Waverly Hills Sanatorium
Tuberculosis (TB) was a well-established global affliction during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The disease—commonly referred to as consumption or the “White Plague”—was the leading cause of death in most industrialized nations. The pathogen, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, would typically affect the pulmonary tract during the early stages of infection, causing nondescript symptoms such as fever, malaise, and a phlegmy cough. However, as the disease proliferated within its host, bacterium would infiltrate other bodily tissues through the bloodstream, instigating further sequelae. Victims suffering through late-stage tuberculosis would often hack up bloody sputum and appear emaciated—their bodies “consumed” by the infection.
In Louisville, Kentucky, tuberculosis was a bane of epidemic proportions—nearly twenty percent of deaths were attributed to the disease. Louisville’s stagnant air, industrial pollution, and overcrowded communities created the perfect breeding ground for Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Kentucky’s lack of public health funding and resources also contributed to TB’s rampant communicability. Tuberculosis awareness and prevention were emphasized by large-scale community health initiatives, including the Sanatorium Movement, which embraced natural environments, nutritious supplementation, and isolation as curative forms of treatment, in addition to competent medical supervision.
In 1906, the Louisville Anti Tuberculosis Association formed the “Board of Tuberculosis Hospital” to establish a sophisticated TB treatment center for the citizens of Jefferson County. The Board purchased Waverly Hill—Major Thomas H. Hays’s sprawling estate outlying city limits—and construction commenced in 1908. On July 26, 1910, the first Waverly Hills Sanatorium opened for business. The two-story wooden building could accommodate upwards of fifty patients and cost $25,000 to assemble; however, being a publicly funded healthcare project, the sanatorium offered free ministration to its inhabitants.
Admissions quickly overwhelmed the newly-operative hospital as the prevalence of tuberculosis continued to increase. The need for larger, more permanent facilities was warranted. During the winter of 1912, a fifty-bed hospital and nurse training school were opened on the grounds. A children’s pavilion was added two years later. By 1915, the sanatorium’s capacity was listed at “170 patients in all stages of disease, including children and adults, white and colored.”
The existing Waverly Hills Sanatorium was constructed between March 1924 and October 1926 at the cost of $1.1 million. The 180,000 square-foot facility provided treatment for over four hundred patients, each having access to their own telephone, radio, and solarium porch space. The fifth floor also featured a heliotherapy department, where those suffering from advanced tuberculosis of the bone were exposed to sunlight for therapeutic purposes. At the time, Waverly Hills was considered the most modern tuberculosis hospital in existence. However, it should be acknowledged that this new facility only served white patients. Black individuals were relegated to the outdated wooden dispensary, which lacked necessary contrivances and accommodations. Only in the 1940s were the segregated facilities improved.
Waverly Hills was a self-contained community. It had its own water treatment facility, farming operation, slaughterhouse, post office, and zip code. Everyone at Waverly—patients and staff, alike—were not allowed to intermingle with the outside world due to the extremely contagious nature of tuberculosis. They all consequently became permanent residents of “The Hill.”
While Mycobacterium tuberculosis was discovered by Robert Koch in 1882, there was no known cure for consumption at the time of Waverly’s conception, nor was its transmission well understood. Initial treatment for tuberculosis included fresh air exposure (irrespective of the elements), a nutritious diet—high in ascorbic acid, Vitamin A, and protein—and bed rest. If conservative efforts failed, surgical interventions were performed. Artificial pneumothorax procedures were developed to partially or completely collapse an affected lung. Atmospheric air was introduced to the pleural cavity, theoretically allowing the lung to rest and heal. Additional treatments included lobectomy and pneumectomy, where surgeons removed infected lobes or the entire lung, respectively. Another, more experimental, procedure was thoracoplasty—the removal of ribs from the chest wall. The average patient lost seven or eight ribs during the operation; less than five percent survived.
Death was commonplace at Waverly Hills. Tuberculosis victims succumbed on a near-daily basis, which negatively affected patient morale—a treatment cornerstone thought to prolong life expectancy. The sanatorium staff attempted to liven the patients’ good spirits through exercise and community events, but their efforts were largely ineffective. Seeing no alternative, hospital administrators began secretly transporting the deceased through a subterranean supply tunnel that connected Waverly Hills to a nearby railroad, which kept the patient population oblivious to the mounting deaths. That passageway still exists today and bears the macabre moniker “the body chute.”
In October 1943, Albert Schatz—a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University—discovered the drug streptomycin. Randomized curative trials conducted between 1946 and 1948 found that the substance was an exceptionally effective antibiotic against pulmonary tuberculosis. Pharmaceutical companies subsequently developed streptomycin for mass consumption, which dramatically lowered tuberculosis infections and death, rendering sanatoria obsolete. Waverly Hills shuttered its doors in June 1961.
In 1962, the complex reopened as Woodhaven Medical Services—a geriatric facility and nursing home that serviced patients with various stages of dementia, mobility limitations, and mental illnesses. For all its good intentions, Woodhaven was chronically understaffed and overcrowded. A grand jury investigation into allegations against the nursing home revealed severe patient neglect, cockroach infestation, unkempt living conditions, and evidence of medical malpractice. Woodhaven was forcibly closed by the state of Kentucky in 1982.
