Waverly Hills Sanatorium

Louisville, Kentucky

Waverly Hills Sanatorium

A man lies in a bed, his skin pale as chalk.  He cannot breathe, his lungs filled with water and blood.  He is drowning, every attempt at breathing a burning exercise in agony.  The capillaries in his eyes have burst from coughing fits, making them as red as the blood he coughs onto his handkerchief.  He is dying, and as far as the eye can see are beds containing hundreds just like him, all pushed together in a place where people come to die.  The problem is, they are already dead, succumbed to the deadly disease that ravaged their bodies decades ago, but they do not rest.  Even in death, their presences can be felt, their pain endured.  Even though the beds no longer exist, the patients can’t seem to leave.

People have an instinctive aversion to death and disease.  Before the discovery of many medicines, those infirmed were often shut away, out of site of those who were healthy.  By doing so, they exercised some control over the spread plagues.  However, some plagues were so dangerous that special facilities were built in which the dying could be shut away and cared for in their final days, hoping for a miracle cure that often did not come.  New treatments were tried that, by today’s standards, were barbaric in nature, all in the vain hope of staving off the Reaper’s hand.  In those places, where death was slow and painful and hope dwindled, the memories remain embedded in the brick, staining the tiles and scarring the hallway.  Visitors feel Caron’s hand at their backs, and the buildings earn the dubious distinction of being haunted.

In 1900, Louisville, Kentucky, had more than its share of victims of the “white plague,” which was also known as “consumption.”   This condition, now called Tuberculosis, was quite contagious and had no known cure.  Those affected by the disease were sent to a hospital on Waverly Hill in 1910, a two-story facility with only forty beds.  It soon became apparent, however, that such a place was inadequate.  The state donated lands and nearly eleven million dollars for the construction of a new facility that could accommodate the nearly one hundred-thirty cases that begged for entry at the hospital. 

In 1926, the Waverly Hills Sanatorium opened its doors, often admitting entire families stricken with the disease.  New techniques in treatment were attempted, including removing up to seven ribs surgically in the hopes that a patient’s lungs would inflate to fill the space.  Balloons were inserted into the lungs to try to reinflate past the scarring and degradation of the cells.  Common belief was held that fresh air was beneficial to those suffering from Tuberculosis, so patients were left outside in the open air, even during bitter winter and during snowstorms, to let their lungs "heal."  The treatments, however, had a poor success rate.  More than ten thousand people suffered their last breaths within the walls of the sanatorium, many of them children.

So high was the mortality rate that doctors began disposing of bodies by way of a rail-driven tunnel that emerged on the far side of the building.  This “body chute” was used originally as an entrance for employees and for delivering groceries.  However, the doctors did not want the patients to see just how many bodies were leaving the building, or how many times a day the hearses came.  Such a sight would lower their spirits, they reasoned, and impede the recovery process. 

By 1943, an effective treatment was discovered in the form of an antibiotic called Streptomycin, which is still in use today.  Within twenty years, cases of Tuberculosis dwindled until there was no longer a need for the treatment at Waverly Hills, and the hospital was shut down in 1961.  Less than a year later, the hospital was reopened as the Woodhaven Geriatrics. 

Where the doctors of Waverly Hills were sincere, if not misguided, in their attempts to heal, many accounts place the employees of Woodhaven at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Patient abuse was rampant, with conditions turning rapidly squalid.  Patients were administered shock treatment unnecessarily, often times with the death of the patient.  Over the next twenty years, conditions worsened until, in 1982, Woodhaven was shut down by the state of Kentucky. 

Waverly Hills - The Body Chute

What restless souls remain in the building are often unnamed due to the vast number of deaths in the building.  There are a few, however, that stand out, making this building one of the most haunted, and frightening, in the United States. 

Actual sightings of apparitions range from phantom children running about in the third-floor solarium, a boy bouncing a ball who disappears before visitors’ eyes, and even an old woman, who is seen bleeding from the wrists screaming “Help me!” running from the front door before vanishing.  Other phenomena in the buildings include rooms that appear lit even though there is no power to the building, doors that close by themselves, phantom voices, and even the scent of food cooking. 

Even more strange, however, is the frequency at which strange occurrences are documented at the Sanatorium, and the extreme nature of those phenomena.  During  a location hunt for the television program "The World’s Scariest Places," one paranormal investigative team noticed that their EMF meter (electromagnetic field meter, commonly used by ghost-hunters) continuously reacted, despite the lack of power in the building.  There were not even wires in place to run electricity, but the meter continued to jump until, after a while of investigating, the meter got hot and actually melted the circuit board inside.  It was at that moment that they noticed a sharp temperature drop of nearly twenty degrees in the room.  There were several witnesses, including the building’s owner, to the events.  They were glad to get out of the building.

Present Day
The Sanatorium changed hands many times over the last two decades, even being owned at one point by a fellow who wanted to tear it down and erect a giant statue of Jesus Christ where the hospital now stands.  His attempts failed when the government pointed out that the building was on the registry of historic places. 

The current owners, Charles and Tina Mattingly, have no such plans, as they are currently trying to have the place restored.  Several ghost-hunting conventions have convened there in the past, with all the proceeds going to fixing the damage that years of neglect and vandalism have done. 

As for the hauntings, they continue.  The Waverly Hills Sanatorium is known world-wide as one of the most active paranormal spots, with ghost hunters coming from hundreds, even thousands, of miles away to get a glimpse inside.  Recently, in fact, the owners have procured permits to give tours of the place year-round, with all proceeds going toward renovation. 

Best Times / Places
There are several sites on the third and second floors where visitors feel presences, cold spots and other phenomena, but it is room 502, an old nurse’s station, in which a nurse hung herself after discovering she was pregnant.  Another nurse, who worked in 502, climbed to the room and leaped to her death.  Most who investigate the building agree that this room is the second most active in the site.  If one wants to feel the real icy hand of death and presences that cannot be denied, however, a trip down the long corridor known as the “body chute” is necessary.

As for best times, phenomena seem to occur year round.  It seems that the best way to get in and have a look at the place is to schedule a tour with the owners.  Tours are twenty dollars per person, with all the money going back into preserving the old hospital. 

For more information concerning the site, how to get a tour, and other interesting information, visit the Waverly Hills Historical Society website.

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Scott A. Johnson

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