[Originally published in the May, 1995 – FPHPS Monthly Newsletter]
Mr. Harry Warren, guest speaker at the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society April,  meeting, received the undivided attention of those attending the meeting on Monday, April 17th.
The topic by Mr. Warren, who is assistant director of the Cape Fear Museum, Wilmington, was one of interest to everyone in attendance. He supported his presentation by displaying slides on a screen as he told history of the Fort Fisher Hermit.
At the beginning of his presentation he concentrated on the flowering foods, and seafood available in the Fort Fisher area, displaying them on the screen. “Needless to say, Robert E. Harrill, the Fort Fisher Hermit, knew about these flowering food plants and seafood before he moved in at the World War II bunker near Fort Fisher,” Mr. Warren said.
Robert E. Harrill was born in Shelby, North Carolina on Ground Hog Day, February 2, 1893.
His mother and two brothers died in the early 1900’s with typhoid fever. “His father remarried and his step-mother was-very dominating and strict. His childhood was cut short and he grew up in an atmosphere of family violence. He often sought solitude into the woods or into nearby streams, rivers, and lakes for solitude and refuge,” Mr. Warren stated.
He presented two slides, one showing the Hermit before he came to Fort Fisher and another picture of him, a young man standing with members of his literary club. “Some people say he was a well-educated man, however, there is no evidence of his attending college. He did receive a good basic education. He attended Boiling Springs High School and later returned to the school, when it became Gardner-Webb Jr. College, to study ministry,” Warren said.
In 1913, Robert Harrill married Katie Hamrick. The couple had five children, four sons and a daughter who died shortly after birth.
His family and other people thought Robert was disturbed. They felt his problem was caused by the abuse he suffered as a child. The problems caused the family to break up in the 1930’s. Katie took her four sons to Pennsylvania to live and Robert made a living peddling trinkets and making jewelry such as ID bracelets.
“It is said that on one occasion he was involuntarily committed to a state hospital for observation. It was there that he found a brochure about Dr. William Marcus Taylor and the Taylor School of Bio-Psychology. He read the material and felt that he had found the answers to many of his problems.” He met Dr. Taylor when he got out of the hospital and began studying in his correspondence school for a degree in Bio-Psychology.
When he became 62, he came to Fort Fisher and settled into the World War II bunker which was to become his home for 17 years. He became one of the biggest tourists attractions on the island as his fame grew.
“He made like he didn’t like the popularity and made the statement how was he going to be a hermit when all those people kept coming to see him. However, he painted ‘The Fort Fisher Hermit” on a pillar to the entrance of the road to the bunker,” Warren told the group.
The Fort Fisher Hermit passed away, some say by natural causes, others suspect foul play, in June 1972. He was buried in a cemetery in Shelby and later moved to the Federal Point Cemetery on Dow Road, Carolina Beach. “He came home,” Warren said, in closing his presentation.
[Editor’s Note: Information was provided by Sheila S. Davis, Features Editor for the Island Gazette.]
Book: The Reluctant Hermit of Fort Fisher
by: Fred Pickler and Daniel Ray Norris
“Our desire is that this book will shed light on his “unsolved” murder case and provide insight into what drove Robert E. Harrill to endure life as a hermit. Most importantly, we want to keep the memory of the Fort Fisher Hermit alive for future generations to ponder and respect.”
May, 1995 (pdf) – FPHPS Newsletter