thing too, because I was a big chicken growing up.) I clearly remember my first “holy cats, this stuff is real, and here it is, happening to me” moment. I was doing research for my first nonfiction book, Ghosts of the Illinois River, and I went to explore the Peoria Players Theater and to meet their resident spirit, Norman Endean, a director at the theater who passed away in late February of 1960, when he was just 34 years old. I stood in the backstage area of the theater and spoke aloud to Norman, asking him to do something to let me know of his presence there. (I had come to the theater on a break from work, and I hadn’t brought any equipment with me, no camera, no recorder, nothing.) I didn’t experience anything — yet. I happened to see a small desk sitting next to the back stage door, with a stack of plastic shot glasses sitting on it, for mixing paint for details on the stage sets. I plucked the top glass from the stack, thinking hey, it’s light, a spirit would have no trouble moving it. I put it down on a board and again, asked Norman to move the glass. Again, nothing.
A theater volunteer came up to me and introduced herself at that point, and we chatted as she gave me a tour of the back stage of the theater. We made our way back to the place we had started, and I spoke again to the air. “Okay, Norman, Pam’s given me a tour of your theater, but I have to go now, and I don’t know when I’ll be back. If you want to let me know that you’re here, this is your last chance.” Suddenly we both heard rustling noises coming from the catwalk above the stage, which is where Norman is known to hang out during performances. I said, “Oh, Norman, thank you so much!” I was totally stoked. Then, since I was raised to put things back where I found them, I picked up the plastic shot glass from where it was sitting on the board, and went to put it back with the rest of the glasses …
…and the stack of shot glasses was gone.
Flustered, I said, “Pam, there was … did you … ummmm … okay, there was a stack of plastic shot glasses here. You didn’t … you didn’t move them, did you?” I KNEW her answer was going to be “no”, because she’d been with me the whole time. She shook her head “no”, and we both started grinning. I told her about my experiment, asking Norman to move the cup, and pretty soon we were both laughing in sheer delight. “Norman’s a trickster,” Pam gasped. “He’s always doing things you don’t expect. “To be fair, you DID ask him to move the shot glass!”
I went back to the theater a while later, and did an hour’s worth of recording, just chatting with Norman in the hopes he would answer back. I only got one EVP out of that whole session, but it’s one of my all-time favorites. I sat on the stage, got myself settled in a cross-legged position, and said, “Hello Norman, it’s Sylvia, I’m here again … and I am SO happy to be here. And in that small pause, between “I’m here again” and “I’m so happy to be here”, you can hear a softly whispered okay.
You write about Rob Conover releasing 28 spirits from the Bowen building. Can you tell me more about that (any idea how, or any opinion about that theory?)
I am very accepting about the things other ghost hunters say they have done. Who am I to say any different? Rob claims that he can encourage spirits to go to the Light. Whether they actually do, is a matter of personal opinion. Now, I have read elsewhere that Rob did another “cleansing” (of an antique store here in Pekin). The owner of the store put his hand on the wall where Rob said the spirits had gone through their portal, and he felt that the wall there was significantly warmer than the rest of the building. So who knows? I’m certainly not going to tell someone they’re wrong, just because I happen to be a bit skeptical.
Are the tunnels open and accessible to tour groups?
Nope, sorry. There is a tunnel entrance under the sidewalk next to Stone Country (the former gymnasium). You pull up the wooden sidewalk and boom, there it is. But the guy who showed it to me didn’t offer to take me down there. And the tunnel entrances in the basement of the Pollak are blocked off. The entrance in the basement of the Bowen is actually filled in with solid concrete. This is because when the city of Bartonville put in Pfeiffer Road in the mid-1980s, it was felt that the traffic over the tunnel might cause the road to collapse. So they filled part of it in to avoid any accidents. Incidentally, the tunnels at the Peoria State Hospital weren’t used to transport patients (or, God forbid, to keep patients incarcerated in the darkness). They were steam tunnels; the hilltop had its own power plant. The tunnels were big enough for a human to crawl through, simply for maintenance purposes.
Have you ever had an experience where you brought someone home with you? (I swear this happened to me after Yorktown when I forgot to make my announcement prior to departure!)
I honestly don’t think I’ve brought anyone home with me, although I have heard PLENTY of stories from people who have! People have experienced cereal boxes pulled out of cabinets and the contents scattered over the kitchen floor after a visit to the state hospital. I’ve heard stories of empty passenger seats reclining and car radio stations randomly changing on the ride home from the asylum. When a ghost hunting group was at the Pollak, one of our volunteers looked out and saw an elderly man sitting in the ghost hunters’ van, apparently waiting for a ride off the grounds … but all of our guests were inside the building.
