“This story is not about what happened to him, it’s everything to do with how he chose to live his life in spite of what was done to him.” ~ Wilbert Smith Ph.D.
Wilbert Smith Ph.D., author of Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed spoke to Kentake Page on the incredible true story of Vertus Hardiman, offering glimpses of Hardiman’s character and the alarming history of government human experimentation.
Vertus Hardiman was a victim of a U.S. government human radiation experiment at the age of 5 that left him with a painful skull deformity that forced him to cover his head for 80 years.
Wilbert Smith, who knew Mr. Hardiman for almost 20 years, has committed himself to passionately share Hardiman’s story in the hopes that his story, “…brings appreciation and thankfulness for each day given and for those yet to be lived. Through the profound message of patience and understanding, perhaps readers will develop appreciation for tolerance and forgiveness, while they witness one man’s shining example”. (Watch: Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed infomercial)
Smith holds a Master of Arts Degree in Special Education, a Ph.D. in Business Management and served as a member of California’s Community Colleges Board of Governors. He has taught in the school of Business at Pasadena Community College and currently owns and operates an insurance agency in Altedena, California.
However, it was his friendship with and desire to bring to light the amazing story of Vertus Hardiman that has transformed not only his life, but the lives of countless others.
Vertus Hardiman was born March 9, 1922 in Lyles Station, Indiana. Lyles Station began in 1927, is known as one of the earliest Black settlements in the United States, and the Hardiman family was among the first to migrate to the area.
“Vertus Hardiman was a man who stood next to me in my church choir. He stood about 5’8” in stature and wore this Elvis Presley style wig. It was a wig that was tall on the top and slender on the side. It basically had no grey hair in it.”
“Everyone that I knew basically teased this man every single day that I knew him. But when he came to church, it was a place of refuge. People respected him. That was the place he would come to and feel loved and feel warmth from others…”
“After 20 years of knowing him, I found out something that really changed my life. What I found out was that he had been living with a hole in his head that he had hid under that very wig that I had just described.”
In 1928, Vertus attended the local elementary school, Lyles Consolidated School. The parents of 10 children at school were approached by county hospital officials. The parents were told that there was a new treatment for dermatophytosis, a fungal infection commonly known as “ringworm.”
“When this outbreak occurred in 1927 with scalpel ringworm, they had physicians at the local county hospital that had just acquired radiation equipment that really didn’t know how to operate.”
“So, they tricked the parents of the children who were attending the school. The superintendent of school was actually in on it and they actually visited these parents and asked them if they would sign permission slips to allow this new and innovative and creative approach to treating scalpel ringworm to take place at the local county hospital.”
“When those kids went to the hospital, unknowingly and expecting to receive some new treatment were actually experimented on to determine how much radiation the human body could absorb. That was the foundation for 10 children; the one who received the most radiation of them all was Vertus Hardiman…”
“Eventually there was so much radiation in his scalp (that) it became very porous, the skull became very porous and eventually it broke apart and developed a gaping hole in his head, whereby at its worst time you could look inside Vertus’ head and see the dura matter that covers the brain. That was totally exposed to the elements, to the air, etc.”
Many of the children were left with disfiguring scalp scars and head trauma and wore wigs and hats to cover up the results of the experiments. The effects of the experiments were mostly hidden from the townspeople of Lyles Station.
Vertus suffered, not only from the physical effects of the radiation, but also from the emotional trauma, resulting in frequent nightmares and shame due to the disfigurement caused by the radiation. After high school, a chance at love with an attractive church member named Marguerite Bell ended in disappointment. According to Hardiman, “I never truly accepted her love and devotion because I feared she would never accept me- I mean the ugliness of what I was hiding under my wig… I feared she would leave me if ever faced with the truth. This fear was never far away and subsequently, I never fully committed to our relationship.”
The wound caused him a tremendous amount of pain that Hardiman described to Smith, “…as being constant. It was tantamount to putting your hand on a hot stove. That’s what his scalp felt like 24 hours a day… Yet this man was one who never complained about everything. He was a man that throughout his lifetime worked in a county hospital, after being treated as a little boy in a county hospital, most would never set foot in a county hospital, not only did Vertus set foot in it, he worked there for 40 years and never missed one day of work. Perfect attendance.”
“He not only worked for forty years, he worked a second job for 20 years and never missed a day on that job.”
This incredible work ethic, shrewd business acumen and frugal living, in spite of his horrible wound and suffering, enabled Hardiman to accumulate astonishing amounts of wealth by investing his savings in real estate. He owned 28 properties and upon his death on June 1, 2007 at the age of 85, bequeathed eight million dollars to his church and favorite educational scholarship fund. He insisted that education is the foundation for creating a heaven while here on earth and he never borrowed money.
However, after years of concealment, Hardiman made the courageous decision to reveal his secret to his longtime friend Wilbert Smith. He told Smith:
“I have tormented myself for a long time while searching for the courage to tell you my secret. It involves why I always covered my head and hid it all my life. I’ve never told anyone my secret, and now, I think I want to tell you.”
Smith goes on to explain in detail the emotional moment in the book Hole in the Head.
“I remember one day after he exposed his wounds to me, which by the way, I would imagine after knowing him 17 years, is when he finally exposed his wound to me, it was an amazing day… I now SAW what he was hiding underneath his wig and I wondered how he endured this pain every day. I wanted to feel his anger, I wanted to know how he’s carrying this burden of what was done to him throughout his life yet he was able to hide it so well from me.”
Many would wonder, was Vertus bitter? Was he angry? Smith told us, “I would ask Vertus, ‘How are you doing?’ and with the most electric smile he would say, ‘I’m doing fine Wilbert!’
