By Adam Karlin.
The Waverly Hills Sanatorium looks like a gothic fortress plucked from the darkest recesses of horror. Visitors report encounters with a ghost girl playing hide and seek throughout the third floor. Balls bounce down stairs and vanish into thin air, and those with a psychic sensitivity feel an urge to leave the grounds immediately. Sometimes, ghostly rhymes like ‘ring around the rosy’ echo through the corridors. In Room 502, the supposed site of a nurse’s suicide, a deathly stillness hangs in the air.
Such tales are part of the charm of Waverly Hills; the site is a regular feature on ghost hunting shows and has been called one of the most haunted places in America. Its current owners frequently conduct paranormal tours and invite tour groups to experience the creepy grounds first-hand—or take in a holiday laser light show.
Yes, this is one haunted locale with official opening hours. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny the sinister vibe emanating from the dilapidated medical facility in northern Kentucky. Smart marketing aside, the Waverly Hills Sanatorium still feels like it perches above a hellmouth.
The surrounding land of the sanatorium was originally owned by Thomas H. Hays, who purchased the property in 1883. Wanting to educate his children, Hays opened a schoolhouse on his isolated estate. Lizzie Harris, the teacher Hays hired, enjoyed Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels. She suggested they call the property Waverly Hills.
In the early twentieth century, Jefferson County, Kentucky was struck by an outbreak of tuberculosis; the Ohio River, which cuts through the area, produced a boggy wetland that helped spread the disease. In an effort to combat infection, locals proposed a sanatorium to house long-term medical patients. The location of this new facility? The recently acquired public lands of Waverly Hills.
The sanatorium officially opened in 1910. It soon transformed from a two-story wooden structure that housed 20 patients to a sprawling complex of several pavilions that slept, all told, 130 patients. Yet even this increased capacity could not keep up with the ravaging toll of tuberculosis in the Ohio River bottomlands. As more citizens succumbed to wracking coughs and respiratory failure, a new building was opened in 1926—a five story complex that could house 400 patients.
It was around this time that a secret tunnel was also constructed beneath Waverly. The 500-foot subterranean passage traveled from the first floor of the main building to the bottom of the hill. It provided employees with easy access to the facility. It also let workers dispose of the dead without alarming living patients. Eventually, the secret passage earned a morbid nickname: the body chute.
For all the growth and attention to infrastructure, the actual medical practices at Waverly Hills ranged from charmingly old-fashioned to outright dangerous. Tuberculosis was often treated with fresh air, bed rest, and convalescence. While this is decent enough medical advice, it has no medicinal component. In addition, the medical staff at the sanatorium took ‘fresh air’ to the extreme; there are pictures of patients wheeled outside to sit in drifts of snow. Heated blankets were partially invented to cater to patients receiving this kind of icy treatment.
Other questionable medical procedures included removing ribs to give healing lungs more room to expand, and operations that involved inflating and deflating the lungs via pumped balloons.
In fact, much of Waverly Hills Sanatorium’s reputation stems from the site’s rumored mortality rate. Some urban legends contend that over nine thousand patients died during Waverly Hills’ history. Reputable sources, such as the facility’s Assistant Medical Director Dr. J. Frank W. Stewart, place the greatest death toll in a single year at 152. Independent researchers at the Waverly Hills Sanatorium/Woodhaven Geriatric Center Memorial & Historical Resource place the highest possible total death toll at approximately 8,200.
In 1943, Streptomycin, a vital antibiotic treatment for tuberculosis, was released to the public. The number of tuberculosis cases in Kentucky and across the country dropped. Visitors to the sanatorium dwindled. In 1961, the facility closed its doors.
A year later, Waverly Hills re-opened as the Woodhaven Geriatric Center. The nursing home catered to the mentally disabled and elderly patients who suffered from dementia and mobility issues. It was closed after two decades due to allegations of patient abuse.
A number of revitalization efforts followed—including an attempt to construct the world’s tallest statue of Jesus Christ on the property. Such plans, however, fell through. For much of the 1980s and 1990s the site languished in abandonment.
In 2001, Charlie and Tina Mattingly purchased the derelict structure. The couple embraced the site’s haunted history, promoting Waverly Hills as a paranormal hotspot. Today, Waverly Hills is a go-to destination for paranormal investigators and urban explorers with a taste for the otherworldly. In 2007, Waverly even hosted the extreme metal Sounds of the Underground festival.
According to their site, the Mattingly-led preservation organization is dedicated to restoring Waverly Hills to its grand and gothic splendor. Whether you visit for a light show or a ghost tour, Waverly Hills Sanatorium is an eerie site to behold.
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