Tuberculosis, the “White Plague,” has been stalking mankind since ancient times, but the rise of cities and their poor sanitary conditions allowed the highly contagious and usually fatal lung disease to sweep across Europe in the 17th century and the United States in the 19th. Though the pathogen was identified in the late 19th century, it took another 50 years until an effective treatment was devised, but the understanding that the disease was contagious gave rise to the sanatorium movement in an effort to isolate, comfort, and perhaps cure the stricken. Waverly Hills Sanatorium was originally a modest two-story frame building that opened for business on July 26, 1910, and could accommodate 40 tuberculosis patients. The location was specifically chosen for its isolation from populated areas and its elevation high on a hill above Louisville, Kentucky. As TB raged through the area over the next decade, the little clinic filled with more than 140 patients, making it obvious a much larger facility was required to keep up with demand.
The massive, gothic style sanatorium you see today opened in 1926, could accommodate over 400 patients, and was considered one of the most modern and well equipped facilities of the time, with two beds to a room and each bed equipped with phone, radio, bell signal, and electric light.
At the time, fresh air and sunshine were the primary weapons in the war against tuberculosis. Arthur Loomis and the firm of D.X. Murphy of Louisville teamed to design Waverly Hills so that the back of the bat wing-shaped, red brick building faced southwest to catch the prevailing breeze and afford maximum exposure to the sun, allowing fresh air and sunshine to consistently flow through the corridors and into the solarium and patient rooms.
The building served as a tuberculosis hospital until 1961, by which time antibiotic treatment had virtually wiped out the disease. It was closed down and quarantined, then renovated. In 1962, the building reopened as Woodhaven Medical Services, a geriatric facility. Woodhaven was closed by the state in 1980 due to overcrowding and allegations of abuse.
The patient rooms that line the vacant halls of the building are now in various states of decay, although current owners Charlie and Tina Mattingly have made great strides in cleaning up after years of neglect. Pipes dangle haphazardly from the ceilings of some rooms, while ivy invades through broken windows in others; peeling paint flakes off in sheets, bits of plaster and glass linger in corners.
The number of people who died at Waverly Hills is a topic of dispute. Some accounts claim that at the height of the epidemic patients died at the rate of one an hour, putting the total death toll as high as 63,000. But over the last several years historians and researchers have concluded that a facility with 400-500 beds operating for 35 years (plus the 16 years the smaller facility operated) could not have generated a death toll higher than 8,000 or so, and a figure in the 5,500 – 6,500 range is most likely.
Some of the spirits reported at Waverly Hills Sanatorium are what one might expect at such a facility: tortured souls who lived out their last attenuated days isolated from the world until disease squeezed the life out of them. Visitors hear their labored coughs echoing through the long corridors and glimpse their pale, sunken faces lurking in the shadows. But these spirits are not alone. Visitors often report glimpses of ghostly doctors and nurses in the building as well, and phantom children still play with balls left for them by the living.
The spirit of a suicidal nurse, a vagrant and his dog, and a little lad named Jimmy make their presences known on a regular basis.
Most disturbing is the Creeper: an inhuman, dark entity, spider-like and faceless, that crawls along the graffiti covered walls and deteriorating ceilings with movements almost too quick for the human eye. Emerging suddenly from the darkness, this sinister figure frightens even the most seasoned investigators.
A veritable paranormal playroom, spirit activity seems to happen every day at Waverly Hills Sanatorium, as if the ghosts need to be noticed. A trip to Waverly Hills should be near the top of every ghost hunter’s bucket list. Some claim that it is one of “The Scariest Places on Earth,” and we know from experience that it is one of America’s Most Haunted.
Waverly Hills Sanatorium – The Grounds and the First Floor
The contagious nature of tuberculosis required patients and staff be sequestered from the local community and their loved ones. The hospital became a self-sufficient city with its own zip code, providing those who lived there all the necessities of day-to-day life.
The first floor of the main hospital building featured a lobby, various medical offices and labs, a nurse’s station, therapy rooms, x-ray, maintenance, storage areas, and a morgue.
Among on-site services and facilities were a salon, barber shop, dining room, dentist’s office, library, post office, school, various workshops and training rooms, a power house that supplied electricity to the entire facility, and a separate-but-not-equal hospital for African-American patients.
A working farm provided fresh meat and produce prepared by an extensive kitchen staff, and a bakery turned out fresh bread and other baked goodies. A nutritious, well-balanced diet was part of the treatment of tuberculosis. Although not a cure, it certainly didn’t hurt.
