In 1913, Senator Beall introduced a bill that would appropriate $500,000.00 for a new hospital to be built that would tackle overcrowding issues within the mental health systems of the time. By 1917, after a lengthily build that was wrought with logistical problems, the Alton State Hospital began housing patients. Small groups were already being housed within existing structures on the property, but with the opening of the main structure came an influx of new patients.
Dr. George Zeller became the hospital’s superintendent and immediately enacted some new therapy protocols. Zeller was a pioneer in the mental health field, credited with the creation of occupational therapy to treat insanity. Many of the patients housed at Alton worked on the grounds in the tobacco fields or on the farm and every patient had free reign of the buildings and grounds. Zeller was a believer in the non-restraint system, so doors remained open and unlocked and the windows allowed for sunlight and fresh air. Absent were the bars and mesh screen used at similar institutions of the time. This practice was short lived as many of the patients would occasionally roam to neighboring farm houses, scaring local farmers and doing damage to property.
Between 1917 and 1919, government agencies pleaded with Zeller for residents at Alton to be restrained for their own safety, not to mention the safety of the staff there. Patients were not only causing pandemonium in the area, but sometimes met their demise in their wanderings. Several patients were struck by trains and were killed instantly while others succumbed to injuries and sicknesses that might have been prevented or contained by simply locking the wards or individual rooms.
In 1921, Zeller resigned and returned to the Peoria State Hospital in Peoria, IL, where he’d been superintendent prior to moving to Alton. Zeller returned to address issues of neglect and abuse of the patients there and, once he saw the way the patients were being treated and housed, he ordered his staff to each take an 8 hour shift, living as the patients lived. Zeller himself spent time as a patient, moving between the wards to sort out the issues in each. In 1938, Zeller passed away from a pulmonary infection, but his philosophy of curing the sick instead of treating them as hardened criminals, was adopted for a time at Peoria.
By 1921, Alton held 757 patients monitored by 117 staff members, an average of 6 patients assigned to each employee. Hydrotherapy became a popular form of treatment. In fact, Alton alone gave over 65,000 hours of hydrotherapy that year. Hyperactive patients got “calming” baths while lethargy was treated with “invigorating sprays” or “wraps.” Although the term hydrotherapy might conjure a long, relaxing soak or a spritz for a pick-me-up, this could not be further from the truth. Patients were often left to soak in tubs for hours or even days. They were strapped in and unable to move, having to ask permission to use the facilities. Patients were sometimes wrapped in towels drenched in ice water because treating the body with extreme cold would make them easier to handle. There were even cases of patients being chained to a wall in Christ pose and sprayed with a fire hose.
In 1940, Electroconvulsive Therapy (or ECT) was introduced. ECT is a procedure in which small electrical currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a seizure. ECT is said to alter brain chemistry and reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses, but in the early years, it did more harm than good. As you can imagine, it is impossible to know how a person will react when you’ve zapped their brain with electricity. You might hit the “reset” button and help the person to lead a more productive life or you could essentially cause irreparable brain damage. With electroshock came lobotomies, used to treat those considered too far gone for ECT to be effective. The patient population at this time was 1,775. The capacity was only 1,084. That year, 39 lobotomies were performed at Alton and new medications were introduced, allowing doctors to treat patients in less invasive ways. By 1955, the population at Alton was 2100, over twice the recommended occupancy.
As is often the case with locations like Alton State Hospital, the energies of those who passed away on the property are undoubtedly trapped there. The practice of electroshock, lobotomy, and hot/cold water treatments disguised as therapy were beyond inhumane and likely explain the paranormal activity at the hospital. Alton still functions as a mental institution today.
Many people report hearing unusual noises, doors slamming shut and the occasional sounds of disembodied voices whispering to one another. The messages they are trying to relay are indecipherable. Tours of the building are strictly prohibited, but staff members at Alton have reported seeing orbs and experiencing cold spots. They claim to feel as if they are being watched and, occasionally, are touched by unseen hands while doing their rounds. Those who have taken photos of the building and surrounding grounds while visiting loved ones at the institution have captured images of orbs that seem to have human faces in them. Hearing disembodied voices is common and people have reported seeing ghostly mists in the cemetery (located on the property) as well as near the railway tracks.
A nurse claims to have heard a voice ask, “Who’s That?” from behind her. She turned around to answer, but found there was nobody there. Nobody else was around her at the time. Later that day, the exact same thing happened to another nurse in the same spot on the ward.
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