No one is exactly sure where and when tuberculosis originated, but it has been called many other names over the centuries: consumption, phthisis, scrofula, Pott’s disease, the white plague and the white death. It can be found in humans and animals back to antiquity and beyond. The organism causing tuberculosis has been found in relics from ancient Egypt, India, and China. Among Egyptian mummies spinal tuberculosis, known as Pott’s disease has been detected by archaeologists. Tubercular decay has even been found in the remains of the once mighty Bison in Wyoming. In the middle ages it was called the King’s Evil and it was believed that the kings of France and England could cure it just by touching you and there are folklore tales of it being associated with vampirism before the mid 1700s. Even though there is a cure for it now, 8 million cases a year are reported worldwide. It is a slow, agonizing disease; one that probably had you wishing for death before a cure was found in the 20th century.
In 1854 sanatoriums were used for persons afflicted by consumption with a strict regimen of bed-rest, fresh air at all times – patients are even moved outside in their beds in all weathers – a healthy diet and a gradual increase in activity levels. It wasn’t until 1868 that researchers realized it was contagious and a myriad of treatments are tried and discarded over the next 90 years before science started helping in the 20th century. There were simple procedures for less advanced patients including not allowing them to talk so the lungs were not taxed. Scary sounding procedures known as Pneumoectomy, Phrenicotomy, Thoracoplasty, Artifical Pneumothorax and Shot bags were used for the advanced patients (you can read about each one HERE)
In 1944, Doctors Schatz, Bugie and Waksman announced the discovery of a drug called ‘Streptomycin‘ and that the first patient had been successfully treated with the drug. In 1952 Doctors Robizek and Selikoff at Seaview Hospital, New York, use a new drug called ‘Isoniazid‘ to treat TB patients. In 1960 is was realized that a combination of these two drugs could completely cure the disease and the “Edinburgh Method”, as it would later be called, was started on TB patients around the world with resounding success.
It is no wonder why sanatoriums that are still standing are a mecca for both ghost hunters and paranormal investigators around the world and this brings us to the purpose of this article.
As always, let me preface this by saying that I am in NO way implying that Waverly Hills Sanatorium does not have reasons to be haunted. It most certainly saw a lot of death in the TB days and accusations of abuse of the elderly in the later part of the 20th century. My ongoing goal is to provide you with accurate information so that IF you are going to investigate you know the real facts, not the manufactured ones, beforehand. The patients at Waverly were real people with real lives that were disrupted or ended by this horrendous disease, and the story SHOULD be about the great strides made at this cutting edge facility to try to give them a longer life, not the fakelore that has been fabricated about events that never happened. I personally find it disrespectful to walk into the place a person took their last agonizing breath and try to communicate with them by asking questions that have no basis in reality.
Waverly Hills in Kentucky was land that was purchased by Major Thomas Hays in 1883. Frustrated with distance of the nearest school he arranged to use a nearby one room building and gave aspiring teacher Elizabeth Harris her first teaching position. She is credited with naming the school Waverley and Major Hays liked it so much he named the rest of the property Waverley Hills.
In a legislative meeting in 1906 the Board of Tuberculosis Hospital was formed and by 1908 enough funds were available from an imposed tax levy to start purchasing land for a sanatorium. Major Hays died in 1909 and the board bought the Hays farm, which consisted of 125 acres, they kept the name it had been given in 1883.
On July 26, 1910 a 40 bed hospital was opened but quickly outgrew its capacity. Patients were living in tents on the property and over the years buildings were added, including some frame buildings acquired from the Army surplus in Fort Knox. In 1923 a bond was issued in the amount of one million dollars to buy surrounding property and build a new facility. On October 20, 1926 the hospital was dedicated with much fanfare.
Immediately after the opening all the children from the original hospital were moved to the 5th floor where play equipment had been set up for them.
