The Unsolved Murder of the Fort Fisher Hermit
The beach isn’t always sun, salt, and relaxation. There are many local legends that roam these sandy shores. Ghostly Civil War soldiers still stand guard at the ruins of Fort Fisher. In early evening twilight, people tell of apparitions of a figure clad in a gray uniform standing on the old parapet. Or you may see the ghost of Rose, a Confederate spy, strolling along the shores of Pleasure Island, where she drowned so many years ago.
But the legend that most intrigued me was the hermit that used to live in an old abandoned WWII bunker in the desolate salt marshes. He wasn’t a ghost, but a real live human named Robert Harrill, who became known as the Fort Fisher Hermit.
The Tragic Tale of the Fort Fisher Hermit
On June 4, 1972, five teenage boys got up early that Sunday morning and traveled down to Carolina Beach to visit the famous hermit. They heard about Robert from all of their friends and decided they wanted to meet the hermit themselves. By that time, Robert had become the second largest tourist attraction in the coastal area. In fact, Robert Harrill attracted more than 17,000 tourists a year, only second behind the USS North Carolina Battleship!
Folks from all over the United States and reportedly 30 countries came to visit the celebrity renaissance man to just sit and listen to him dispense a special kind of philosophy he referred to as “The School of Common Sense”. Tourist would learn how Robert found the ultimate freedom of living off the land, enjoying life simplified and escaping a turbulent past. When the boys arrived at the hermits bunker, they called out for Robert but with no reply.
The entrance had two large plywood boards blocking the doorway to the bunker and as one of the boys approached and peeked inside, they found Robert lying face-up on the ground unresponsive. One of the boys leaned over to tug at the hermits toe to see if he would wake up and it was that moment they realized that the hermit was dead. They quickly contacted the Carolina Beach Police Department to report a dead body.
Off The Beaten Path
Born in 1893, Robert Harrell grew up hard and fast like a lot of us country folk did back then. Robert’s mother and two brothers died of typhoid fever when he was young and he was sent to live with his step grandmother who he referred to as a tyrant. Robert was beaten and abused growing up but managed to graduate from Boiling Spring High School. After graduation, he mostly did odd low paying jobs such as working at the cotton mill, repaired watches and sold handmade trinkets on the sidewalks of Shelby, NC.
In 1913 he married and had four sons and a daughter who died shortly after birth. Through his rocky marriage, he complained of “demons” in his head and was briefly admitted to a mental institution in Morganton. That same year his wife left with the kids and moved to Pennsylvania. In addition, his son tragically committed suicide by jumping from a railway trestle. So in 1955 at the age of 62, Robert decided to hitchhike 260 miles to the peaceful shores of Carolina Beach to start over.
Robert went off the beaten path to find his true self. He wanted to find a place where he could think and meditate about life and felt the only logical place was by the sea.
He eventually found an isolated place at Fort Fisher and took up residence in the abandoned WWII bunker.
He lived off the land the sea provided like oysters, shrimp, wild growing vegetation and berries in the marshland brush. His life had become enviously simple and free of the everyday worries and stress. Eventually, complaints to authorities rendered a few charges of vagrancy and he was soon dubbed The Fort Fisher Hermit.
The Darkside of Fame
During the Hippie Movement of the late 1960’s and early ’70’s, Robert became something of a local celebrity. Crowds of people began showing up to see how he lived and to hear his common sense philosophy. Robert welcomed newspapers and reporters to share his story hoping to teach others about nature, self-reliance, how to express their own individuality, and voice their opinions. But with publicity comes the dark side of fame.
Some folks thought he was a nuisance and found time to harass Robert. Military authorities did not like Robert taking up residence in one of their old bunkers and tried several times to evict him. Historical officials felt he was intruding on their plans to develop the site. But Robert was well educated and used his charm and popularity against their efforts to evict him. He was also a victim of assault, torment, and theft. On one occasion, Robert was actually beaten, robbed and kidnapped.