WAVERLY HILLS SANATORIUM
KENTUCKY'S HOSPITAL OF THE DAMNED
One of the first questions that people ask when they learn that I write about the supernatural for a living is whether or not I have ever seen a ghost. Since I confess to being as “psychic as a fence post”, I don’t go around seeing dead people. I have had some pretty strange experiences during my lifetime, but there have only been a handful of occasions when I actually believe saw ghosts. Could they have been tricks of the light or the products of an overactive imagination? It’s possible, at least in a couple of instances, but there is no question about what I saw at the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in 2002 – I saw a ghost.
And that should come as no surprise since Waverly Hills is one of the most haunted places that I have ever visited.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, America was ravaged by a deadly disease known by many as the “white death” --- tuberculosis. This terrifying and very contagious plague, for which no cure existed, claimed entire families and sometimes entire towns. In 1900, Louisville, Kentucky had the highest tuberculosis death rate in America. Built on low, swampland, the area was the perfect breeding ground for disease and in 1910; a hospital was constructed on a windswept hill in southern Jefferson County that had been designed to combat the horrific disease. The disease continued to run rampant through the region and eventually, with donations of money and land, a new hospital was started in 1924. waverly_tb
The new structure, known as Waverly Hills, opened two years later in 1926. It was considered the most advanced tuberculosis sanatorium in the country but even then, most of the patients succumbed to the disease. There was no medicine available at that time to treat the disease and so many patients were offered rest, fresh air and lots of nutritious food. Sadly, the main use for the hospital was to isolate those who had come down with the disease and to keep them away from those who had not. Families were tragically divided with parents, and even children, forced into the sanatorium with little contact with their loved ones.
Treatments for tuberculosis were sometimes as bad as the disease itself. Some of the experiments that were conducted in search of a cure seem barbaric by today’s standards but others are now common practice. Patient’s lungs were exposed to ultraviolet light to try and stop the spread of bacteria. This was done in “sun rooms”, using artificial light in place of sunlight, or on the roof or open porches of the hospital. Since fresh air was thought to also be a possible cure, patients were often placed in front of huge windows or on the open porches, no matter what the season. Old photographs show patients lounging in chairs, taking in the fresh air, while literally covered with snow.
Other treatments were less pleasant --- and much bloodier. Balloons would be surgically implanted in the lungs and then filled with air to expand them. Needless to say, this often had disastrous results, as did an operation where muscles and ribs were removed from a patient’s chest to allow the lungs to expand further and let in more oxygen. This blood-soaked procedure was seen as a “last resort” and many patients did not survive it.
While the patients who survived both the disease and the treatments left Waverly Hills through the front door, many others left through what came to be known as the “body chute”. This enclosed tunnel for the dead led from the hospital to the railroad tracks at the bottom of the hill. Using a motorized rail and cable system, the bodies were lowered in secret to the waiting trains. This was done so that patients would not see how many were leaving the hospital as corpses. Their mental health, the doctors believed, was just as important as their physical health.
There are many inaccurate reports as to how many people died during Waverly Hills’ decades of operation. Some claim that tens of thousands died with the walls of the hospital but this number is greatly exaggerated. According to Dr. J. Frank Stewart, a former assistant medical director at the hospital, the highest number of deaths to occur at Waverly Hills in a single year was one hundred and fifty-two. By 1955, those numbers had dropped to as low as forty-two deaths and it’s been estimated (based on death certificates that were filed) that approximately six thousand people died there, dating all of the way back to the original hospital records from 1911. While far short of the numbers being tossed about in the legends, it’s still a tremendous number of deaths to have occurred in a single structure.
By the late 1930s, tuberculosis had begun to decline around the world and by 1943, new medicines had largely eradicated in the United States. A small jump in new cases did occur after World War II and many soldiers returning from the war were housed at Waverly Hills. Dr. Stewart noted in his autobiography that many of the soldiers had cases that were so advanced that they did not live for more than a week after arriving at the hospital.
In 1961, Waverly Hills was closed down but was re-opened a year later as Woodhaven Geriatrics Sanitarium. There have been many rumors and stories told about patient mistreatment and unusual experiments during the years that the building was used an old age home. Some of them have been proven to be false but others have unfortunately turned out to be true. Electroshock therapy, which was considered to be highly effective in those days, was widely used for a variety of ailments. Budget cuts in the 1960s and 1970s led to both horrible conditions and patient mistreatments and in 1982, the state closed the facility for good.
Is any wonder, after all of the death, pain and agony within these walls, that Waverly Hills is considered to be one of the most haunted places in the country?
The buildings and land were auctioned off and changed hands many times over the course of the next two decades. In 1983, a developer purchased the property with plans to turn it into a minimum-security prison for the state of Kentucky. Plans were dropped after neighbors protested and a new idea to turn the former hospital into apartments was devised. A lack of financing caused this plan to be abandoned.