Doctors, nurses, and other staff had dormitory style living quarters on the grounds. Children of Waverly patients who had no other family to care for them were housed in a dormitory on the property, those infected stayed in the main building.
The dead made one final stop before exiting the hospital: the morgue. Post mortem exams were routinely carried out on the dead in the hope that doctors would learn something useful about the dreaded disease that claimed so many of their patients, and Kentucky required autopsies be performed on a certain percentage of those who died inside state-funded hospitals.
The morgue is located on the main floor not far from the entrance to the body chute. The room is surprisingly small and separated into two areas: one for the living, where doctors busied themselves with work; one for the dead, where the bodies were prepared and stored.
Ghost Adventures at Waverly Hills Sanatorium
Ghost Adventures Crew front man Zak Bagans said that if Death has a home address it’s Waverly Hills Sanatorium, to open the Season 4 episode of their hit Travel Channel show filmed at the shuttered tuberculosis hospital.
In the episode, which aired in October of 2010, viewers were treated to a softer side of Bagans, a man known for his in-your-face, aggressive style of investigating.
Tina Mattingly insists that EVERYONE follow a basic rule of respect. To her, the ghosts of Waverly Hills are no different from the living and deserve to be treated properly by visitors to THEIR home.
The kinder, gentler Bagans even flourished a bouquet of flowers to honor a late patient, Lois Higgs, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 28 at the sanatorium. Her tattered picture is displayed in the museum area to remind visitors that those who lived, suffered, and died here were very real.
While investigating in the morgue, Zak laid down inside one of the body trays while teammates Nick and Aaron explored the laboratory down the hall. He became very lethargic, feeling an intense pressure on his body.
Zak said he felt like bodies were laying stacked on top of him and he couldn‘t move.
As Zak described what he was feeling to the camera, his audio recorder picked up a disturbing EVP.
“Yer not gonna make it.”
During the lockdown, GAC member Aaron Goodwin was, as usual, sent off by himself, this time to explore the fourth floor where he saw unexplained movement and heard strange sounds, including labored breathing reminiscent of a tuberculosis patient. Zak and fellow investigator Nick Groff caught up with Aaron and ordered him back to the area of activity. His protestations were in vain as he reluctantly wandered back into the darkness as “bait.”
Meanwhile, the guys reviewed the full spectrum static camera that had been left running on the third floor. To their amazement it had captured a large black mass manifesting on camera in one of the long corridors. It was human-shaped and appeared to be walking toward the camera before changing directions and disappearing into a wall.
Zak took this particular piece of evidence to an outside expert who concluded there wasn’t just one shadow figure on the tape, but another, smaller figure right behind it.
The paranormal activity at Waverly Hills made such an indelible impression on Zak that he would later make it an investigation site for Paranormal Challenge.
The Body Chute
As if the 180,000 square feet of Waverly Hills weren’t scary enough, there’s another 500 feet or so attached to it that are truly terrifying. The aptly named “body chute” is a concrete tunnel that descends at an angle from the main floor of the hospital to the outside world below. The tunnel was originally used to bring goods and supplies into the facility during inclement weather and as a secondary entrance/exit for employees.
At the height of the epidemic, doctors and administrators realized the sight of so many expired fellow patients being removed from the facility was unsettling to those still clinging to life inside, and the tunnel took on the function of surreptitiously transporting bodies out of the sanatorium. The deceased were lowered by a series of pulleys and rails down the 485 foot tunnel into a waiting hearse below. This was done under the cover of night and out of the eyesight of patients.
The Second Floor
Though each floor appears identical and all are active, the paranormal activity reported in each is quite different.
In episode 14, season two of Ghost Hunters, TAPS team leaders Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson captured one of the most striking pieces of visual evidence ever recorded.
While investigating the second floor corridor between the solarium and the terminal rooms with a thermal imaging camera, Jason and Grant captured a humanoid figure, three to three-and-a-half feet tall, dart from the right side of the hall to the left and disappear into the wall or open doorway. A quick headcount of team members and production crew by Jason and Grant revealed they were alone in this part of the building at the time.
When they reviewed the footage more closely, the pair saw a child-sized figure with distinct legs and an opaque upper half, ruling out the possibility of it being a living person! Tina and Charlie Mattingly verified that they too had seen a similar figure on the second floor, as well as in other parts of the building.
The hunters concluded the figure was the ghost of a boy named Timmy, a friendly spirit who likes to play games with visitors. So often is Timmy seen at Waverly that the staff has taken to leaving toys and balls of various sizes out with which he might play. Paranormal investigators often utilize the balls as trigger objects in an effort to interact with little Timmy.
