In the early 1900s America, the country was ravaged by tuberculosis (TB), a deadly and incurable disease. The bacterial infection causes painful growths in the lungs that make it increasingly difficult to breathe, resulting in a slow and difficult death. Called the White Plague, the highly contagious disease can overcome entire families and, in some cases, entire towns. Something, anything, needed to be done to contain it, and fast. Fast-forward to 1910, when Waverly Hills Sanatorium was established on a high hill in Jefferson County, Kentucky.
A hospital for the treatment of TB patients, doctors and nurses did their best to keep it as self-sufficient as possible to limit the risk of infection spreading to the surrounding community. They maintained their own essential services, and hospital workers weren’t allowed to transfer for fear of spreading the disease. As soon as Waverly Hills opens, it was overrun with sick patients. The hospital was rebuilt and expanded to meet demand, including the addition of a children’s pavilion. This ward was designed to house children with TB, as well as the children of sick patients who had no one else to care for them. Diagnosis of TB often meant death. This was long before the days of antibiotics.
Doctors were at a loss on how to treat the disease. Fresh air, rest, and proper nutrition were thought to be the best treatments. Especially fresh air. It was so important that patients were often placed on open patios or in front of open windows—regardless of the weather. Fresh air was more important than staying out of the snow. As the illness progressed, more desperate measures were required. Exposing a patient’s lungs to ultraviolet light in a so-called sunroom was one common treatment. An alternative method involved placing balloons into a patient’s lungs and inflating them to encourage the lungs to breathe. Then there was the Last Resort, as the doctors called it, surgically removing some ribs and the surrounding muscle tissue to ease the pressure on the lungs.
Patients rarely survived it. For cases such as these, nurses had the Death Tunnel—a 500-foot chute used to lower dead bodies out of the hospital and to the bottom of the hill. It wasn’t just used for convenience; it helped protect the other patients’ mental health. The sight of so many bodies leaving through the front door would have been devastating for patient morale. It was business as usual at Waverly Hills until it closed in 1961. New antibiotic treatments managed to do what UV exposure and removing body parts could not, and TB was almost completely eradicated. Unfortunately for the patients of Waverly Hills, many of them entered the hospital by the front door and left via the Death Tunnel. Keeping up with the disease left most records in disorder, so no one knows exactly how many people died within Waverly Hills’ walls.
Speculators say 63,000, though historians opt for a more modest 8,212 deaths. After the TB hospital had closed, Waverly Hills was reopened as Woodhaven Geriatric Center. No one paid too much attention to what went on at the facility after that, but maybe they should have. In 1982, Woodhaven was closed by the state because of patient neglect. For 20 years, Waverly Hills lay vacant.
Well, almost. Despite its disuse, crumbing walls, and increasingly decrepit state, the homeless flocked to Waverly Hills for a dry place to sleep. It also became a favorite haunt of vandals and partiers looking for a thrill. That’s when the stories started. The paranormal sightings at Waverly Hills began as whispers in the Jefferson County community. Mysterious doors slamming, lights on when there was no power to the building, the sounds of footsteps in empty rooms, disembodied voices. No one paid the ramblings of hoodlums and the homeless much mind, but the stories became so frequent, they could no longer be ignored. They even piqued the interest of the Louisville Ghost Hunters Society, who came to investigate the hospital and bring its secrets into the light.
Since then, the sanatorium has been dubbed one of the most haunted places in the world. Maybe that’s because you don’t even have to venture inside the building to spot something eerie. Countless people have seen the same desperate, spectral woman running out the front entrance of Waverly Hills. Witnesses saw her hands and legs bound in chains—blood dripping from her wrists and ankles. She screams desperately for someone to help her, then disappears into thin air. Could she have been one of the many victims of TB who died at the hospital? Or one of the tortured residents of the prison-like elderly home that followed? No one can say.