In March 1996, Waverly Hills and the surrounding land was bought by Robert Alberhasky, who ran Christ the Redeemer Foundation Inc. He had plans to construct the world's tallest statue of Jesus on the Waverly site, along with an art and worship center. The statue, which was inspired by the famed Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, was to be situated on the roof of the hospital at a cost of about $4 million. The next phase of his plan was to convert the sanatorium into a chapel, theater and gift shop for another $8 million. Not surprisingly, donations to the project fell far short of what was expected. During the first year, only $3,000 was raised towards the effort and the project was canceled in December 1997.
Alberhasky abandoned the Waverly Hills property and then, in order to recoup some of his costs, tried to have the property condemned so that the buildings could be torn down and redeveloped. This plan was blocked by the county and according to rumor, demolition work was then done around the southern edge of the building in order to undermine the structural foundations and collect insurance money. This scheme also failed and in 2001, Waverly Hills was sold to Charlie and Tina Mattingly, the current owners of the property.
By 2001, the once stately building had been nearly destroyed by time, the elements and the vandals who came here looking for a thrill. Waverly Hills had become the local “haunted house” and it became a magnet for the homeless, looking for shelter, and teenagers, who broke in looking for ghosts. The hospital soon gained a reputation for being haunted and stories began to circulate of resident ghosts like the little girl who was seen running up and down the third floor solarium, the little boy who was spotted with a leather ball, the hearse that appeared in the back of the building dropping off coffins, the woman with the bleeding wrists who cried for help and others. Visitors told of slamming doors, lights in the windows as if power was still running through the building, strange sounds and eerie footsteps in empty rooms.
Other legends told of a man in a white coat who was seen walking in the kitchen and the smell of cooking food that sometimes wafted through the room. The kitchen was a disaster, a ruin of broken windows, fallen plaster, broken tables and chairs and puddles of water and debris that resulted from a leaking roof. The cafeteria had not fared much better. Even so, a number of people had reported footsteps in the room, a door swinging shut under its own power and the smell of fresh baked bread in the air.
Perhaps the greatest – and most controversial – legend of Waverly Hills was connected to the fifth floor of the building. This floor of the old hospital consisted of two nurses’ stations, a pantry, a linen room, medicine room and two medium-sized rooms on both sides of the two nurses’ stations. One of these, Room 502, is the subject of many rumors and legends and just about every curiosity-seeker that had broken into Waverly Hills over the years wanted to see it. This is where, according to the stories, people have seen shapes moving in the windows, have heard disembodied voices and, if the legends are to be believed, have even jumped to their deaths.
There are a lot of legends about what went on in this part of the hospital but perhaps the biggest misconception was that this was a floor used to house mentally ill tuberculosis patients. This was not the case. The patients here were not insane, nor were they confined to their rooms. They were free to move about, just like patients on all of the other floors of the hospital. This floor, thanks to its design, allowed patients to still benefit from the fresh air and sunshine that was believed to cure, or at least extend the life of, those with the disease. It was centered in the middle of the hospital and the two wards, extending out from the nurses’ station, were glassed in on all sides and opened out onto a patio-type roof.
According to the stories, a nurse was found dead in Room 502 in 1928. She had committed suicide by hanging herself from the light fixture. She was twenty-nine years-old at the time of her death, unmarried and pregnant. Her depression over the situation led her to take her own life. It’s unknown how long she may have been hanging in this room before her body was discovered. And this would not be the only tragedy to occur with a connection to Room 502.
In 1932, another nurse who worked in the same room jumped from the roof patio and plunged several stories to her death. No one seems to know why she would have done this but many have speculated that she may have actually have been pushed over the edge. There are no records to indicate this but rumors continue to persist.
Those are the stories anyway… As with so many legends, no records exist to say that any of this actually happened. There are also conflicting accounts as to how the woman managed to hang herself. Some say that she did it from the light fixture, others from a pipe over the door and some say from the rafters. There are no rafters, the pipe over the door was part of a sprinkler system installed in 1972 and the light fixture is hung on a light decorative chain that would not hold the weight of a person. There is no actual documentation of either death, although some claim the stories were verified by a former staff member, John Thornberry, who died in 2006. According to obituary, he was born in 1922, which would have made him six and ten years old at the time of the alleged deaths that were connected to Room 502. This makes his “verification” more than a little problematic.
So, what happened in Room 502 that could cause so many people to claim paranormal experiences there? Overactive imaginations, or is it something real? It’s hard to say, but it seems likely that something occurred in that room to cause the legend to take root in the first place. What that might have been, no one knows. The story of Room 502 may have been loosely based on some forgotten facts but the truth remains buried under all of the speculation and rumor.
In spite of this, strange things continued to be reported. Over the course of the next year, volunteers working toward the restoration of the building experienced ghostly sounds, heard slamming doors, saw lights appear in the building when there should have been none, had objects thrown at them, were struck by unseen hands, saw apparitions in doorways and corridors and more. But none of the stories that I had been told could have prepared me for my first visit to Waverly Hills.