The popularity of Waverly Hills Sanatorium quickly grew, with people around the world trying to get themselves a bed. In 1929 it was decreed that only residents (of at least one year) of Louisville and Jefferson county could be admitted to this hospital, causing many to move there just to be allowed to get treatment at Waverly.
Over the decades it repeatedly received high marks and praise from every inspection it got. Numerous articles were written about the outstanding care, compassion and education the patients and community received.
All patients had schedules customized to the severity and location of their disease, including time during the day when they were not allowed to talk to give their lungs a rest but social life inside the walls was promoted to the fullest. They had weekly entertainment, religious services, vocational classes and even competitions.
In the 1940s there was talk of combining the health departments of Waverly and City Hospital, but the conditions at City Hospital were so bad an uproar was raised until “things at City Hospital were run as well as Waverly is now run”.
In 1961 the gates to Waverly were closed after the few remaining patients were transferred to Hazelwood Sanatorium, the state TB hospital, decidedly marking the end of an era.
In 1962 the facility was converted to a geriatric facility that closed amidst charge of abuse in 1980.
Ownership changed hands a few times until it was purchased by the current owners in 2001. In the last 15 years countless tv shows, movies, films and home video have been recorded there all in the hopes of catching the holy grail of “ghost hunting” evidence.
I’m sure no one can say exactly when the tales of hauntings started. I’ve seen interviews with nurses from the geriatric phase talk about weird goings on, but nothing before that (not to say people weren’t reporting it, just that I can’t find documentation) Someone somewhere knows who made up the erroneous tales that have fascinated folks so much they are willing to fork over their hard earned money to participate in ghost tours or private investigations but it is doubtful that information will ever be forthcoming. Current rates are $22.86 for a two hour guided public tour up to $1500 for an overnight private investigation. Rumors have been circulating for years that the current owners want to turn it into a hotel but nothing has come of it yet. Still, you can give them even more money and obtain cute items via their gift shop.
Don’t get me wrong, I realize a place this expansive costs a lot to keep up and I am all for contributing to the preservation of a historical location. But (and yes, with me there is always a “but”) if I am going to hand over my hoarded grocery money or pawn my first born to spend a night there, how about giving me some real history or so I can conduct a real investigation?
When you google Waverly Hills, or watch any of the countless tv shows and movies filmed there, you are usually told (in no particular order) that there were over 63,000 deaths there, a nurse by the name of Mary Hillenburg was either murdered or committed suicide in room 502 (the year this supposedly happened varies depending on who you listened to), the fifth floor was for the mental patients, there was a blood draining room where dead patients were sliced open like wild game to bleed out thru a drain that led to the sewer system, there was a room for electro shock therapy and the death tunnel was used to remove bodies of people because they were dying at a rate of 1 or 3 (depending on who you’re listening to) an hour.
In 2001, Waverly was featured on Scariest Place on Earth (Season 2 Epi#23) with the new owner, starting the perpetuation of bad information and in 2006 a “documentary” called SPOOKED The Ghosts Of Waverly Hills Sanatorium covered all of these things in glorious detail via interviews with previous patients, staff employees from both the sanatorium and the geriatric center, some security people, a band, a ghost tour guide from a local paranormal group and the current owners. I have to give one of the previous patients some props here, when asked about those claims, he would state those were things he did not know or had never heard about, and in what he DID talk about he came across as a man that doesn’t forget anything. TV shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures followed suit… using all the same mantra in the history they presented. I knew it was going to be bad when the opening of the “documentary” showed erroneous facts. It says that in 1928 there were so many deaths from TB in Kentucky that a monstrous sanatorium was built, complete with body chute AKA The Death Tunnel, constructed to remove the bodies and then informs us that it closed in 1958. Now, if you’ve forgotten the timeline I gave you above, the original hospital was built in 1910, a larger one was constructed and opened in 1926 and it closed in 1961. See? Bad start to said “documentary”
In one of his opening remarks, a tour guide informs us that in the first year alone (1926) 20,000 people died there. As you can see here, there were only 5,732 deaths in the entire county for that year
Heck, there were only 32,677 deaths in the ENTIRE state of Kentucky in 1926
One of the biggest untruths told is the amount of deaths at Waverly Hills. It is usually stated as more than 60,000 or 63,000 or some number like that.
