Some say it’s the most haunted place in America. Its walls have seen death, delirium, and discord. The most infamous sanatorium in the western hemisphere has a tunnel underneath known as the “body chute.” Today, let’s explore the haunting fact and fiction of the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, Kentucky.
Built on a high hill in the Louisville area in 1910, the original purpose of Waverly Hills was as a school, but it would be converted to treat and separate tuberculosis patients, then known as consumption at the height of its grip on Jefferson County. Kentucky was known as one of the worst affected by the plague known as the white death, so measures were needed to curb the spread of the disease. Waverly Hills, with its remote location on the edge of town, was chosen for its isolation to keep tuberculosis patients away from the rest of the public. It was built to accommodate as many as 50 patients, but the demand for more beds would skyrocket that number very quickly. First and expansion gave it the capacity of 130 patients, and eventually the sanitorium would treat and house as many as 400 patients.
These patients would go through a battery of treatments designed to alleviate the disease, but many of them are considered barbaric by today’s standards. It was believed UV light could help clear the lungs, and so special “sun rooms” were built with that in mind. They also believed that fresh air would help, and thus put tuberculosis patients outdoors into the crisp Kentucky air, even with snow on the ground. Balloons were inserted into the lungs in a dangerous surgical procedure designed to “refill” collapsed lungs from TB’s effect. Most horrifyingly, some patients were subjected to invasive procedures that removed ribs and muscles around the lungs to give them more room to expand.
The infamous tunnel, known as the “body chute,” would be built in these early years, with the stated goal to be able to remove the bodies of the deceased without alerting the other patients. 50 feet in length, the tunnel let out near the waiting trains nearby to spirit the bodies away for incineration and burial. It also served as a form of protection, as antibiotics for tuberculosis were not widely used yet and bodies still posed a danger to the rest of the patients and staff. An estimated 50,000 patients are said to have passed through this tunnel during its use, but experts dispute that number, saying 6000 is more likely. Either way, thousands of bodies passed under the feet of the living tuberculosis patients.
The 1960s saw an elimination of the need for consumption care in Jefferson county, so the sanatorium was reopened as a geriatric center for the old or infirm. Some reports say there were instances of abuse in the center, but these claims have never been verified. Budget cuts did happen in the 1970s that would decrease the individual care each patient got, and another wave of bodies passed through the chute after their death. In the 1980s, a developer purchased the property with the intent of turning it into a minimum security prison, but the plans fell through and the sanatorium sat empty for years after.
This is when the reports of hauntings began, as paranormal enthusiasts descended on the abandoned property, looking for some sign of the afterlife. The most famous ghost in Waverly Hills is that of a young boy, said to have passed during the tuberculosis epidemic, Timmy. Timmy loved playing with balls and toys left behind by visitors, and legend says sometimes he’ll roll them back to you in a fun game of catch.
Another spirit said to walk the halls is that of a former nurse, dressed in nursing attire from the era. Legend says she committed suicide within the walls of the sanatorium and never left her post. Another man has been spotted floating through the maze-like property late at night, spooking ghost hunters and visitors alike. More nurses have been spotted, especially in the nurses rooms on the fifth floor where two women were said to have jumped to their death. With the amount of death and pain this building has seen, it would be more surprising if it didn’t have any specters.
Visitors experience any number of haunting events, from doors slamming and light flickering, to items being moved by unseen hands. Since its decommissioning as a hospital, thousands of ghost hunters have passed through the doors, usually leaving with some compelling stories and terrifying experiences.
Today, a non-profit organization owns the property and offers historical and paranormal tours, overnight stays, and even a top notch haunted house around Halloween. Those with a strong stomach for the paranormal should all add this location to their wishlist, just like it’s at the top of mine. Maybe if you visit, you can play catch with Timmy.
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Born in Death Valley and raised on the prairie, Deborah is a Wyoming-based paranormal researcher and a senior at the University of Wyoming, studying Communication. Her interests lie in folklore, history, rhetorical analysis and research. With an obvious love for ghost stories, frequently those interests combine with her work on Ghostlandia.