Waverly Hills Sanatorium still source of local curiosity

By on October 21, 2003

By Douglas Kleier, Jr.

In the first of a two-part series, the legendary history of Waverly Hills, Louisville’s deadliest tuberculosis facility of the early twentieth century, is revealed. Next week, read to find out more about the fact and fiction behind the supernatural rumors surrounding Waverly Hills.

Isolated upon a wooded hilltop in Southern Louisville, the most paranormally active site in Kentucky looks down imposingly upon those below. With its bell tower clearly visible above the tree line, the old Waverly Hills Sanatorium sits abandoned and in disrepair.

Yet it’s become internationally notorious for housing haunts and specters whose allegorical origins are approaching near-legendary status. But the enormity of the documented truths from within Waverly Hills are much more frightful than Polaroids of floating orbs or late night ghost stories.

In 1911, Waverly Hills Sanatorium was opened to provide treatment for Louisville’s victims of the “white plague,” i.e., a popular term of the time-period for tuberculosis. At the turn of the century, Jefferson Co. had one of the highest TB rates in the nation and soon the facility surpassed its capacity.

A new hospital building began construction in 1924. With the new building’s completion in 1926, Waverly’s capacity was now over 400. Up until the isolation of streptomycin in 1946, the prognosis for nearly all TB patients was death. All that doctors had to offer their patients were either ineffectual remedies or radically experimental and barbaric surgeries that would only extend their lives for a few excruciating weeks.

The treatments ranged from plenty of bed rest, fresh air, and sunshine to surgical procedures removing ribs and collapsing lungs to stop the spread of the tubercle bacilli. During the worst of times, Waverly was suffering 6 deaths an hour.

The facility was not constructed to deal with that amount of traffic so the staff had to resort extreme measures such as piling bodies into storage rooms or hanging them upon meat hooks. The bodies were then taken by orderlies to the “death tunnel.” The “death tunnel,” or “body chute,” is a 485 foot deep tunnel that led to the bottom of the hill where the orderlies would meet a hearse. This procedure was enacted to keep from lowering patient morale as a result of seeing body after body paraded through the front door.

The facility was also completely self-sufficient. The staff resided in dorms within the complex and caretakers farmed and raised livestock for food. There was even a school house for child patients for their convalescence may have taken years.

Soon after streptomycin came into wide use, TB sanatoriums eventually closed their doors, as did Waverly. But the complex was reopened two years later in 1962 as a geriatric home under the name Woodhaven. But the facility was to close for good in 1980 when the state shut it down citing “mistreatment of patients.”

The details of the abuse were never disclosed but ghastly accounts and rumors have emerged over the years. Due to the destruction of City records during the 1937 flood, and the frequent changing of ownership, the number of deaths that occurred at Waverly still have not been officially determined.

According to the current count the toll stands at 60,000 lives. But new historical research may produce a number that may double that count. To put it in perspective, the new figure may also double the number of American lives lost during the Vietnam War.

About Michael Kennedy

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