My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
What is it that attracts people to a hermit? Though the image of a man or a woman who lives alone, disconnected from the attachments of the world, is often of an angry or deranged misantrope, the reality is more usually very different. One clear example is Robert E. Harrill who, at the age of 62, utterly changed his life by abandoning his home in the mountains to live without house, job or obvious means of support on the coast of North Carolina. In the 1960s, he had become, by all accounts, one of the main tourist attractions. Certainly people were drawn to him because he was strange and friendly. But besides the novelty, perhaps he was also manifesting or speaking to something deep within many people that they are unable to articulate or lacked the courage to claim for themselves.
As the narrator of this documentary ‘The Fort Fisher Hermit” says, “The hermit had what the world lacked – the courage to live by his own standards. This was the life some dreamed of living but didn’t dare.” Watch the video:
Robert E. Harrill, who became known as the Fort Fisher Hermit, lived for 17 years under the stars, living off the land and the contributions of visitors who came by the thousands every year to meet “The Hermit”, according to the website of the Fort Fisher Hermit Society.
‘The Hermit’ treated anyone who came by with a warmth and friendly appreciation that was contagious. Many people came year after year to sit and listen to Mr. Harrill’s philosophies at “The School of Common Sense.” He was a man who had finally come home.
His first 64 years were a completely different story, though. Growing up with a tyrant father and an overly strict stepmother, Robert lived in an abusive home. Later moving in with relatives, he often found peace in the woods and streams around his home. His adult life was spent chasing one failed business idea after another. He was even committed to an asylum for a time until his escape. Disappointing career choices a disintegrating marriage and the suicide of his oldest son, led Robert to look for a simpler life on the beaches of Carolina Beach. Life wasn’t so ideal, and in the end, the questions surrounding his death created an even more compelling story .”
Inevitably, word of his presence on the beach attracted people. First out of curiosity and later perhaps out of a sort of respect for the choices he’d made with his life. Journalists flocked to write about him. He explained his popularity to 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 murdered in June 1972, though the fact was covered up by local authorities for seven years. No autopsy was done, despite clear evidence that he had been dragged to the beach in a sleeping bag and his body was found inside his bunker covered in sand and mud and with numerous cuts to his body. The entrance had been barricaded from the outside.
Despite his brutal and cruel death, Robert Harrill touched the lives of many, many people – so many that in 1993 people who had known him got together to found the Fort Fisher Hermit Society to remember him and to commemorate the years he lived in the bunker on the beach and met and talked with so many people in his “school of commonsense”.
Watch the 56-minute video:
Wikipedia – a lengthy biography of this remarkable man.
The Fort Fisher Hermit Society – photos and the inevitable merchandise.