TAPS has made several trips to Waverly Hills and captured interesting evidence on each visit, but this piece of thermal footage sticks out as most compelling. It made such an impression that thousands of ghost hunters from all over the world have flocked to Waverly hoping to have their own play date with death.
The Third Floor
Patients were housed in some capacity on all floors of the Sanatorium. The sun porch, or solarium, offered mountain views, sunshine, and fresh air for the infected. There were no windows, just mesh covered screens which allowed for exposure to the elements year round. Patients were propped up and their beds wheeled out on the promenade side by side, taking full advantage of the location even in winter – snow was simply brushed aside.
On the opposite side of the hallway, directly behind the solarium, were the small, dark, bare terminal rooms where the doomed were moved to make room for those who might yet be saved.
This area of the hospital is the lair of the Creeper. Its dark spidery limbs move swiftly and unnaturally throughout the patient rooms. He is thought to be a bad omen, an inhuman, negative elemental born from tragedy and pain. Visitors who have had run-ins with it report feeling physically ill or uneasy, even after leaving the building. Some believe it will seek vengeance on anyone who provokes or disrespects the spirits of Waverly Hills.
The Creeper has been variously spotted crawling the walls and ceilings of the second, fourth, and in particular, third floors hiding in the corners of the angled hallways. This freakish entity is often spotted in the terminal rooms, perhaps drawn to the echoes of death still embedded in the peeling paint.
The Elevator Shaft
Not every ghost at Waverly Hills is a former patient or worker from the sanatorium. After the facility closed as a TB hospital, it reopened as Woodhaven Geriatric Hospital in 1962. This was a home for the aged, the infirm, and the forgotten. Labeled a “retirement facility,” it was as much an overcrowded dumping ground for the unwanted. Until it was closed by the state due to “inhuman conditions” in 1980, the building was further soaked in misery, decay and death.
After this, the building remained dormant for over a decade. During this time it became the domain of vagrants, youth gangs, drug addicts, and the homeless. In the ‘80s, one poor soul was “allowed” to stay inside the building with his dog in exchange for watching over the place on behalf of ownership. This arrangement worked reasonably well for a time, but then the man disappeared and after a few days a strong odor began to seep through the elevator doors on the third floor. The man and his dog were found dead at the bottom of the elevator shaft.
Authorities deemed the deaths “suspicious,” surmising that someone had either pushed the pair to their deaths or had tossed their lifeless bodies down the hole after killing them; but the case was never solved.
The story doesn’t end there. On the third floor Tina Mattingly saw the full bodied apparition of a man with long disheveled hair wearing what appeared to be a trench coat with a large white dog lying by his side. They both evaporated as she approached. Tina’s description of the man and his dog — and similar reports by visitors — match the unfortunate pair found at the bottom of the elevator shaft decades earlier.
The Fourth Floor
Waverly Hills doctors were desperate to find a cure for tuberculosis. Before the age of antibiotics, fresh air, nutritious foods, and plenty of rest were the established treatments. When rest and fresh air failed to heal the sores left by active pulmonary tuberculosis in the lungs, physicians had the option of several surgical procedures to collapse the diseased lung, as it was thought that closing up the lung would give it a better chance to rest and heal. Such procedures came to be known as “compression” or “lung collapse therapies.”
Surgeries used in the treatment of tuberculosis had such daunting names as phrenicotomy, pneumothorax, lobectomy, and pneumoectomy.
Thoracoplasty was a particularly grim, last ditch effort where the chest cavity was opened and several ribs were removed in order to mechanically collapse the lung. This operation left patients disfigured and sometimes killed them outright.
Waverly Hills doctors performed these procedures in a state-of-the-art surgical suite, tucked in a corner of the fourth floor of the sanatorium. The room feels surprisingly small for a facility of this size and is barren but for a large operating light dangling from the ceiling like the Eye of God waiting to pass judgment on those close to death; and the sanitation station, resembling a built-in oven, where surgical tools were readied for use.
It’s hard to imagine that any spirit would chose to stay in this area after death, but it seems clear that some have.
The Fifth Floor
The fifth floor of Waverly Hills is basically an open roof with a smaller enclosed area at its center. The open side was used as an outdoor recreation area for the Waverly children; the covered area housed less desirable patients, and a nurse‘s station.
It is from here we get reports of a ghostly game of catch. There are several videos online of a rubber or plastic ball moving on its own, sometimes stopping, changing directions, and then rolling back to its starting point. In season two of Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, investigators Ben Hansen, Austin Porter, and Lanisha Cole conducted an investigation at Waverly Hills, drawn to the case by two of these very compelling videos, which they aired on the show.
