Acting | Reports

The Untimely Death of a Superstar Hermit

1 Apr , 2008  

Written by Kathleen McKenzie | Posted by:

After a traumatic life, Robert E. Harrill moved to the beach of North Carolina with just the clothes on his back.  A documentary about his rise to tourist stardom and his mysterious death, The Fort Fisher Hermit: the Life & Death of Robert E. Harrill, is coming soon to Springfield’s WGBY.

In 1893 on Ground Hog’s Day, Robert Harrill was born to a farming family in
the foothills of North Carolina.  He had a rough childhood, losing his
mother then enduring strict religious rule from a
stepmother.  Later, his son Alvin committed suicide and his wife, Katie, left
him for another man. Harrill started over on Carolina Beach, NC.  
“He was like 61 or 62 when he left [his other life],” said
filmmaker Rob Hill in a phone interview in 2007. “He had a tough life.  He had
psychological issues.  The Fort Fisher was where he used to take his kids. He
went down to the beach and ended up staying.” 
Harrill became known as The Fort Fisher Hermit.  He lived
on the beach in an abandoned concrete bunker from 1955 to 1972. “From Oct 1971
to Oct 1972 he had over 1,000 names in a guest book,” said Hill. “He saw people
from all over the world, like from Russia and China.” Even actress Ava Gardener
visited him. 
“The Hermit was a tourist attraction superstar.  People who
went to visit him were awed and inspired by him,” said Hill.  The Fort Fisher
Hermit, the Life & death of Robert E. Harrill was directed by Hill, narrated by
Barry Corbin, and produced by Scott Davis and Richard Sirianni. 
Hill said that this film is important because everybody at
some point wonders what it would be like to leave it all behind. “I think
everybody has a little of that in them,” he explained.  Hill wanted to chronicle
the life of a leader who was a curious fixture in the lives of so many. “Y’know,
it was a kind of labor of love,” said Hill, who met The Hermit when he was a
boy.  “He was an intelligent man.  He had a rant.  He would write letters to
editors and politicians.  He would get mail addressed to The Fort Fisher Hermit,
North Carolina Beach and it would get to him.  I think he eventually got a P.O.
According to Hill, The Hermit had a large impact on what
that county became.  “There was just the Civil War museum, the aquarium, and a
few houses.  He was the original tourist attraction.”  Today there is an
outreach program at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, called the Fort
Fisher Hermit’s School of Common Sense.  Participants view Hill’s documentary,
then take a guided tour through the salt marsh to the bunker where the hermit
lived; at the end of the tour they fish and crab as the hermit. 

A classic tourist souvenir photo by Fred Pickler.
[Click to enlarge]

To put it lightly, the Hermit was a superb hit.  “It was
location, location, location,” said Hill.  “He was in the right place at the
right time.  He left an iron skillet with some seed money, about 12 cents and a
wooden nickel, in it.  He would charge one dollar to take a picture with him.” 
In the film, The Hermit is seen putting on his straw hat and posing for
pictures.  No matter the time of year, The Hermit always wore just his swim
shorts and his straw hat when posing.  The Hermit wanted his guests to come away
from visiting him with a feeling of summer.  
However, controversy surrounds The Hermit’s untimely death.
 One Sunday morning, The Hermit was found with sand all over him, his body
thrown into the bunker.  According to Hill’s film, authorities covered up the
death.  They said it was a heart attack.  “[I think] it was some boys from a
local bar,” said Hill.  “When the bar closed down a couple of guys went down to
the beach — they didn’t have anything better to do — and beat him up.  He was
79.  They must have dragged him down to the beach in his sleeping bag and beat
him up.  In 1982 or 1983, the FBI reopened the case. They never overturned the
death certificate.  No one really knows who did it.” 
Through perseverance, Hill tracked down people who had
visited the Hermit and collected more than 300 photographs and reels of home
movies.  “Fred Pickler took a lot of pictures [of The Fort Fisher Hermit] since
he was a kid.  Fred was called out to the crime scene of The Hermit’s death. We
interviewed the guys who found the body.  They were boys at the time of his
death.  A lot of people didn’t want to talk about it.” 
In the film’s narration, Corbin says, “The Hermit embodied
a certain faith in rebellion.”  Friends of The Hermit established The Hermit
Society to honor Harrill and to promote common sense and brotherhood.  Anyone
can join. 
Hill’s current project has brought him to MIT’s D-Lab for
lectures by inventor Jock Brandis, about his quest to fight world hunger and
poverty through the appropriate use of technology in developing countries. 
Brandis invented a universal nut sheller, used to shell peanuts and other nuts. 
Footage from The Appropriate Genius aired on CNN when Brandis was nominated as
one of CNN’s Heroes.  Like Harrill, Brandis’s contributions will have a lasting
impact, even more so after catching the attention of filmmaker Rob Hill. 
For more info on The Fort Fisher Hermit, visit
here.  To check the
schedule at
Springfield’s WGBY, visit
here.  For
Appropriate Genius, visit here