Waverly Hills Sanatorium – The Plague of the White Death 

Waverly Hills Sanatorium – The Plague of the White Death  - Photo

The Waverly Hills Sanatorium, known particularly as a hospital that cared for tuberculosis patients, although the building has a much more varied history, is located in the quaint Waverly Hills neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky. The building is now tucked into a bucolic setting in the Blue Grass State, but times were not always so peaceful. In the early 1900s, the Jefferson County portion of Kentucky was ravaged by an outbreak of tuberculosis. Known then by the unsettling moniker of the “White Death, tuberculosis, or simply TB, was a serious infectious disease that mainly affected the lungs. The bacteria that caused tuberculosis was spread from person to person through tiny droplets released into the air when the infected coughed or sneezed. This plague prompted the repurposing of the facility, which opened in 1910 as a school, transforming it into a two-story hospital in order to accommodate 40 to 50 tuberculosis patients. Tuberculosis patients were originally housed in tents on the grounds of Waverly Hills, pending the completion of the hospital for advanced cases. In 1912 this new hospital opened and treated advanced cases of TB, admitting another 40 patients. In 1914, a children’s pavilion added another 50 beds, bringing the patient total to around 130. Sadly, this new children’s pavilion was not for the treatment of children afflicted with tuberculosis but also for the care of the children of tuberculosis patients who could not care for them. In essence, Waverly Hills was a critical care hospital and an orphanage. 

It is out of this environment, out of sickness and sadness, loss and poverty, that the ghosts who linger still were engrained into the very fabric of Waverly Hills. It is these ghosts that we see today. Death was a constant presence in this sanitorium, the only comfort many patients would receive. It is these souls that still manifest within these walls. 

To learn more about the haunted places of Kentucky, book a tour with Derby City Ghosts in Louisville!

Tunnel of Death at Waverly Hills Sanatorium

Because death was such a prevalent occurrence, steps were taken in an attempt that other patients would not see the continual removal of bodies from the hospital. An ingenious tunnel was built to serve as a passageway to transport bodies out of the sanatorium. The corridor is 500 feet to the bottom of the hill and has a set of stairs on one side, which were the stairs used for the orderlies. On the other side, there was a cart that moved up and down the staircase, which transported the bodies.

This tunnel would become known among the sanitorium employees as the “Body Chute” or “Death Tunnel.” Making light of a situation sometimes removes the sting. In reality, however, this tunnel was feared by the living, a haunting reminder of the thin line between life and death. Even now, reports of ghosts still emanate from this tunnel. Indeed, some investigators refer to the Death Chute as a paranormal hotspot. Within the depths of the tunnel, shadow figures have been witnessed, their dark presence coagulating in the shadows and manifesting as full-bodied apparitions, possibly residual reminders of a few of the nearly countless individuals who made their last journey from the sanitorium along this tunnel. It is said at the height of the tuberculosis epidemic, one person per hour died within this sanitarium. Even by the late 1930s, a decade after the outbreak of TB began, tuberculosis was still the leading cause of death in Kentucky, and in fact, Kentucky led the nation in tuberculosis deaths. Some 2,000 people a year were dying of tuberculosis in this state even after sanitoriums such as Waverly Hills were established. It is from this massive amount of lives lost that unexplained footsteps have been heard echoing from within this space, as well as disembodied voices, many screaming for light. These ghosts are the tenuous witnesses to the agonizing torments of tuberculosis that occurred within these walls. 


In Search of a Cure

Waverly Hills Sanitorium attempted to treat its patients holistically, allowing exposure to sunlight, proper bed rest, healthy foods, and keeping breezeways open to allow for fresh air. But some cases were more problematic, and many barbaric attempts at surgical solutions to tuberculosis were attempted on many of patients. The most infamous of these operations was known as the artificial pneumothorax, which involved propelling air into either the lung itself or the cavity between the lungs in order to artificially collapse the diseased portion of the lung. The hope was that the lung would rest, theoretically allowing the lesions caused by tuberculosis to heal. Amazingly, many patients did survive this procedure, but those on whom the procedure was less effective died a slow, agonizing death. Their final days were restricted in various postures, such as lying on the side most affected by lesions and restricting the movement of the diseased lung with posture and gravity in the hope the patient’s life would be prolonged. 

