Digging at a c.1910 Insane Asylum dump, and other fortuitous finds!

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Dec 4, 2007
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Peoria Co.
I haven't been posting all too much lately because I have been busy, and haven't kept up on the recharging of my camera batteries. I just charged them though. I've found some interesting new dumps, and have found many interesting things in the dumps I've already been digging for a while, but the most "valuable" finds lately have been opportune purchases.

The most interesting dump and a few of its finds that I will relate is a C. 1910 dump located near the grounds of the "Peoria State Hospital" which was an Illinois state insane asylum in Bartonville, IL (the nurses quarters/administrative building pictured below) that went into operation in 1902 and lasted until 1973 or so. Many people claim that the area is haunted, as did the respectable superintendent Dr. Zeller during the first third of the 1900s... I have daydreamed about finding the old dump of this asylum for a while but never got out to look until October 29th. I found 2 asylum dumps that day, but only one received my focused attention.


It was not in an area I would have expected to find a dump, and under normal scouting circumstances it would have been missed, but I found it and it is a big, old dump loaded with the artifacts used in the asylum 100 years ago. I've dug literally thousands of broken pieces of thick ugly plain white institutional china (Crown hotel china and 4 other makes) which were undoubtedly used and broken by the inmates, and have found 3 undamaged pieces which I've kept because of the history associated with this institution. Because it is supposedly an extremely haunted area, there is a decent bit of literature out there discussing the asylum. Those ghosts won't keep me out of their dump though!

Unfortunately there are not many good bottles in the dump which survived being tossed along with thousands of pounds of broken heavy-duty china, but amongst many other more common keepers I did find a few nice pieces of cobalt blue glass:

These are both WT&Co. lattice poisons, 1 ounce I think, but the one on the left was dug without its top. I was a bit upset, but I found the missing piece about an hour later while sifting so I figure it will be a nice glue-back to give someone. The one on the right has a nicer color but is chipped on the back side, not badly though. First time I've ever dug this type of poison, and I bet there are more where these came from! I'd kill to get a quart size of this bottle, if they even made them.


1 of 4 ABM cobalt inks I've found so far, though one of them revealed a crack in the lip after rubbing off the ash. Just about as many of these turned up as the junky clear inkwells, so that is nice.

Syringe with cobalt plunger rod. First syringe I've found.

The best items, however, are the things that would probably be overlooked were I to focus only on bottles. For the first time I have decided to take a more archaeological approach to the excavation of this dump due to the potent historical implications inherent to this purely institutional refuse, and the sifting finds have been truly fascinating. Turned bone nipple/nozzles for feeding invalids, thimbles, hundreds of uniform buttons, buckles, ornamental brass items, and most importantly; the institutional silverware, which prompted me to sift this material in the first place.

Put yourself into the mind of some unfortunate schizophrenic or manic-depressive who was deposited by their uncaring or impatient family into such a place 100 years ago. Personal freedom and self-expression was limited, and resistance to the institutional machine could only be manifested in small ways. This is where the broken dishes and mangled silverware enters the fascinating scene. Little else can be more personal or potent than an item which was consciously ruined by an asylum inmate for whatever reason, or even better, an item crafted into a tool from a stolen piece of silverware... Normally I gather the cutlery and plumbing fittings I find while digging to sell as scrap (2 bucks a pound now), but haven't dared do the same to this material. I have never seen silverware that is mangled like the items found in this dump, let alone in such quantities. Selling as scrap or just ignoring these things would be like discarding the last threads of the memory of a misunderstood and mistreated soul who has nothing else but a concrete gravestone debossed with an impersonal, anonymous number to remind us that he or she, whoever they were, once was born, lived a painful life, and died before I, or even my grandparents were the united unicellular components necessary for the generation of our own bodies and lives. Stuff like this makes me get lost within my own head, and in a way it is an intrinsically beautiful thing; to immerse oneself within one's objectively rudimentary understanding of the ways of the past in order to connect through the medium of the artifacts with a multitude of nameless people who lived and breathed and loved and died so very long ago.

Here is some of the several pounds of mangled silverware, and 2 of the most plain yet fascinatingly evocative items I've ever excavated:

On the left are a butterknife, and what is left of a butterknife of the same kind after intentionally and intelligently altered to be a wickedly sharp scalpel blade almost impossible to remove from a person's grip (far easier to deflect or disarm a flimsy full-length blade, which certainly occurred to the maker). It is still sharp enough to slice through cardboard, which is not common with excavated brass. This was almost certainly made by an inmate 100 years ago. Whether it was for benign or nefarious purposes it is hard to say, though regardless of the motives which fueled its manufacture it is what it is.

The spoons at the top are all bent in obviously unusual ways, with the 3 spoons bent into compact "s" forms being particularly interesting. Another odd piece is half of the bowl of the spoon, the other half and handle apparently snapped off, which was then flattened. Haven't figured that one out.

Next are 3 altered forks, the 2 on the left having just been bent up by the crazies, but the one on the right was designed intelligently to be a nail-puller and pry bar, as evidenced by the bevel intentionally ground on one side of the broad working end. All the grooves, including the central nail pulling groove, were ground in by the maker, as they extend beyond the depth of the gaps between the tines of this style of fork. Also, both sides were narrowed to make the working end less broad. It is a fascinating piece of handiwork and would have been a very effective tool to have in that kind of environment. If you were locked in your cottage or room and wanted to attempt an escape, or if you desired access to the opiates locked away in the pharmacy department's cabinets, this would be a nice tool to have.