The first time that I visited the hospital was in September 2002. I was in town for a convention and a friend of mine, who had been working with the owners at Waverly Hills, offered to take me to see the place that I had been hearing a lot about. At that point, the old hospital had been opened for tours but had not reached the level of “infamy” that it has today. There had been no television shows, books or websites dedicated to it in those days.
It was literally a dark and stormy night when we arrived at the hospital and it had been raining all day. I was looking forward to seeing the place, no matter what the weather, and not because I was convinced that I would meet one of the former patients face to face -- it was simply to experience the place for myself. By this time, I had traveled all over the country and had been to hundreds of places that were alleged to be haunted. I had felt just this same way before exploring all of them, so Waverly Hills was no different. To me, it was just an old, spooky building with a fascinating history. The fact that it was alleged to be haunted simply added to the experience. I had long since abandoned the idea of expecting too much.
After meeting with the owners, we went inside and started our exploration of the building. The building was almost silent. All that I could hear was the sound of our own footsteps, our hushed voices and the drip of rain as it slipped through the cracks in the roof and splashed down onto the floor. I was given the full guided tour and saw various rooms, the treatment areas, the kitchen, morgue and on and on. We climbed the stairs to the top floor and I saw legendary Room 502, as well as the lights of Louisville as they reflected off the low and ominous-looking clouds that had gathered above the city.
The only floor that we skipped over was the fourth but my friend explained that this was the only floor in the building for which the entrance was kept locked and he had saved it for last. When we finally arrived on the fourth floor, I got the distinct feeling that something strange was in the air. I make absolutely no claims of any psychic ability whatsoever but there was just something about this floor of the hospital that felt different than any of the others. What had been nothing more than just an old ramshackle and broken down building suddenly seemed different. I can’t really put into words what felt so strange about it but it almost seemed to be a tangible “presence” that I had not encountered anywhere else in the place. And right away, eerie things started to happen.
We had entered the floor in what I believe was the center of the building. Behind us was a wing that I was told was not safe to enter. Sections of the floor had fallen in and this area was off-limits to tours and visitors. The strange thing about it was that both of us clearly heard the sounds of doors slamming from this part of the building. I can assure the reader that it was not the wind either. The wind was not strong enough that night to have moved those heavy doors and this clearly sounded as though someone was closing them very hard. When I questioned my friend about who else could be up there with us, he explained me about how unsafe the floors were in that section. I investigated on my own and determined that he was correct --- there was no one walking around on that part of the fourth floor.
I switched off my flashlight and we walked down the corridor using only the dim, ambient light from outside. The hallway runs through the center of the building and on either side of it are former patient rooms. Beyond the rooms is the “porch” area that opens to the outside. It was there where the patients were placed to take in the fresh air. There was no glass ever placed in the huge outer windows, which has left the interior of the floor open to the elements ever since. On this night, the windows also illuminated the corridor, thanks to the low-hanging clouds that glowed with the lights of Louisville. We walked down through the dark and murky corridor and I began to see shadows that flickered back and forth. I was sure that this was trick of the eye, though, likely caused by the lights or the wind moving something outside. But was where the corridor angled to the right that I got a look at something that was definitely not a trick of the eye!
In order for the reader to understand what I saw, I have to explain that the hallway ahead of us continued straight for a short distance and then turned sharply to the right. In the early 1900s, most institutions of this type were designed in this manner. It was what was dubbed the “bat-wing” design, which meant that there was a main center in each building and then the wings extended right and left, then angled again so that they ran slightly backward like a bird, or bat, wings. Directly at the angle ahead of us was a doorway that led into a treatment room. I only noticed the doorway in the darkness because the dim light from the windows beyond it had caused it to glow slightly. This made it impossible to miss since it was straight ahead of us.
We took a few more steps and then, without warning, the clear and distinct silhouette of a man crossed the lighted doorway, passed into the hall and then vanished into a room on the other side of the corridor! I got a distinct look at the figure and I know that it was a man and that he was wearing what appeared to be a long, white drape that could have been a doctor’s coat. The sighting only lasted a few seconds but I knew what I had seen.
And for some reason, it shocked and startled me so badly that I let out a yell and grabbed a hold of my friend’s jacket. I am not sure why it affected me in that way but perhaps it was the setting, the figure’s sudden appearance, my own anxiety --- or likely all of these things. Regardless, after my yell, I demanded that he turn on a light and help me to examine the room the man had vanished into. After my initial fright, I became convinced that someone else was on the floor with us. My friend assured me we were the only ones there but he did help me search for the intruder – in an empty room with only one way in or out. There was no one there. Whoever that figure had been he had utterly and completely vanished.
I doubt that I was the first person to see this mysterious apparition on the fourth floor and it’s unlikely that I will be the last. However, this sighting put Waverly Hills into a unique category for me in that I will firmly state that I believe it is haunted. Usually, for me to do that, I must have my own unexplainable experience that goes beyond a mere “bump in the night” or spooky photograph. In this case, I had actually seen a ghost and at the time, I could count the ghost sightings that I had had on two fingers.
Waverly Hills is haunted and for me, seeing was believing.