Biltmore’s Dark History: Odd Happenings at the Asheville Landmark

the biltmore estate and cornelia vanderbilt on her wedding day

Just as there are Titaniacs in the world, attracted to intersection of wealth and tragedy, so are there Biltmoriacs (photos by Sofia Gullion/TheSmokies.com and public domain)

Just as there are Titaniacs in the world, attracted to the intersection of wealth and tragedy, so are there Biltmoriacs

As someone who has written extensively about the Biltmore Estate, I find the darker parts of its history appealing. The trappings of power and extreme wealth and decadence are seemingly attractive to those of us whose nature leans a little morose. Rumors of a dark history, rumors of ghosts and even a headless cat – more on that later – open the imagination. In this article, we will explore if there’s more Overlook Hotel than Versailles in this massive North Carolina chalet. 

George Vanderbilt – an heir to the massive Vanderbilt fortune – dreamed of America’s answer to the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. He located his site near Asheville, North Carolina. Construction began in 1889, finishing six years later. Over the ensuing century, a series of unfortunate events – starting with Vanderbilt’s death – have occurred at the estate. 

George Vanderbilt
It was Cornelius’s grandson, George Washington Vanderbilt, who commissioned the construction of Biltmore Estate (public domain)

Ghostly Sightings 

Biltmore was George Vanderbilt’s dream, and he had the nearly unlimited finances to make that dream real. But he only had about 20 years to enjoy Biltmore. The house was first opened to family and friends on December 24, 1895. George died 19 years later – at the age of 51 – of complications from an appendectomy. Ownership of the estate fell to his wife Edith and later their only child Cornelia. 

It appears that because he did not get enough of his massive estate in life, his spirit chose that spot to linger in death. When he wasn’t out indulging his passion for horticulture, George is said to have frequented Biltmore’s massive library. And it is there that his spirit is most frequently felt by visitors. There are even occasional reports of someone catching a glimpse of George’s spirit in a chair reading.

The library is also where the second suspected Biltmore spirit is known to roam. It’s said that Edith’s shadows are known to walk the halls calling George away from his books to join her. There are, however, no sightings of Edith’s second husband Peter Goelet Gerry. Despite being married to Edith for six years more than George, Peter seems to have been abandoned by his bride in the afterlife. 

cornelia vanderbilt and john cecil
Cornelia Vanderbilt and John Cecil had two children during their short marriage (public domain)

Cornelia Vanderbilt Abandons Biltmore

One ghost you’re unlikely to see at the Biltmore? Cornelia. She married a British aristocrat at the age of 24, received her full $50 million inheritance at the age of 25 and had two kids.  Somewhere around 1932, she left it all behind. She divorced, moved to Paris, joined the art scene, dyed her hair pink, and took to calling herself Nilcha. She never returned to Biltmore in life. As far as I can tell her ethereal form has never returned to Western North Carolina, either.     

The Creepy Murals 

What would a massive relic built by the uber-wealthy post-Civil War be without some creepy rooms? Deep in the basement of Biltmore sits the Halloween Room so dubbed for the creepy murals that adorn the walls. You can sneak a peek at those murals in the video above by Darkness Dissected on YouTube. The murals date back to Cornelia’s time at the Biltmore. They are part of some preparations for an elaborate New Year’s Eve celebration. The Biltmore website indicates that the Bohemian Ball artwork was based on a Russian cabaret from the time. The brightly colored murals of soldiers and witches and black cats and bats come directly from a program for the show. 

The Biltmore Pool
Some guests say they can hear splashing coming from the old indoor pool (media photo by The Biltmore Company)

The Creepy Pool

The Halloween Room isn’t the only creepy spot in the Biltmore. The Biltmore is also home to one of the spookiest pools you’ll ever see. State-of-the-art for the time, the pool which held 70,000 gallons of water was heated and had underwater lighting. But there’s something about the white brick walls, ceiling and floor that gives a certain unease. Despite the elegant wood trappings, it looks like something that was built to be haunted.

Guests say they feel nauseous or anxious, which may have something to do with the design of the room. But also may be from lingering spirits. There are rumors of sounds of splashing and laughter coming from the drain and of a lady in black who haunts the room. However, there is no documentation of a child’s death at the pool and Biltmore officials deny any such event taking place. Yet the unfounded rumors persist. 

a man looks at biltmore estate from a distance
Biltmore Estate has had a few tragic events in years past (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

The Security Guard Incident 

One documented tragedy occurred on the Biltmore grounds in 1922. Walter Brooks, a security guard, confronted five young men at the Shiloh gate. Brooks told authorities the men told him they planned to take the place. When they advanced, he fatally shot two and wounded another. It later came out that one of the men believed Brooks had killed his dog while it was chasing a deer on the property. 

After three hours of deliberation, Brooks was found guilty of second-degree murder in September of 1922. He was sentenced to 40 years hard labor. He appealed but I haven’t been able to verify the results of that appeal. So far, I haven’t heard any reports of Brooks, his victims or the dog haunting the Biltmore grounds. There are rumors of a headless ginger cat, a reverse Cheshire situation if you will. But as far as I can tell, we can clear Walter in that one. 

View of the mountains from Biltmore
To visit Biltmore, it’s recommended to purchase a ticket and arrange lodging in advance (photo by Sofia Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

How to Visit Biltmore 

The Biltmore is a vast estate with glorious gardens and a massive house that harkens back to the days before the robber barons. It is a place that is either attractive to spirits from beyond the grave or those of us who imagine such things. Go for the opulence, stay for the air of mystery that surrounds it. 

Today you can explore the Biltmore – or at least the parts of it on the tour – and the grounds yourself. You must have a ticket and reservation to tour the Biltmore House. The Biltmore recommends you purchase your tickets at least a week in advance. You must have an admission ticket or hotel reservation to get onto the Biltmore grounds. You must also have a reservation time to visit the house. Prices change seasonally. Options include house and grounds (starting at $70) or just the grounds (starting at $40). There are also various events, tours and more. But once you start stacking experiences, Biltmore can get pricey.

PS: Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

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