This weekend, folks will gather on the 40th anniversary of the death of one of North Carolina’s most popular tourist attractions Robert Harrill, who was known as the Fort Fisher Hermit. It was said he attracted as many as 17,000 visitors a year, but many who have come to North Carolina since his death in 1972 don’t know of the hermit. In 2002, former N&O writer G.D. Gearino provided this introduction:
As best as can be determined, Harrill arrived in Fort Fisher in 1955, although he later claimed that he’d ridden out Hurricane Hazel, the devastating storm that hit in 1954. It’s not likely: In a letter to his sister in July 1955, he wrote, “I’m hitching down to Carolina Beach today to see how it is down there. Since I haven’t had a chance to get there in the last 28 years, I figure this might be my only chance for the next 28 years.”
He was 62 years old and his life until then had been largely unhappy. As a child, typhoid fever had taken his mother and two brothers. His stepmother proved to be strict and abusive. He had trouble maintaining a career. At various times he worked as a mill hand, linotypist, watch repairman and circus roustabout. For a while, he lived with his wife and children in a Model-T Ford -- which had been converted into a primitive camper -- and sold jewelry and trinkets from a table set up in whichever town they found themselves. The family eventually settled in Shelby, where Harrill’s in-laws lived. His eldest son died there from injuries received after leaping from a railroad trestle in a suicide attempt.
Harrill was involuntarily confined to mental hospitals at least three times in the 1930s. The diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia. His wife left him, moving to Pennsylvania to work as a housekeeper. He had only sporadic contact with his remaining three children. Finally, in a grand to-hell-with-it gesture that most people only fantasize about making, Harrill walked away from his life and became a beach scavenger.
He was arrested for vagrancy shortly after arriving at the coast. A magistrate later agreed that Harrill’s occasional effort to help visitors find good fishing spots was a visible means of support -- or at least something close enough to it to satisfy the law -- but it was only his first encounter with authorities. Local police, state officials and U.S. Army representatives all sought to get Harrill out of the concrete ammunition bunker he’d moved into a year after arriving in Fort Fisher.
But the longer Harrill stayed, the harder it became to dislodge him.
The problem was that he’d become a tourist attraction. Hundreds of people trudged or drove across the salt marsh to visit with Harrill. ...
Harrill was a strange kind of hermit. He had a distinct preference for crowds over solitude. He even painted markers pointing visitors in the direction of his bunker.
And Harrill’s death in 1972 only added to the myth.
Years after he was found dead of causes that remain a mystery, Harrill is the object of the sort of reverence and regard that he rarely enjoyed while alive. He is remembered variously as an iconoclast, social activist, raconteur, philosopher, naturalist, environmentalist and media-savvy celebrity.
You could even call him a cult figure.
It’s no joke: A society formed ... to honor his memory now has hundreds of members. ... His acolytes will declare, with straight faces and in all sincerity, that Harrill was a man of such uncommon wisdom that he compares with Henry David Thoreau.
It’s not an accidental comparison. Thoreau, of course, renounced the comforts of civilization in 1845 to move into a tiny cabin on the edge of Walden Pond, where he contemplated life and society. In the mid-1950s, Harrill did a similar thing, although he opted for the North Carolina coast over the Massachusetts countryside, eventually becoming known as “The Fort Fisher Hermit.”...
Before June 3, 1972, Harrill was an odd guy who earned a minor bit of fame by calling himself a hermit. After June 3, he was a mythic figure. -- The N&O 5/26/2002
Harrill himself insisted he didn’t set out to be a hermit. Calling himself a “biopsychologist,” he said he intended to write a book, “my think book, on humanity.”
The book itself never came to be. In a 1963 article, he said, “I finished the first draft of my book, and was ready to send it off to a publisher when a storm struck and destroyed everything, including manuscript, typewriter, and a 1929 Chevrolet which I used to drive into town.”
He said he had rewritten the book and was storing it with a relative in Charlotte until he found the right publisher. However, in 1972, the book was lost again when one of his cats bumped against a kerosene lamp, igniting stacks of old newspapers and wooden boards stored in the bunker. “Most of the hermit’s personal belongings, including the manuscripts of a book Harrell says he is writing, were lost in the fire.”