He was known as “The Fort Fisher Hermit” but his real name was Robert E. Harrill (or Robert Harrell).
For 17 years he lived beneath the stars, living off of the land and the contributions of the visitors who stopped by to see him. These visitors came by the thousands each year to meet “The Hermit.”
A misnomer from almost the beginning, “The Hermit” treated anyone who came by to visit with a warm and friendly disposition that was contagious.
In 1955 at the age of 62 after a a failed marriage and a series of unsuccessful jobs he became a hermit.
Harrill was committed to a mental hospital in Morganton by his in-laws, after his wife, Katie Hamrick, left him and asked for a divorce.
Mr. Harrill apparently walked away from the hospital or made a key from an old spoon and used the key to escape the facility. He then hitchhiked to Fort Fisher on the North Carolina Coast from Morganton, North Carolina, a distance of 260 miles.
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 Empy Hewitt, 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 is usually defined as a person who lives to some greater or lesser degree in seclusion and/or isolation from society.
But 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.
He 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, with only the USS North Carolina exceeding him in number of visitors.
Visitors who came 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.
Over time a large number of journalists came to seek out The Fort Fisher Hermit to do stories on him, his bunker with his unconventional 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 was always happy to greet as many visitors as possible and he would agree to pose with them in pictures for a small fee. The Hermit saw each of these visitors as another 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.”
The Fort Fisher Hermit died under “mysterious” circumstances in June 1972. His body was found by a group of teenage boys on an early Sunday morning. It was covered in sand, bloodied, covered in wounds and laid spread eagle on a pile of rubbish. Some people believed that he was killed by a group of rowdy rednecks, others believed that it was a prank gone horribly bad.
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.
Watch the entire movie here:
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.