One thing’s for sure; the wailing woman isn’t alone. The spectral appearances of countless children, likely young victims of TB, still roam the hospital. Many visitors have heard the sounds of children laughing and playing on the building’s roof, even singing nursery rhymes like “Ring Around the Rosie.” When visitors investigated the strange sounds, no one was to be found. It makes sense that the spirits of children might linger on the roof—they were often taken up there for heliotherapy, where doctors exposed them to the sun and fresh air in hopes of alleviating TB symptoms. More sinister children can be found deeper in the building.
On the third floor, the ghost of a little girl has been seen so many times that visitors have given her a name: Mary. Mary appears in different ways to different people—maybe depending on her mood. Sometimes visitors find her harmlessly—though eerily—playing in the hall with a ball. Sometimes, she’s just lurking and watching. The account of one terrified visitor shows a different side of Mary. The person found a more disturbing Mary in one of the rooms on the third floor and claimed after that Mary “wasn’t normal.” The little girl appeared to have no eyes—just black gaping sockets where they once were. Witnesses report that the visitor ran screaming from the building and refused to return. Many believe her story, since other witnesses have also reported seeing the same girl peering down at them from windows on the third floor.
Mary’s not the only little one roaming Waverly Hills’ upper levels. Just one floor up lurks the ghost of Timmy. He’s been seen and discussed so much over the years that it’s hard to parcel out fact from fiction, but legend has it that he was seven years old when he died at Waverly from TB. And he’s been there ever since. Like Mary, Timmy has also been seen playing with a ball in the hallways, but has become more famous for it, since it’s the only thing he ever seems to want to do. Visitors often bring balls with them to the fourth floor in an attempt to communicate with him. Sometimes, the balls seem to move on their own accord. Other times, you can hear a ball bouncing and the sound of a boy’s laughter. Several photos taken on the fourth floor have appeared on the Internet showing the eerie face of a young boy peering around the corner.
Dying at such a young age, Timmy will forever be a child—one who just wants to play, even if he can’t manage to depart the hospital where he languished and passed away. A few ghostly children might seem harmless enough, but the fifth floor never fails to horrify. The floor looks normal enough, with a couple of nurse’s stations and patient rooms. Legend has it that the fifth floor is where the doctors housed the TB patients who had gone mad from their suffering, though no one can say for sure. Reports of strange shapes, disembodied voices, and unexplained sounds are more common on this floor than any other. Hands down the most mysterious and ghostly part of the floor, possibly even the building, is Room 502. Even just approaching it, visitors often feel incredibly uncomfortable—overwhelmed with a sense of despair.
That would make sense, considering the sad history the room holds. Legend has it that in 1928, a nurse was found in the room, hung by the neck from a light fixture. Suicide. The woman had become pregnant out of wedlock by one of the doctors or superintendents of the hospital (no one knows which). Depression overtook her, and rather than admit the shame of being pregnant and not married, she took her own life—and that of her unborn child. But that wasn’t the end of despair for Room 502. In 1932, another nurse jumped out of the window, plunging to her death. Unlike the previous woman, no one knows why this nurse would have taken her own life. People at the time speculated that she may have been pushed out. No one was ever able to solve the mystery. It would seem that one or both of the nurses who lost their lives in Room 502 still linger today. Some have witnessed the complete apparition of a woman in white lingering in the doorway of Room 502. Others have seen strange shadows and heard whispers.
One thing’s for sure; Room 502 is not a welcoming place. Often, the door closes on its own accord. Many have heard a clear and firm voice saying, “Get out.” Visitors can’t help but wonder if that’s what the nurse heard before she was pushed out the window. Nowadays, it’s not possible to wander through Waverly Hills on your own, you have to go on a guided tour. With Waverly’s long history of disease, suffering, patient neglect, and untimely deaths, the residents never stop trying to make their story heard by those who listen closely enough. Recently, the hospital was purchased by a private couple, who plan to convert it into a four-star hotel for ghost-lovers and thrill-seekers. Now the big question is: will the nurses allow anyone staying in Room 502 to last the night?
Caught on Camera
What is your Story?
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