Date: 2001, July 16, 2003 & August 2012 Expedition Team: Matt Miller, Dave Miller
We traveled to Mammoth Cave (as a follow-up to our four ghost hunting investigations at Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville) to investigate an underground Tuberculosis (TB) Treatment area. This was yet another inhumane, but at the time, a serious attempt to cure patients of TB.
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: Death from incurable TB, also referred to as consumption, was a major killer in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. In 1841, Dr. Bill McDowell, a Louisville Physician with an interest in treating TB, along with Dr. John Croghan, had sought to use the cave environment for his patients. Due to the dryness of the cave interior and the stable temperature & humidity, McDowell felt the cave must surely present “curative properties” for the TB patients. A series of wooden huts, some roofed with canvas for privacy, were built along with 2 stone cabins. The cabins were 12 ft. x 18 ft. and were built about 30 feet apart. The first cave patient was in 1842.
INVESTIGATION: Mammoth Cave is the worlds largest cave system with 405 miles and counting. Temperature year round is 54 degrees. Matt and I and our family joined the Violet City Lantern walking tour viewing beautiful cave formations, stalactites, pits and domes. Thirty minutes later near the Star Chamber in the cave Matt saw two stone “TB or Consumption Cabins” still in existence today. The second cabin served as a dining room. Turning our lights out plunged the cave into a dark, black abyss. Turning our lights back on, the dimly lit cabins looked like a ghost city. The park guide told us that beside the stone cabins were ten former wood cabins where the patients lived. The wood cabins deteriorated and no longer exist. Smoke from grease lamps and cooking fires and the gloomy conditions presented challenges for the patients. The guide told us that paid tours in the mid to late 1840’s went right by these wood and stone cabins. Can you imagine the shock to the tourists as they viewed in the dim distance, ghostly apparitions that seemed to float between the cabins? As the long ago visitor’s approached the structures, the ghosts became more solid and would reveal themselves to be alive with ghastly expressions of suffering as the disease slowly drained life from their bodies. Present day guides have received occasional reports of a man scene around the cabin then disappearing.
Exiting one cabin Matt and I saw a slab of stone named Corpse Rock, where bodies of deceased TB patients were laid out until removed for burial. National Park staff told us that over time, the sufferings of the TB patients were horrible. The patients condition deteriorated rather than improved. Patients in the cave after four months presented a frightening appearance – the face was bloodless, eyes sunken, pupils dilated so much that the iris was invisible. The patients lost particles of flesh, walked around gloomily and the dead silence was broken only by their hollow coughs. During our 15 minute investigation at the stone cabins (Photo #1 & #2 below), nothing paranormal was observed by us. Although the cave hospital was deemed to be a good idea by many doctors of the day as a possible cure for TB, the personal accounts of the patients and observers plus the deaths of the patients led to public criticism of the treatment experiments. The cave treatments were discontinued in 1849. Three of the 1840’s TB patients are buried in the Old Guide’s Cemetery, a short distance from the Visitor Center. Stephen Bishop, one of the famous original cave guides is buried in the local cemetery(Photo#5). When you tour Mammoth Cave today, the stark reminder of this terrible disease will haunt you when you trek past the two stone cabins in the dark where 16 TB patients perished due to this failed medical treatment experiment. Of note, Photo#4 below shows the Giant’s Coffin, a famous Mammoth Cave landmark located in the Broadway Avenue part of the cave.