What tragedies happened at the Biltmore Estate?

Biltmore Estate Asheville North Carolina

The enormous Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC sparks rumors about secrets, tragedies and ghosts (photo by Brian/stock.adobe.com)

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We are trained to think of great houses as places of secrets and mystery. 

Miss Marple. Hercule Poirot. Benoit Blanc. Jessica Fletcher. For our great fictional detectives, decadent locations are as much a part of the story as the nefarious riddles within. 

And so, when we think of the enormous Biltmore estate, a playground for people with enough money to buy their way out of trouble, the mind tends to wander.

Seemingly, Biltmore is a perfect place for hidden secrets and mysteries.

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But what stories specifically? It’s hard to say.

The house hasn’t been lived in for decades. I imagine the stories now involve tourists touching things that shouldn’t be touched. 

But what about the days before Biltmore was a tourist destination?

What about when it was a massive, functional home? 

Are there secret passages at Biltmore?

First, let’s start with the obvious object of fascination for many: The secret passages at Biltmore.

It’s no secret that Biltmore is filled with hidden doors and passageways. But their purpose is more functional than fanciful.

This design’s original intent was to let the servants perform their duties without the inhabitants and their guests seeing them.

For example, the billiards room has a hidden wooden door leading to the smoking room.

And below some portraits, like the “Child with an Orange”, you’ll notice a discrete doorknob.

Read Also: Who owns the Biltmore estate? The history of America’s largest home

A guest looks on at the Biltmore estate
The Biltmore estate remains a family business to this day (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Has anyone died at Biltmore Estate?

Surprisingly, there’s not much evidence of many tragic goings-on within the walls of Biltmore.

I did find an uncorroborated story about a lady of the evening who met her end at the estate, but there wasn’t enough information for me to include it here. 

There’s also a rumor that a child, perhaps a family friend, drowned in the pool during a party. Again, there is no official record of the alleged incident.

Maybe before his passing, George and his wife Edith Vanderbilt would have regaled a guest with the story of how they avoided a near-tragedy on the Titanic.

The Vanderbilts, considered American royalty, had reportedly booked passage on the infamous ship. However, they inevitably canceled. Some reports indicate a family member objected to the plan, but there is no clear indication of what truly happened.

Unfortunately, one confirmed tragedy did strike in 1914 when George unexpectedly passed away following an appendectomy.

What other stories might we hear?

Truthfully, I suspect the best stories would involve the final days Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil spent in the home.

Cornelia, the only daughter of the Biltmore’s founder George Vanderbilt, whose full name is George Washington Vanderbilt II, was only 13 when her father passed. 

She married a British Aristocrat named John Francis Amherst Cecil at the age of 24, a year before she received the full $50,000,000 inheritance from her father.

The Cecils had two sons.

George Henry Vanderbilt Cecil was born in Biltmore House in 1925. Three years later in 1928, William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil was born.

The family had opened the house to visitors in 1930 at the start of the Depression. Admission was $2.

Cornelia left her husband and her sons somewhere around 1932. She moved to Greenwich Village in New York, where she studied art briefly before leaving for Paris.

Cornelia, in fact, never returned to Biltmore.

But if the rest of her life is any indication, I bet there are some good Cornelia stories in those walls. 

What about the larger grounds of Biltmore?

There are surprisingly few confirmed tragedies on the Biltmore grounds.

Of course, the Biltmore is a massive estate that used to be even larger. There isn’t a lot about dark goings-on within the mansion’s four acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 65 fireplaces or 43 bathrooms.

But that doesn’t mean the larger grounds have existed without controversy. 

One of the main incidents involved Walter Brooks.

In 1922, Brooks had a confrontation with five boys south of the Shiloh gates. He was a guard at the Biltmore Forest Development Company.

Brooks and his partner were sent to investigate a suspicious car.

According to official records, one of the boys told Brooks they would “take the place”.

I assume they meant the gate, because it was going to take more than five boys to take the larger estate. 

Ultimately, two of the boys met their end. Two escaped. One was injured.

Brooks was charged with the fatal outcome.

Newspaper reports of the time indicated Brooks was chastened for being armed while on the stand. He contended he was simply reacting to public threats.

A statue at Biltmore in Asheville
A goddess statue of Diana, goddess of the hunt, at the Biltmore Estate gardens (photo by Lara/stock.adobe.com)

Is anyone buried at Biltmore?

There are a handful of pre-Vanderbilt cemeteries on the estate property.

Small communities existed before George Vanderbilt started buying land in the North Carolina mountains.

The combined property was around 125,000 acres at its peak. 

These were the places where the people of the North Carolina mountains lived and worked and raised their families. It’s also where they died. 

Estate spokeswoman LeeAnn Donnelly told the Asheville Citizen-Times in 2017 that there are multiple pre-Biltmore cemeteries on the property.

“There are five known pre-Vanderbilt cemeteries on current estate property, each of which is preserved and maintained by the estate,” Donnelly said.

“Cemetery Hill, the large hill beyond the historic Farmyard and Antler Hill Village, is the site of an early 19th-century family burial ground, containing several graves, including that of Benjamin Hawkins and his wife, Hannah. Benjamin Hawkins was one of the region’s first settlers who played a role in the establishment of Buncombe County.”

Today, Biltmore encompasses about 8,000 acres. The gardens are designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who is considered to be the father of landscape architecture.

Architecture at Biltmore Estate in Asheville
Biltmore Estate is well known for its architectural details (photo by Brian/stock.adobe.com)

Are there ghosts at Biltmore?

Given the cemeteries and rumors, it’s no surprise that the largest private residence in America is also said to be filled with ghosts.

There are a lot of ghost rumors, including the claim that you can hear the sound of splashing water from the 70,000-gallon indoor swimming pool area in the basement.

Some have said they hear voices around the staircases or sounds of glass clinking from past celebrations.

Most folks speculate that the main spirit on the property is none other than George himself, who reportedly still visits his old library.

Read Also: Haunted places in the Smoky mountains: Ghost stories from Gatlinburg

Still, Biltmore’s legacy lives on.

Today, you can visit the home, which spans 175,000 square feet and visit the first-ever two-lane bowling alley built inside a home.

It remains a family business, with the fourth and fifth generations of George Vanderbilt’s descendants running daily operations.

The current CEO is Bill Cecil, Jr.

The house decorates for the holidays from November through January with several elaborate hand-decorated trees.

Read Also: Is Christmas at Biltmore worth it? An honest review

To learn more about visiting the enormous Biltmore house in Asheville, NC, visit their website.

Do you have a Biltmore story to share? Have you ever been to this tourist attraction? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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1 thought on “What tragedies happened at the Biltmore Estate?”

  1. There are no records indicating why George revoked passage on Titanic.
    The family member objecting to the plan died in 1883 so there was no way she could have objected having passed away 29 years earlier.

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