Sometime after I started doing research for this article, I met a wonderful woman by the name of Pam and over the course of time I like to think that even though we have never met, we have become the best of friends. I originally tracked her down because of the Waverly Hills Memorial Website (which I linked near the beginning of this with the treatment descriptions). I realized rather quickly that she could corroborate some of the research I had already done, so being the expert researcher that I am, I tracked her down on facebook and forced her to have a phone conversation with me. 2 hours and a steno pad half full of notes later, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit, on many levels. She had started working on a project to get copies of all the death certificates for anyone who died at Waverly to try to prove the real death totals. In case you don’t know it, when someone dies their death cert has to state who, when, where, why and how (those last two are known as cause of death and manner of death). This is a sample death cert of someone that died at Waverly. You will see that it gives her name, the date she died, the location she died and what she died of (among other information that is fantastic for genealogy researchers)
I joined Pam on her mission and while we are not there yet, our projections will put the real number of deaths between 5000-6000 (leaving room for a some that are not able to be identified as specific deaths at Waverly) because on average there were about 105 deaths per year it was open. Some years had far far less than that, and the highest death rates were right before WWII was over and right after. 1944 saw 151 deaths, 1945 & 1946 saw 162 (the highest number for any one year). This is just an example of some of the years we have completed, and as you can see people were not dying at a stated rate of 1 or even 3 per hour.
- 1953 = 65
- 1952 = 79
- 1951 = 107
- 1950 = 89
- 1949 = 103
- 1948 = 107
- 1947 = 121
- 1946 = 162
- 1945 = 162 WWII ends
- 1944 = 151
- 1943 = 126
- 1942 = 119
- 1941 = 111
- 1940 = 108
- 1939 = 81 WWII starts
- 1938 = 114
- 1937 = 117
- 1936 = 85
- 1935 = 88
- 1934 = 11
- 1932 = 91
The “body chute” or “death tunnel” tales are tall tales. This tunnel was originally built as a supply tunnel. Newspaper articles talk about the special rail spur that was put in at the end of it near the power station so that supplies could be moved by rail cart, a much easier way than they were doing it. Employees also used it as an entrance when the weather was bad. Yes, bodies were removed via the tunnel, but not because they were dying at such a fast rate. According to Dr. Frank Stewart’s autobiography he relates a story of how the tunnel stopped being used for body transport before his time there (he started there in 1945). If you find yourself in the tunnel, please remember this was a pathway for the deceased to their final resting place.
As mentioned earlier, the 5th floor housed children for a time and it was also where patients received Heliotherapy. It never, at any time, housed mental patients. All people that suffered from both mental deficiencies and tuberculosis were sent to Central State Hospital. Which brings us to the famous suicidal/murdered nurse.
I don’t know who Mary Hillenburg was in real life, but if she was in fact a real person (I can’t find her on a census anywhere), she is rolling in her grave. Depending on who you listen to, this poor unmarried nurse found out she was pregnant by one of the doctors and either A. committed suicide by hanging herself from a pipe (or light fixture) or B. was murdered in 1926 or 1928 or in the 1940s in room 502 depending on who you get your information from. As you can see below, only two women with that last name ever died in the state of Kentucky, both after Waverly closed. If someone ever tells you that she hung herself from a pipe, please please please ask how that is possible since the pipes in that room were not installed until the 1970s when a sprinkler system was put in. There is a member of a band who admits in the Spooked “documentary” that he stole the room number on a visit there and says bad luck followed him in the form of getting kicked out of his home and his recording space. Now I am not judgmental of how a person looks/acts… much, but the from the impression made in the video I’m pretty sure there were probably other mitigating circumstances to his “bad luck”.