One showed a ball moving under its own power in the children’s area of the fifth floor. The team set up an experiment to see if they could verify or disprove this video by finding a natural explanation. They tested the movement of wind in the area and the level of the cement floor. Although it did move slightly, they could not duplicate the erratic movement of the ball as seen in the videos.
A night investigation left the team with more questions than answers. Lanisha attempted to communicate with the spirit of Timmy, the playful child ghost said to hang out in the building. She brought a large plastic ball with which he could play.
Lanisha announced to Timmy that she was leaving the ball for him as she left the area.
Moments later, Austin, who was monitoring the cameras from a centralized area, watched the ball move out of the corner, turn towards the doorway, and roll out of the room – all under its own power!
Austin literally jumped out of his seat as he announced that something was moving the ball, rolling it across the room and out the door!
The fifth floor is also the location of Waverly’s most notorious room, 502. Cramped and graffiti laden, it has lent its name to a heavy metal band, a horror film, and inspired an assortment of urban legends. A distraught nurse, unwed, pregnant, and infected with tuberculosis, hanged herself back in 1928. Her lifeless body was found swinging in front of the elevator doors, right outside room 502.
The Mattingly’s confirm this tale, adding that a fetus was discovered in the hospital’s well system shortly after the nurse’s body was found. The prevailing theory is that this woman aborted the baby due to what she felt were overwhelmingly bleak circumstances, then her guilt and pain drove her to take her own life.
Visitors to the sanatorium report seeing the apparition of a distraught woman dressed in an old-fashioned white nurse’s uniform, her appearance accompanied by intense feelings of sadness and unease in witnesses.
There is historic documentation that two nurses died at Waverly Hills. Both single, both perished under mysterious or tragic circumstances. Besides the nurse who took her life outside of room 502, another plunged to her death from the roof of the hospital. It is unknown if she jumped, fell, or was pushed. These tragic figures feed into the emotional whirlwind of the fifth floor.
Waverly Hills Sanatorium – Conclusion
It’s a given that Waverly Hills Sanatorium is haunted. Anyone we know who’s been to the location agrees that it is rife with paranormal activity. It has been featured on countless television programs, cable specials, radio broadcasts, and even a number of documentary films.
The Booth Brothers filmed their award winning para-documentary SPOOKED : The Ghosts of Waverly Hills in 2004. This was a thorough account of the dark history and supernatural activity of the facility. It included eyewitness testimony, historical reenactments, and former patient interviews. This film’s huge impact played an important part in bringing Waverly to the attention of the paranormal community.
Syfy’s Ghost Hunters have filmed at the sanatorium three times, including a live Halloween event in 2009. The Ghost Adventures Crew had an interesting lockdown there. In 2011, Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files investigated some of the more famous claims of the facility with absolutely stunning results. The team’s scientific approach to explaining or “debunking” the paranormal phenomenon lent much credence to the haunted reputation of Waverly Hills.
Shadow People in the corridors, phantom footsteps in the body chute, the Creeper climbing the walls and ceilings, cries of the suicide nurse, the mischievous ghost of a child named Timmy, the ill-fated homeless man and his dog. These are but a handful of the ghosts reported at Waverly Hills – it seems there’s not one square inch of the building that isn’t haunted!
Waverly Hills Sanatorium offers students of the paranormal a unique place to study and learn, a place to develop investigation skills and experiment with new techniques. It is also a place where we can explore the often overlooked human side of hauntings. The souls of the sanatorium were victims of a cruel disease that cut them down in the prime of life, or the unsung heroes who served selflessly to ease their painful plight.
Tina and Charlie Mattingly, the owners of the sanatorium, work tirelessly to preserve the dignity of these poor souls. They demand respect, forbid provocation, and seek to restore this important piece of history. It is important that we preserve our past, count our blessings, and tread lightly between the excitement of the paranormal and the fragility of life.
Waverly Hills Sanatorium is a place worthy of attention and deserving of your support. Proceeds collected from public and private ghost hunts and tours go back into preserving this important piece of our nation’s history. Come to Waverly and see for yourself, see why we’ve placed this magnificent building so very high on our list of America’s Most Haunted.
(images courtesy Waverly Hills Sanatorium)
(Excerpted from America’s Most Haunted: The Secrets of Famous Paranormal Places, Berkley, 2014, by Eric Olsen and Theresa Argie)
by Eric Olsen [Berkley]