What Tragedies Happened at the Biltmore Estate? 6 Fascinating Stories

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)

Mysteries and rumors surrounding Biltmore as passed down through generations

When I visit Biltmore, I always think about how we are trained to think of great houses as places of secrets and mystery. And when we think of the enormous North Carolina 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. But what stories specifically? 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 when it was a massive, functional home? 

Biltmore is a large house that is full of history and a handful of stories that would have some believe that it could be haunted. For example, there were rumors of a drowning in the pool and a security guard incident that led to the passing of two young boys. There are also cemeteries at the large estate.

billiard table with tree at biltmore during christmas
There are several “secret passageways” at Biltmore, like the hidden wooden door in the billiards room, but these were built more for form and function than fancy (media photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company)

1. 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.

George Vanderbilt
The only real documented tragedy involving the Vanderbilt family happened when George unexpectedly passed away following an appendectomy at 51 (public domain)

2. Deaths at Biltmore

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.

cornelia vanderbilt and john cecil
Cornelia Vanderbilt and John Cecil had two children during their short marriage. She would later go on to dye her hair pink, moved to Paris, and never returned to Biltmore (public domain)

3. Cornelia scandals

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. 

biltmore estate
One of the more tragic incidents at Biltmore involved a security guard and a suspicious car in 1922 (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

4. The security guard incident

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 man looks at biltmore estate from a distance
There are five known pre-Vanderbilt cemeteries on the estate property today (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

5. Bodies 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.”

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

6. Rumored 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.

How to visit Biltmore Estate

Still, Biltmore’s legacy lives on. 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. 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 is decorated for the holidays from November through January with several elaborate hand-decorated trees. To learn more about visiting the enormous Biltmore house in Asheville, NC, visit their website. Biltmore Estate is located at 1 Lodge St, Asheville, NC 28803.

TheSmokies.com

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2 thoughts on “What Tragedies Happened at the Biltmore Estate? 6 Fascinating Stories”

  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.

    Reply
  2. I enjoyed the tour with my daughter Mother’s Day weekend. I do not and have never beleaved the deceased being there but when I entered the taspestry room I felt a presence there. When I entered the reading room it was gone when I reentered the tapestry room it was emediatly there I hurried out it was gone. I don’t ever want to enter the room again. But I do wat to come back Christmas. It was wonderful

    Reply

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