But me, I’m about as sensitive as a dining room table. Someone could be walking around behind me carrying their own severed head, and I wouldn’t notice. If anything DID follow me home, I think it would leave on its own after a couple of weeks, just because it would be bored stiff! That being said, I do a lot of presentations on the history and hauntings of the Peoria State Hospital, and have been told several times by sensitives that there is a nurse who regularly comes to those presentations and hangs out with me on the stage as I lecture. That gives me a great big happy.
Do you do any type of shielding ritual to protect yourself before you go into these places?
I don’t do any sort of ritual, but if I’m going into a place where I’ve never been, and especially if I think it’s going to be very active, I make myself a cup of guarding tea. I have a quart jar of water that has sat outside under the light of the full moon, and I make myself a tea of protective herbs, like comfrey, sage, nettle, a pinch of cinnamon, with honey for more strength. If I get squirrely during the investigation, I just picture the bright white light of the full moon and internalize that thought, and I feel better.
Dianne is quoted in the book as saying “It can affect your moods, if you let it.” I have certainly had that happen to me! Have you ever felt anything?
Like I said, I’m about as sensitive as a brick. There have been times when I’ve felt things, but they are few and far between. I will share a very powerful experience i had, though. This happened, again, at the Peoria Players Theater. I was at the theater with a couple of friends of mine, and Mid America Ghost Hunters (MAGH). Anne Pritchard was leading the group, and that’s who we stuck with all evening. I spent most of the evening in a state of pleasant interest, since I got to hang out with Norman, who is one of my favorite spirits.
But all that changed after we took our break, then went back to investigating. Anne told us that we were going to go up to the far corner of the backstage area, above the woodshop. Now, Norman is not the only spirit at the theater. There is also something very malevolent and nasty — and it likes to hang out in that particular corner of the theater. The four of us — Anne, my friends Gail and Allie, and I — climbed a set of wooden stairs to the loft over the woodshop. There is only enough room on the platform for four chairs, so we sat, and turned off our flashlights.
Immediately I felt like I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I was SO twitchy and SO scared, but I didn’t want to act like a little wuss, so I gritted my teeth and clenched my hands and swore to wait it out. But it took all my concentration and will power to sit in that chair and not go careening down the stairs in blind panic. I reached into my pocket and grabbed a smooth piece of rose quartz and started rubbing it, hoping to calm myself down. After only a few moments, I realized, Hey, this ain’t so bad. In fact, I think I’m starting to feel a little better. In fact, I said that aloud: “Hey, I’m starting to feel better.” Gail answered with a tight, “Mm-hm.”
At about that time, I noticed something very strange. Remember, we were on a platform, which put us about ten feet above the stage. I looked over to my right, and I could just see the stage area (the stage lights were on, but not the house lights, so the stage was clearly lit). At about eye level to where I was, ten or so feet above the stage, there was a snarling, irritated ball of rusty barbed wire, slowly rotating. I couldn’t look at it directly, I could just see it out of the corner of my vision, but it was definitely there. I told the other three about it, just because it was so weird.
On the way home, Gail told me why she had responded to me with a knowing “Mm-hmm”. “Norman was in several different places in the theater tonight, because there were several groups working there. But when you said you were starting to feel better, that’s when Norman came to us, up in the corner, and chased that evil entity away. My jaw dropped. “So that rusty barbed wire stuff I saw, that was the nasty spirit?” Gail nodded. “Norman chased it away, and put like a protective bubble around us so that it would stay away.” Then she gave me a funny look. “Sylvia, don’t you get it? Norman likes you.”
It is believed that there are 32-36 different active spirits in the Bowen building. Do you think they were all affiliated with the hospital in life, or do you think some travelers pass by from time to time? (While researching and traveling for Haunted Asylums, Prisons, and Sanatoriums one of the tour guides at Mansfield Reformatory opined that they had been experiencing more frequent reports of “travelers” – spirits believed to be passing through without any life ties to the prison. I believe that might be the case in a lot of buildings that host ghost tours and hunts).
Sure, I’ll buy that for a dollar. The Bowen volunteers are very excited about doing tours in their building, same as we are about the Pollak. I have no doubt that their enthusiasm acts as a draw for all kinds of spirits in the area. Now, whether or not they can be traced to the asylum is a whole other proposition. I think your hypothesis is a good one.
You talk about seeing an apparition of a girl coming up the stairs behind you in the Pollak Hospital. Was this your first time seeing an actual apparition? What are your thoughts on that in hindsight?
