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An Echo In Time: The Waverly Hills Sanatorium

No Room Left In Hell

By J.T. Ryder

Sitting atop what would otherwise be a serene picture of the rolling hills of Louisville, Kentucky, a monstrous structure holds the valley in its malevolent gaze. What was once a homestead purchased in 1883 by Major Thomas H. Hays for his family has now become the site of death and despair, overshadowing what was once a contented manor with its own moldering memories. The name Waverly Hills was attributed to the schoolmistress that Hays had hired to teach his children. She loved the series of Waverley novels written by Sir Walter Scott and dubbed the little building in which she taught as the “Waverly School.” Major Hays, thinking that the name suited the whole area; he ascribed it to his land, christening it Waverly Hills.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the wasting disease of Consumption came to Northwestern Kentucky with a vengeance. The white plague, as the scourge of tuberculosis was known, found a virulent home within the wet lowlands and swamps of the area. Through an act of Congress in 1906, monies were set aside for the eventual purchase of land to erect a sanatorium to house those afflicted with this all consuming affliction. The site of Waverly Hills was purchased and the original structure had the capacity to house some forty patients or so. With the aggressive nature of the disease and with no antibiotics available at the time, a larger, more permanent hospital was erected in 1926.

With so little known as to the nature of the disease, coupled with the inability to actually cure it, the methods of treatment ranged from simply misguided to sheer barbarism. Fresh air, bed rest and sun treatments were de rigueur of the day, and while this seems like a rather innocuous and possibly ineffective way in dealing with such a disease, the treatments were given regardless of the weather. Pictures exist showing patients in front of open floor length windows; semi reclined and covered in snow. Another bizarre method was called the shot bag treatment wherein a patient would be encumbered with bags of buckshot, sometimes up to five pounds, slung across their collar bones to “restrict the excursions of the lungs, making them quiescent, teaching correct breathing and produces partial rest for the lungs.”

Some of the more brutal treatments were reserved for the operating room. The Phrenicotomy, otherwise known as the phrenic nerve crush, was when the nerve to the diaphragm was crushed, thereby paralyzing the diaphragm and lessening the movement and capacity of that lung in a vain attempt to heal it. Thoracoplasty was a surgical procedure wherein up to nine ribs were removed in a wasted effort to ease the restrictions of the infected lungs. It is easy to see how the death tolls from Waverly Hills have been estimated at up to 63,000, although these numbers are in dispute. A tunnel, originally used to pump steam heat from the boilers at the bottom of the hill to the main building, eventually became known as “the body chute.” Feeling that the mental health of their patients was just as important as their physical well being, the staff of the facility chose to transport the dead out of the building down this 525 foot tunnel to the waiting hearses.

The Sanatorium remained operational until the introduction of streptomycin, the antibiotic used in the treatment of tuberculosis, dramatically reduced the number of virulent cases. Waverly Hills closed in 1962 only be reopened in 1963 as Woodhaven Geriatrics Hospital. Woodhaven closed in 1981 under a cloud of notoriety stemming from allegations of rampant patient abuses. The five story brick and limestone structure fell into disuse…but it never fell silent. The bat-wing arms of the hospital seemingly held out in a dark embrace, drawing the curious and the broken into her secret catacombs.

The inside of the main building is a chaotic rabbit warren of rooms and hallways, a continuous landscape of bedlam and disarray. Falling plaster and peeling paint has become the physical manifestation of an essential crumbling essence, imbuing the building itself with a sense of sadness and loss. Graffiti is scattered throughout the lower level hallways, stairwells and rooms. Most of it is just vacuous vandalism; the juvenile markings of those who need to prove to themselves that they had the bravado to venture into the notorious structure. Still other images cross over from mere graffiti into disturbing works of art. A black demonic face, appearing as if it had been burnt into the wall, gazes out from one porous plaster wall. Ornate crosses, angels and bizarre symbols line the hallways while, in one room, a floor to ceiling depiction of an angry face with its mouth open holds sway over anyone who comes under its gaze. A hole in the wall is held within the face’s open mouth and the broken masonry has been converted into the jagged teeth within the gaping maw, becoming a desperate passageway further into the bowels of the building.

Howls of pain, helplessness and despair have been recorded within these walls, some of them quite hollowed distinct. The slamming of doors and the caterwauling of the damned echo and resonate through the decaying corridors. Lights and shadows play upon the unfortunate guest’s eyes while the damp heat of the plastered interior may suddenly plummet into an unsettling chill as a nameless presence is felt. Many visitors have reported a small child, seen so often that he has been nicknamed Timmy, who seems to like to play an interactive game of hide and go seek with the guests. Other, far more disturbing apparitions have been reported, such as the elderly woman, shackled wrists bleeding, pleading for help. Probably the most documented reports pertain to the shadow people.

The barely defined shades of the human form are regularly seen, some opaque enough to partially block the direct light from flashlights and laser pointers, are the most commonly witnessed paranormal activity within Waverly Hills. Rambunctious silhouettes of children play upon what was once a rooftop playground on the fifth floor. Brown imps, the rudimentary outlines of what was once a human, cross hallways and rise up from the floors. Perhaps traumatic events stripped them of their human features, leaving behind a gloomy shape, devoid of any understanding, yet destined to shamble among the living, seeking solace in the eternal darkness of their last moments.

Other myths and legends surround the Sanatorium, such as the perpetual occupant of Room 502. Mary Hillenburg, a nurse at Waverly Hills, was said to have hung herself from a light fixture in Room 502, after having discovered she was pregnant out of wedlock. Since the staff of the facility was not permitted to leave the grounds for fear of spreading the white plague, one can also imagine that the circumstances under which the child may have been conceived could prove to be rather complicated. Another nurse apparently suffered deceleration trauma after jumping, or being pushed, out of one of the upper windows of the building. A doctor in a white lab coat is also seen regularly, apparently making his rounds, dedicated to taking care of those put under his charge, even into the afterlife. Several stories have circulated pertaining to the ghostly little girl who remains on the third floor…without her eyes.

Waverly Hills Sanatorium has become legendary having been named one of the most haunted places in America and has been the subject of many television shows and a few movies. The site has been featured on ABC’s America’s Scariest Places On Earth as well as in a documentary The Sci Fi Channel’s Ghost Hunters has been filmed there twice as well as a documentary Spooked, which also aired on the Sci Fi Channel. In 2001, Tina and Charlie Mattingly purchased the property and began restoring it. Charlie’s late father was once an orderly at Waverly Hills, so it is a special place to him. Since the Mattingly’s purchased Waverly Hills, they have offered tours that range from two hours to full overnight stays. Every year they have set up a haunted house for Halloween with this years schedule running from September 27th through November 1st. You can call (502) 933-2142 Monday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday between 9:00am and 3:00pm for more details or to make a reservation. You can also visit them online at www.therealwaverlyhills.com for more details, pictures, videos and audio.