There are are no newspaper articles anywhere talking about an incident with a person of this name between 1920 and 1950 either. Surely such a grisly event would have caught the media’s attention? There are NO accounts of suicide by any name occurring at Waverly on death certificates or newspaper or book accounts. No hangings, no jumping out of windows, no slashing of wrists…. Nothing.
There WAS a nurse that died of a heart attack there in the 1945/46 fiscal year, but no suicides. Dr. Frank Stewart talks about a suicide attempt of a patient turned intern during his tenure there (he was there from 1945-1955) but the attempt failed and the woman died much later on of cancer. In his 1991 autobiography, Sunrise – Sunset, he talks about his time at Waverly
I was assigned to the third floor where I had 106 beds, most of them full at all times. We had a lot of deaths then, mostly soldiers who were coming back from the war in about 1946 and 1947. They were so far advanced that some of them didn’t live more than a week after arriving at Waverly.”
” Each doctor was required to try to help keep up with *the 17% requirement of autopsies on deaths in order to hold an A classification. The doctors rotated on the coverage for weekends. I remember one weekend when I was on call for the whole hospital; we had 4 deaths. Out of the four, I did three autopsies. We would collect the specimens of all of the organs, observe any abnormalities, dictate the gross findings, and take specimens to be sent to the pathology laboratory for further examination. One of these years, we had 152 deaths, which was the highest in the history of the institution.
**It is believed that the number stated of 152 is a typo since the highest number of deaths of 162 in 1945 and 1946 occurred during his time there.
A lot of times people are taken to a room and told it was the electro shock room. It even supposedly has an opening that other people looked through to watch these treatments. This kind of therapy was not used at Waverly and it is obvious by the labeling on the control there that it was some kind of maintenance room.
This room is in the same wing as the infamous “blood draining room”. According to legend the dead were taken to this room, hung from hooks and sliced open so their blood could empty out into the drain in the floor. Um, yeah… why would that even be something that would be done (unless you’re making a cheesy horror movie about bad things happening at “hospital”). Blueprints for Waverly prove that this room was a transformer room, next to the power distribution room and even the door says “fire door”. But hey, I guess if you were going to disguise the “bad” room at a hospital that would be the way to do it right? No, I don’t think so either.
There are many other “legends” told about the place when you take your ghost tour there (some involving kids named Timmy or Mary Lee), I have just tried to address the biggies here and leave it up to you to decide for yourself what you do and don’t believe. In fairness, I must note that I have spoken with some recent investigators that have gone there and it DOES seem like some of this “information” has been taken out of the tour script and I am not at all saying the current owners do not love and care about Waverly, that fact is evident in the things they do to try to raise money to keep it going and get it renovated. BUT… when I did an informal survey of people (both investigators and the general public, including my own mother) the damage done by the tv shows and past tour guides (especially the one featured in Spooked) is still there. They are still under the assumption that these things are “true”. It’s going to take a long time for the owners to get out from under the halo of bad information given by the people they previously trusted to relay the history of this place.
Waverly Hills Sanatorium was a place of innovation, of caring, of learning and of healing and I find it really sad that those great attributes do not seem to be the focus of this great institution anymore. This building and those that lived and died there deserve to be remembered with dignity and respect and it is my greatest wish that one day that will happen by the majority, not the minority. A minority that includes people like Pam Brooks and John & Angela Amerine who, like me, have dedicated years to finding and promoting the real history to those that would listen. I did a lot of research myself, but this article would in no way be possible without Pam, John & Angela and the time they gave me when they saw I was interested in the real story and I thank them for their dedication to the truth and the desire to make people see Waverly Hills Sanatorium as it truly was.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Angela Amerine who passed away in 2015. She worked so tirelessly with her husband John to get the real information and I am proud to carry on the legacy she left.