Another commonplace surgery for the treatment of tuberculosis was something called thoracoplasty, which involved the removal of multiple ribs with the intention of collapsing the lung. While doctors preferred to only remove two or three ribs at a time, most patients required as many as eight removed for this technique to be effective, meaning they had to endure multiple painful surgeries. Of course, many of these surgeries ended in the death of the patient. 

Many ghosts who have yet to cross over succumbed to the operations that attempted to save them. While under anesthesia, it is possible that these phantoms have not realized their corporeal body has died and linger in hope that a cure will be discovered to along them to leave the confines of the sanitorium. 


But Wait, There’s More…Ghosts!

As local legends contend, the most haunted location in the entirety of the Waverly Hills facility is the notorious fifth floor. It is said that on this floor, patients with mental illnesses were housed and treated more as inmates than as patients. This floor, particularly Room 502, is the center of much of the ghost stories surrounding the sanatorium. Visitors have claimed to have seen shapes moving in the windows, heard voices yelling at them to “get out,” and some have claimed to have been physically pushed and shoved off this floor. More supernatural claims, although unverified, have suggested some visitors have been so overcome by the influx of ghosts on this floor that they have actually jumped to their death to avoid the torment of these spirits.

What is known is that a legend claims that way back in 1928, a nurse was found in Room 502, having hanged herself from a light fixture. Another nurse who worked in room 502 in 1932 is said to have thrown herself off the roof patio onto the ground below. What is also known is that some visitors have indeed felt compelled to jump from the window of this room, even to the point of having to be talked down by others before coming to their senses. Were they possessed or simply overwhelmed by these surroundings? Just another mystery within the walls of this sanitarium. 

But there is more to the 5th floor than just suicidal adulations. A ghostly boy named Timmy is said to be seen wandering these halls. According to the stories, Timmy moves throughout the space of the hospital, either playing with his own ball or seeking something else to play with. Some guests have reported bringing balls of their own for Timmy, only to subsequently see those same balls floating down the halls, carried by an invisible hand. If there is indeed a young boy haunting this space, he may have been an orphan in this life who died before ever reuniting with his sick parents. Perhaps he waits for them, hoping one day to reunite with his family. 

One notable apparition is known as “the Creeper.” This dark entity has been seen crawling up and around the walls, ceilings, and floors of the building. It’s said that if you come in close contact with the Creeper, you will be overwhelmed with a suffocating feeling of dread. What is the  Creeper? Some have suggested that it is the residual energy of a patient who underwent experimental surgery, his body contorted by the operation, that left him a mangled mess. Some investigators suggest it is a demon drawn to the raw emotions that have stained the energy of this place, an entity that feeds off despair and fear. Whatever the Creeper is, it is best to avoid it. You have been warned. 


Waverly Hills Sanatorium – an Uneasy Abode of the Dead

With the introduction of streptomycin in 1943, the number of tuberculosis cases gradually declined until there was no longer a practical need for such a large hospital. The remaining patients were sent to another facility, and Waverly Hills closed in June 1961. However, a year later, Waverly Hills was reopened in 1962 under the name of Woodhaven Geriatric Center, a nursing home primarily treating aging patients with various stages of dementia. This facility also took in the severely mentally handicapped. Reports were rampant of patient abuse, and tales were told of the elderly being chained to their beds. In fact, a ghost of an elderly lady, her torso and hands still bound in chains, is claimed to emanate from this history of the building. Eventually,  Woodhaven was closed by the state of Kentucky in 1982 for patient neglect. 

This building has had a long and storied history of pain and suffering, even after it was no longer a sanitorium. It is out of this human misery that the ghosts were spawned. Waverly Hills is considered one of the most haunted locations in the United States. Even today, visitors report that apparitions of death and suffering, including a ghostly hearse seen dropping off coffins at the back of the building, a phantom of a woman with bleeding wrists begging for help, and a man in a white coat seen wandering around the kitchen. This is a building that can never truly rest in peace. Too many lives were ended under this roof, and too much sorrow occurred than simply be forgotten in the passage of time. Waverly Hills stands as a monument to those people who lost their lives to the epidemic and to those who were forgotten and wish to make themselves known even in death.


Featured Image source: US Ghost Adventures