He heartily promoted his simplified lifestyle, saying this 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."
What he failed to mention was that the hermit life was not exactly idyllic. The summer heat was brutal, the occasional hurricane life-threatening, and the winters long and dark with no garden and no tourists to replenish his coffers, and with the waters wicked cold to go wading in to spread his fishing nets.
Pollution in the Cape Fear River significantly reduced the number and size of shellfish he caught in his nets, and he railed against the lack of common sense that prompted polluters to pump tons of chemicals and heavy metals into local waterways.
He watched Russian bombers fly up and down the coast, and sent a letter to Kruschev pointing out the sheer lunacy of nuclear warfare. One friend of the hermit reports that the proverbial Men in Black, stepping out of a limo with darkened windows, personally responded to that particular piece of correspondence.
Harrill set up little aquatic displays for the children, and advocated the creation of state-run aquariums along the coast. In this case someone in power must have agreed with him. Today there are three North Carolina Aquariums - Roanoke Island in Manteo, Pine Knoll Shores in Atlantic Beach, and Fort Fisher, within a stone's throw of the hermit's bunker, in Kure Beach.
Common sense might also have told him that once he became a local legend, rumors were likely to fly-that he was concealing some fabulous wealth, some treasure of untold proportions, hidden in the bunker or somewhere nearby, ripe for the taking from a defenseless and possibly incompetent old man.
There are those who claim that he himself fueled those flights of fancy, when he loudly claimed he had to hide his money from the thugs who occasionally stopped by.
The Hermit and The Law
Thoreau went to jail only once and very briefly on a charge of failing to pay a poll tax. He extricated himself and went back to his cabin and his writing on a remarkably successful mission to inspire much righteous indignation on his behalf.
Thoreau spent only two years in the woods and Harrill, through 16 years in the bunker, made this little brush with the law look like a comparative playground brawl.
Harrill's first of many appearances before a court of law was on a charge of vagrancy, and it was only the beginning of numerous complications that brought him before a judge. A film available on-line at http://www.thefortfisherhermit.com details a whole sordid string of legal incidents in which he unfailingly represented himself, oftentimes with some minor degree of success.
"He was assaulted numerous times, always somebody trying to take advantage of him, trying to steal from him, a lot of mean people," the film asserts. "Rednecks or drunks would sit on him or throw beer bottles at him, and jerks wanted to rough him up."
One of the stories in this vein was about a courtroom appearance following an incident in which the hermit shot an intruder with birdshot from a shotgun. The end result was that the court took the shotgun away from him, leaving him completely defenseless against all subsequent attacks.
Another widely circulated story about his courtroom defense tactics begins with his arrest for sleeping on the beach, on charges of vagrancy. He told the judge that thousands of summertime tourists on the island should all be locked up on vagrancy charges.
Harrill defended himself against numerous challenges to his mere presence in no-man's land, and he asserted his claim to the bunker by the right of adverse possession. The people who wanted him out of there could not produce a deed to the property because, for one thing, the natural migration of sand coming and going made it a very tricky tract to survey.
The bunker was built on land owned by the U.S. Army, and to this day the federal government maintains a so-called buffer zone on portions of Pleasure Island that look out across the Cape Fear River toward Sunny Point, a military ammunition stockpile. Locals prefer to call it the blast zone.
Nevertheless, a developer was planning a development to be called Ramsgate, and was fiercely contending with both the government and the hermit. And an archeologist was hired by the state to seek him out and send him off.
In the final analysis, nobody had the right to run anybody off the land, and Harrill said he'd be the happiest man in the world if he could get rid of the crooks, the thieves and the county politicians.
Terms: Fort Fisher
Information on Fort Fisher.