“It took me to a place I had never experienced before…. I said what does it mean you’re ‘doing fine’? He said, ‘I can see. I can hear. I was raised this morning and I woke up and I had my senses about me. I was in my right mind.’ He said that’s a blessing. That’s four blessings. Then I said, ‘This can’t be true. I know I just heard it.’”
“So I found myself testing him. I don’t know if I had the right to do it. I certainly had a curiosity… and so I would ask him repeatedly every 3 or four days during our series of interviews, ‘Vertus, what is it about anger that you are able to have this control?’ He said to me, ‘When I am angry, my heart’s not right. When I’m angry my prayers will not be answered… How do I ask for forgiveness and I am not willing to forgive? I go to the altar every single week and I ask my Creator for forgiveness. Yet the very technician who did this to me may be somewhere in this nation standing before a similar altar asking for the same forgiveness. How dare me not forgive them. How dare me not ask for forgiveness and yet I am not willing to say that God should forgive the person standing at an altar somewhere else for their sin and what they did to me.’”
“With that kind of platform, I realized that Vertus was someone special.”
Unfortunately, efforts to hold the hospital accountable at the time were unsuccessful and further action years later, no longer possible:
“…the statutes of limitations are long gone. Medical records are maintained by most hospitals for a period of 10 years and they are destroyed. So statues of limitations would never allow us to go back and take a look at anything that happened in the 1920s, but again we are on the path today of making sure that a lot of the ill practices are now destroyed and thrown out of government. It’s our hope that it will remain that way.”
“By the way my research shows that this took place in many countries, not only the United States, but Portugal, Israel, Turkey… I mean there are no limitations to the poor, the disenfranchised being taken advantage of in one way or another when it comes to medical experimentation.”
“I found written in my research that as early as the 1950s when Israel was first deemed a state, the United States Army experimented on more than a hundred thousand Israelis. Now, it wasn’t as though the United States went in there and found these individuals, there was members of the Israeli cabinet who actually offered up their children to the United States and these experiments took place again measuring the effects of radiation on the human body.”
“In fact when we dropped that bomb on Hiroshima, the United States was in the process of developing another bomb that was nicknamed the “motherlode” that was going to be seven times more powerful. They still were running tests on individuals to see the effects of that radiation materials on some of those victims. To the point where they even were up to 1994 looking at some of these records uncovered the fact that we were injecting plutonium into patients and the patients never knew it. They thought it was just another injection.”
“There was radioactive material that was given to babies, to orphans and it was fed to them through their formula milk. Prisoners in state penitentiaries were given doses of radiation and were actually monitored. They were not aware at all at was taking place.”
“In 1994, reparations were actually beginning to be paid to the victims of what was called the Ringworm Children, that experiment that I had brought up a little earlier that took place in Israel and was actually done by our United States Army. Now that has actually been documented and proven to be true and the Israeli Parliament has actually admitted to its truth and they are the ones that are paying reparations to the families and the defendants that were victimized. Perhaps something like that in this country might take place.”
Kentake Page asked Smith, how he thinks Hardiman would respond to those angry at the family members of the victim of the South Carolina Church shootings in June 2015 for forgiving the murderer:
“I think he would say, which is what he said to me, that letting go of the past is almost as though you open up the key, the doors to a cell which you have allowed yourself to be held prisoner… If you hold grudges for anything or for any situation, it’s only going to take you to that sense of being a prisoner to that grudge or to that situation. I’m sure that is what he was saying.”
Smith told Kentake Page that Hardiman was “…very thankful that he had an opportunity to live 85 years, some of that time with a hole in his head, (and) be able to say, ‘thank you’. And to be able to tell his story which he thought was the most important thing because I continued to mention to him, ‘Vertus people have a lot to learn from this story. You have your own ministry that will be taught via the way that you lived.’
At that point he said to me, ‘I don’t think anyone will be remotely interested in my story Wilbert, but I will trust you and I hope you are right.’ I said to Vertus that I would do everything in my power to prove him wrong.”
Smith firmly believes that Vertus Hardiman’s life experience, guided by his deep rooted religious faith, has vital lessons for all today and he has taken it upon himself to make those life lessons available to the world by sharing Hardiman’s story and developing a curriculum for schools and businesses:
“We’re excited about it and we hope that the assessment data that we’ve seen so far, one institution has seen a 60% increase in attendance and a 1.3 grade increase in their grades. We’re excited about that.”
“The curriculum has a number of different areas in it, but it is centered around the story Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed. There are 10 Life Lessons in there… ranging from how do you manage anger; Overcoming adversity; how to deal with grief; how to deal with injustices that come from racial discrimination; how to deal with a bully, knowing yourself to grow yourself, etc.”
“We have the foundation called the Up and Coming Foundation. You will be able to go there if you would like to support our efforts. That is something we are looking forward to because we are going to be developing a series of plays. And these will be designed to address things we used to hold very dear to our hearts.”
For more information on obtaining the book, video or any other information related to Vertus Hardiman:
“The website is www.holeinthehead.com. Once there click on “Order now” and you can order the book, the film. If you order the book and the film, we provide a free CD of Vertus’ song entitled “I Choose to Love”.
“Vertus Hardiman is a man that you would love to know. I just wish the world had an opportunity to say “hello” to him, to shake his hand, to give him a hug and listen to some of his wisdom. This story is not about what happened to him, it’s everything to do with how he chose to live his life in spite of what was done to him. How he took life and he lived it on his terms. He was successful! He was department head at a county hospital. Worked there for forty years and never missed a day of work and was a leader of men and never allowed anyone to even know of his weakness and his pain. An Incredible man. An incredible story. That’s what Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed is all about. That’s the message that if Vertus was alive he would say please I hope this is the message that (is heard) today.”