In 1983, developer J. Clifford Todd purchased the former hospital for $3,005,000. He and architect Milton Thompson wanted to convert the building into a minimum-security prison, but the plan was scrapped following intense pushback from the surrounding community.
In 1996, Waverly Hills fell into the possession of Robert Alberhasky, founder of the Christ the Redeemer Foundation, Inc. Alberhasky’s organization sought to construct the world’s largest statue of Jesus on the sanatorium’s roof and convert the former hospital into a chapel, theater, and gift shop. The estimated cost of renovations totaled $12 million; however, donors were less-than-willing to offer their monetary support. A year of nationwide fundraising campaigns yielded a measly $3,000 in return, and the religious monolith project was cancelled in December 1997.
Alberhasky had little desire to maintain Waverly Hills following his failed non-secular business venture. The abandoned sanatorium fell into a dire state of depredation as vandals and vagrants deliberately defaced its decrepit halls. Waverly was on the brink of condemnation when Tina and Charlie Mattingly purchased the property in 2001. Since then, dedicated conservation efforts have revitalized the former tuberculosis hospital into an international symbol of frightening acclaim.
The Waverly Hills Historic Tour offers detailed information about the sanatorium’s storied legacy and provides participants the extraordinary opportunity to explore every level of the vacant hospital. Beginning in the substructure, tourists encounter the infamous “body chute.” Dark and ominous, this five-hundred-foot passageway echoes an eerie silence reminiscent of the posthumous transference endured by many unfortunate souls.
The rest of the hospital features patient wings and treatment rooms; each floor containing communal halls, solariums, and nursing stations. The first floor—originally designated for mild tuberculosis admissions—was equipped with an x-ray machine, dark room, and medical laboratories. The second level housed the kitchen, which had the capacity to serve over 2,100 meals per day, while occupational therapy occupied the third. Advanced cases and major operations were reserved for the fourth floor. Heliotherapy treatments were conducted on the fifth floor rooftop.
Tuberculosis undoubtedly had a profound impact on the Louisville community. It was the leading cause of death during sanatorium’s peak years of operation; however, it is impossible to say how many people died at Waverly Hills. Unfortunately, the sanatorium’s medical records (up to 1935) were destroyed during the Flood of 1937, and subsequent documentation was haphazardly discarded following the hospital’s closing in 1961. While legend speculates a death toll exceeding sixty thousand people, local historians provide a more conservative estimate around eight thousand.
Though little hard evidence exists, it is safe to assume that many thousands perished within Waverly’s walls by nature of tuberculosis and lack of effective treatment options. Patients were regularly subjected to archaic medical procedures and forcibly exposed to extreme weather conditions. Countless patients experienced slow and agonizing deaths. There is little questioning Waverly Hills’s reputation as one of the most haunted places in America. Paranormal investigators—including the likes of “Ghost Adventures,” “Paranormal Lockdown,” “Ghost Hunters,” and Watcher’s “Ghost Files”—have flocked to Waverly Hills Sanatorium for decades, capturing substantial evidence that support the existence of the supernatural.
Several specters supposedly haunt the former sanatorium. One of the most popular is a young boy named “Timmy” who regularly interacts with toys and rolls balls down hallways. Another, more sinister, entity is “The Creeper”—a shadow figure that frequents the fourth floor, crawling along the walls and ceiling.
Waverly’s most active (and controversial) location is Room 502. Though structurally referenced as a “patient bathroom,” legend suggests a grimmer background. In 1928, a 29-year-old nurse allegedly hung herself here after an abusive staffer impregnated her (or following a failed abortion, depending on the story). Another nurse purportedly threw herself off the fifth-story balcony four years later; however, no official records indicate either tragic event occurred.
Waverly Hills Sanatorium epitomizes the evolution of epidemiological medicine and public health programs in the United States. While skeptics speculate the authenticity surrounding the hospital’s numerous paranormal claims, there is no denying the horrific realities of tuberculosis—a global pandemic that continues to claim the lives of millions. Waverly Hills endures in hauntingly similar condition as its former patients—empty and deteriorated—an apropos causatum of its heartrending history.
Visit The Real Waverly Hills for more sanatorium and tour information
To learn more about the history of tuberculosis in America, visit the CDC, American Experience by PBS, University of Virginia Historical Collections, Harvard Library Curiosity Collections, and the VCU Social Welfare History Project
Check out the following multimedia resources to learn more about Waverly Hills:
"A History of Tuberculosis and Waverly Hills Sanatorium" by The Filson Historical Society
"Waverly Hills: The History & The Hauntings" by The Dark Histories Podcast
Pohl, Lynn. "Documenting a Deadly Disease: Tuberculosis and Waverly Hills Sanatorium in the Filson’s Collections." Ohio Valley History 21, no. 1 (2021): 72-88.