Robert Harrill sitting outside his bunker and greeting his many visitors.
|Born||February 2, 1893
Gaffney, South Carolina
|Died||June 3, 1972 (aged 79)
Fort Fisher south of Kure Beach, North Carolina
|Occupation||farmer, mill worker, Works Progress Administration laborer, travelling salesman and hermit|
|Children||Alvin, Boge, Edward, Luther and Nelli Kate|
Robert E. Harrill (February 2, 1893 – June 3, 1972) was an American man known as "The Fort Fisher Hermit". He became a hermit in 1955 at the age of 62 after a string of unsuccessful and unsatisfying jobs and a failed marriage. Harrill hitchhiked to Fort Fisher on the North Carolina Coast from Morganton, North Carolina, a distance of 260 miles (418 km). He had been committed to a mental hospital in Morganton by his in-laws, after his wife, Katie Hamrick, left him and asked for a divorce. Harrill apparently walked away from the hospital or made a key from an old spoon and used the key to escape the facility.
Harrill becomes the Hermit
The name "The Fort Fisher Hermit" came from Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, where he settled after leaving the mental institution in Morganton. Soon after arriving at Fort Fisher, Robert Harrill was arrested as a vagrant and sent to his hometown of Shelby by the sheriff's department with the help of the Traveler's Aide society. He returned the following summer and set up a simple home in an abandoned World War II era bunker near the Cape Fear River along a salt marsh. He was able to gather much of the food that he needed from the salt marsh and the nearby oyster beds. Harrill learned many of his survival skills from Empie Hewett, a true hermit, who also lived in the salt marshes of the Fort Fisher area.
The Fort Fisher Hermit was not a hermit in the truest sense of the word. A hermit (from the Greek ἔρημος erēmos, signifying "desert", "uninhabited", hence "desert-dweller") is a person who lives to some greater or lesser degree in seclusion and/or isolation from society. Harrill was far from isolated, and in fact had many visitors every year. His guest registry, a notebook held down by sea shells, recorded a total of over 100,000 visitors from all fifty states and at least 20 foreign countries. Harrill planted a vegetable garden to supplement his diet (what he grew and what he was able to gather in his surroundings). Visitors also provided the Fort Fisher Hermit with monetary donations that were placed in a frying pan that he left out for just such a purpose.
The Hermit becomes an attraction
Robert Harrill became the second greatest tourist attraction in the state of North Carolina, trailing only the USS North Carolina in number of visitors. Visitors to Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, Fort Fisher and Southport would routinely take time to visit the man living in the salt marshes. Many of them were simply curious, others were attracted to his wisdom and words, but others went out of their way to harass him or to try to steal his money. There were rumors that he had thousands of dollars hidden somewhere in his bunker. He was also arrested by the local authorities on charges of vagrancy. Each trip to court saw the Fort Fisher Hermit defending himself, most times successfully. A group of men who beat him up and stole his money were convicted on the strength of the hermit's testimony against them, in a trial that saw the hermit serve as both lead prosecutor and star witness.
The Fort Fisher Hermit also attracted a large number of journalists to his bunker with his lifestyle and beliefs. He explained his popularity in the New Hanover Sun in 1968,
Everybody ought to be a hermit for a few minutes to an hour or so every 24 hours, to study, meditate, and commune with their creator...millions of people want to do just what I'm doing, but since it is much easier thought of than done, they subconsciously elect me to represent them, that's why I'm successful...— Robert Harrill, New Hanover Sun
Robert Harrill greeted as many visitors as possible and agreed to pose with them in pictures for a small fee. The Hermit saw each visitor as an opportunity to spread his "common sense" beliefs.
Robert Harrill told his visitors that he was writing a book entitled "A Tyrant in Every Home". His book was a byproduct of his previously stressful life: his mother and two brothers died of typhoid fever when he was a young boy, and his father remarried to a woman that Robert described as "the tyrant in my family. The Hermit's troubled youth and equally troubling adulthood were the primary reasons that he "dropped out" of society nearly ten years before the hippie movement began in full force. Robert Harrill stated that he finally achieved the peace and happiness that he sought for so long. He enjoyed living with nature and said, "My life here goes up and down like the tides of this old sea out here... Only nature determines my existence."
Harrill died under "mysterious" circumstances in June 1972. His body was found in his bunker by a group of teenage boys on an early Sunday morning. Covered in sand, Harrill's bloodied body had multiple wounds and was laying spreadeagle on a pile of garbage. Some people suspected that he was killed by a group of ruffians while others believed his death was the result of a prank gone wrong. The New Hanover County coroner ruled that the cause of death was a heart attack. Heart attack remains listed as the official cause of death and an official investigation into a possible murder has never been conducted.
Memorial and legacy
The story and legacy of Robert Harrill lives on today through the efforts of The Hermit Society, founded by Michael Edwards, Edward Harrill, Harry Warren, Gaile Welker and Vergie Harrill. The Fort Fisher Hermit Society was formed on February 2, 1993 (What would have been Robert's 100th birthday) and has members in numerous states. The President and founder is Michael F. Edwards, currently of Satellite Beach, Florida. Since the passing of Edward Harrill, the son of the Hermit, members elected Fred Pickler, a former friend of the hermit, to fill the spot. In the spring of 2007, Pickler co-authored the book "Life and Times of the Fort Fisher Hermit, Through the Lens of Fred Pickler."
The hermit bunker is still standing and can be reached from the Fort Fisher Hermit Trail at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. The Hermit Society and the "Friends of the Fort Fisher Hermit" work to continue telling his story and a film directed by Rob Hill, The Fort Fisher Hermit, was produced by Wilmington, North Carolina-based Common Sense Films partners Hill, Richard Sirianni and Scott R. Davis in 2004. It has won numerous independent film making awards and airs on American Public Television on PBS. The film was nominated for a 2007 Mid-South Regional Emmy Award. A local Wilmington theatre company called Big Dawg Productions is, also, working to produce a staged version of the story of The Hermit of Fort Fisher written by David Wright, which made its South Eastern NC Premiere in July 2014.
- Edwards, Michael F. (2002). The Last Battle for Independence: The Story of the Fort Fisher Hermit (1st ed.). Wilmington, North Carolina: The Hermit Society. 115551.
- Jeri Rowe. "Chasing the gentle spirit of a hermit". Greensboro, North Carolina News-Record. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2007-05-12.
- G. Lee Hearl. "The Robert Harrill Saga: Searching For The Truth". Ancestry.com. Retrieved 2007-05-12.
- Ben Steelman (2009-08-15). "Eye on the Fort Fisher Hermit". Star News Online. Retrieved 2009-08-16.
- Michael Edwards. "The Hermit's Guide to Spirituality". Innerchange. Archived from the original on 2007-04-21. Retrieved 2007-05-13.
- "A Hermit's Path". University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Archived from the original on April 22, 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-12.
- Rob Hill. "The Fort Fisher Hermit: The Life & Death of Robert E. Harrill". Common Sense Films. Retrieved 2007-05-13.
- "UNCW - Department of Creative Writing". uncwil.edu. Retrieved 8 July 2010.
- "The Fort Fisher Hermit (film)". UNC-TV. Retrieved 2007-05-13.
- "The Hermit of Fort Fisher".
- The Fort Fisher Hermit: The Life & Death of Robert E. Harrill 2004 documentary by Rob Hill.
- Life and Times of the Fort Fisher Hermit through the Lens of Fred Pickler 2009 book by Fred Pickler
- Robert Harrill at Find a Grave