That was my first and, so far, only time seeing an apparition! But I swear she was there. I know she was there, because I made darned sure that there was someone behind me. I didn’t want to be the last in line coming out of a dark basement! I know what kind of spooky stuff is down there! I will always be intensely grateful for the experience. I have no idea who that girl was, or why she chose to appear wearing a blue puffy ski jacket (to blend in with the other investigators in the chill of a basement in early spring?), but I am so totally jazzed that I can finally say I have indeed seen a ghost.
Do you have a wish list of other locations you would like to investigate?
I would be keenly interested in spending the night in the U-505, the captured German submarine that is now housed at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. It might be interesting to spend the night in the Egyptian exhibit at the Field Museum too, but I’m not at all sure my nerves could stand it! I’d have to be with a group. (I DON’T do mummies well. Okay, I don’t do mummies AT ALL. Bleargh.) I’m also really looking forward to investigating a private residence in the Quad Cities. There’s a bathroom in the basement of the house that females tend to get trapped in, even though there’s no lock on the door. And there’s really creepy stuff going on with the attic. There are three large attic windows at the front of the house, and the homeowner said she put a piece of plywood over the window on the inside, because she got tired of turning all the lights off, leaving for the evening, and coming home to see all the lights on and a figure standing in the attic window. (My friend, who lives across the street, has seen the figure in the attic himself.) So she took a piece of plywood, propped it up against the window in the attic, and pushed a dresser against it to hold it in place. I noticed, while looking at the house, that five of the diamond-shaped panes of glass were missing out of the window. I commented on this, and the homeowner said, “Yeah, we’ve found those missing panes. They turn up in the attic … sitting on top of the dresser on the other side of the plywood.” Creepy!
What are you currently working on for your next non-fiction book?
A ghost hunter, who also happens to be a devout Christian, came to me with a hair-raising story that she wanted me to write and bring to the world. She was working very hard, going on a lot of investigations, and not getting up the next morning to attend church. She ran afoul of three demons, and ended up with a severe case of demonic attachment. This poor woman went through three exorcisms, but they didn’t do any good, because she wasn’t possessed — she was being demonically oppressed, which is different. Feral Trinity: A Ghost Hunter’s Encounter With Evil is her story. It should be out by the spring of 2015.
After that, I’ll be working on a book that’s very dear to my heart — I’ll be doing a book just on Rhoda Derry, a patient at the Peoria State Hospital. Shattered Love: The Rhoda Derry Story will be a look not only at Rhoda’s life, but at the effect her story has had even after her death.
Tell me about your writing process for Fractured Spirits.
Fractured Spirits was a lot of fun to write, but it was definitely a challenge. The whole concept behind the book was to collect people’s experiences at the asylum, but it quickly swelled to something much deeper than just a bunch of ghost stories. I collected stories for about six months, I guess, all while having my own experiences out there too. Then I was faced with a huge stack of papers, with stories from all over the asylum — the Bowen, the Pollak, the cemeteries, other buildings … I knew I had to collect all of this information and boil it down into something coherent.
That’s when I figured out that when you’re writing a nonfiction book, colored Post-It notes are your friends! I chose a color each for the Pollak, the Bowen, and the other buildings. I decided to count the ravines and cemeteries as one section, since they’re both outside, and pretty close together. Then it was a simple process of going through the notes and tagging each story as to which section it should go in, by color. That made the actual writing SO much easier.
While doing the research for the book, I figured out pretty quickly that you can’t understand the hauntings of a place without knowing something of its history — they’re inextricably intertwined. So that’s why the book starts off with a look at the history of the asylum, and at some of the patients of the Peoria State Hospital: Old Book, since his story is the most famous ghost tale to come out of the asylum, and Rhoda Derry, as her story is just SO compelling, strange, and sad. And the history of the Peoria State Hospital — and its methods of treating their patients — is unlike any other haunted asylum anywhere. The reason it’s so haunted is simply because the patients got such compassionate care there. It’s really an anomaly; a haunted asylum where patients weren’t abused. It’s such a fascinating place, and I’m so very lucky to be a part of the asylum family.
Keeping up with Sylvia:
People who are on Facebook can find her at the following Pages: Fractured Spirits and Ghosts of the Illinois River.
A sampling of accolades:
As seen on the new season of Ghost Hunters! (Season 9, Episode 3, “Prescription for Fear”)
“Sylvia Shults’s FRACTURED SPIRITS is a fascinating, touching, creepy, riveting read — a sort of Central Illinois Ghost Adventures — set in the defunct chambers of the Peoria State Hospital. Shults is a natural story-teller, and she gets at something deeper and more poignant here than mere phantoms…”
– Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling co-author of THE WALKING DEAD: THE ROAD TO WOODBURY