Compared to a (more) normal fork you can see the level of alteration and time investment that went into the tool:


Humble looking pieces of old scrap metal, but I wouldn't trade them for all the bottles in this dump were I granted the option. They are just uber cool and immensely personal pieces with a rock-solid provenance, and are far more unique than any of the glass items one could find in the dump. I want more of these handmade insane asylum inmate tools very very super extremely badly! [&:]


The next item is a nice light amber 8 ounce medicine bottle I dug out of a cistern. It is beautifully iridescent and was by far the best thing I got out of there, along with the more humble accompaniment of about 15 Thompson-Houston hand-blown light bulbs and a few slick flasks. Dunno if it was from an actual patent med company or if it was from a pharmacy but regardless, it is quite nice as the only embossed item from that cistern, and very pretty in person due to the excellent Benicia effect it displays (anyone who would tumble it is silly):


Switching gears here, the focus is now on a few items purchased lately. The first is an extremely awesome bitters bottle from Peoria, IL that I thought I would have to dig myself were it to be added to my collection, as the market prices they get on eBay are well above what I am comfortable spending on one of many expensive pieces I seem to "need" for the Peoria collection. It is embossed:

"Great Western Tonic Bitters Patented. Jany.21.1868" on one panel and "O.P. Bissell & Co Peoria ILL" on the opposite panel.

It is un-dug and attic (or crawlspace) mint with not a speck of damage anywhere. The glass is very dark reddish amber, almost black when not held against a light, it has an applied-lip, and was made by Lorenz and Wightman (L&W on hingemold base) which places it at the age of 1874 or before and is the earliest and crudest of the bottle variants out there, as far as I know. The cork and wire cork-puller are from a Listerine bottle, which is a nice little bonus.



I found it at the "Illinois Antique Center" in Peoria while browsing the booths with my father. I was in a separate part of the store when I heard him call for me from a distant area. I found him and looked at the milk he was wondering about on a shelf, but immediately my eyes were drawn to this bottle in a different glass cabinet. I became almost sick with excitement when I stepped closer and saw that it was priced at a paltry 42 bucks, then immediately went to get a worker to open the case so I could inspect it. It was perfect, so jittery with excitement father and I exchanged knowing glances and I told her to take it up front with the few books I had already picked out. Dad and I had an awestruck exchange about the pure essence of awesome which manifested in that sweet deal and highly desired addition to the collection. When they made out the receipt I learned that the booth was having a 10% off sale so the bottle only cost me 37.80! [:D] These things are worth a good 250+ if memory serves, which makes it the best deal I've found in my years of going to that antique mall. The bottle gods must have known that I really wanted one of these, and then threw me a BIMAL bone. [:)]

The last thing I'll be relating is a photo album from a trip to Silver City, New Mexico in 1916. It had 20 on it but was 50% off so I got it for 10. Woulda paid 20 in a heartbeat but I won't scoff at a discount!

It has many interesting photographs, including some of the native Indians/Mexicans and their rude dwellings, one of some cowboys, several of the US military encampments and artillery supply depot presumably deployed as damage control in border zones during the Mexican Revolution, and others of the local mines and their machinery and of Silver City itself. Some good stuff.










It is hard to see, but this is a view of a stream that has a series of shacks built around it. The 2 piles that look like rocks on the right side of the stream are actually big piles of mostly cans and some bottles. The items in the creek are dumped cans and what looks to be a 1 gallon jug. I've never seen a photo of a small-scale dump like this before, it is really cool. There is another photo which shows a different refuse-strewn part of the settlement. It makes me salivate, looking at the stuff laying on the surface like that, lol.

Cowboys I suppose?

Top photo is of "QM Supplies"with a bunch of howitzers and stacks of military paraphernalia and fuel drums next to it. Next is a bunch of oldschool military trucks parked in the desert. Bet they didn't have very good air filters back then. I imagine that this material was deployed to deal with border incursions related to the Mexican revolution. Pretty cool photo album with nifty and varied coverage of the New Mexico landscape back in March of 1916.

Woohoo for antiques! [:)]


Well-Known Member
Dec 24, 2004
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SW Michigan
Nice finds and great buys on your purchases. Thanks for sharing pics of all of it with us and good luck digging more of that dump. Keep us posted. Paul


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Mar 8, 2007
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Lehigh Valley USA
Cool ride through the nut farm.
We have one in our town that just closed down,I think its 1906.We already know where the dump is. gonna have to check it out one day.


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Jun 16, 2005
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San Jose
This has to be one of the Top 5 posts of the year. Your eloquent description and personal reactions are a great read. Looking forward to any and all follow-ups of finds from the Asylum Dump. A really good find in an antique mall type of place these days is almost unheard of. I don't know of a worthwhile antique store/mall anywhere in the Bay Area currently that I'd even bother with.


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May 31, 2005
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Lexington, Ky.
Good read Plumby! Love the silverware tools... stuff like that is way cool! Hopefully there are LOTS more of those poisons in there. If so, you got a good chance of digging a clear, green or even Amber diamond and lattice!!! They are ALL three worth more than the cobalt (especially the green and Amber)! Can't wait to see what else you pull out of that Crazy dump!!! ;)

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