Spirited Enterprise

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Pickens County Court House

 

The story goes...

No one really knew who set the fire that burnt down the original Carrollton Courthouse on November 16, 1876. But everyone blamed Henry Wells, a rowdy black man who lived outside of town. The sheriff arrested him and held him in the attic of a building that was to become the new courthouse. One afternoon in February 1878, a lynch mob gathered in front of the new courthouse and demanded that Wells be turned over to them. As a violent thunderstorm approached the town, Wells peered out at the crowds through the garret window at the top of the building. Suddenly, a lightening bolt struck the roof, killing Wells. The flash of brilliant light etched his defiant expression into the window pane, and no amount of scrubbing or solvents in the decades since has been able to erase it. And on those when thunderstorms roll through Pickens County, it is said the ghost of Henry Wells stares out from the garret window of the old courthouse. (Carrollton is 30 miles west of Tuscaloosa in Pickens County, at the intersection of Hwys 17 and 86. The face of Henry Wells can still be seen in lower right-hand pane in the garret window of the Pickens County Courthouse.)

Another version of this story which can be found on Alabama Ghostlore says...

John. L. Hunnicut was only 15 years old when Sutherland's raiders came from Tuscaloosa on their way to Columbus. The Yankees stole his horse, and he never forgave them. The became a member of the Klan. He was a rounder. He liked to tell big stories about how tough he was. One of the stories he told had to do with the capture of the black man Henry Wells, who was reputed to have burned the courthouse in 1876. Of course, it had been burned earlier by Croxton's troops. The day after they burned the University of Alabama, Croxton sent his contingent over here to see what was coming out of Mississippi at that time. They came to Carrollton to burn down a commissary that contained supplies, and they burned down the courthouse too.

After the Civil War, they rebuilt the courthouse as a frame building. In 1876, Henry Wells and another black man went on a burglary spree. I don't think this is entirely a legend. There is some truth in it. They got in the courthouse to see if they could find some money. One of the stories was that Wells had been indicted for some crimes. Wells had been indicted for some crimes. Wells believed that if the indictment was burned, they couldn't try him. This is just a legend. I think it is more likely that they attempted to cover up the robbery by burning down the courthouse.

The question always comes up, "What became of Henry after he was captured?" A man I practiced law with in Carrollton named John Harding Curry said, "Well, my father told me the sheriff became concerned that a mob might break into the place where they had him incarcerated upstairs in an old building, so he sent him to Tuscaloosa for safe-keeping. On the way over there, he attempted to escape, and he was shot and killed" Now John Hunnicut, the bounty hunter, claims that he found him in Tuscaloosa County hiding out and brought him back to Carrollton. In his book, he doesn't claim he killed Wells. I have reached the conclusion that John L. Hunnicut was the person who was most likely to have shot him while he was trying to escape.

I can't recall exactly what Kathryn Tucker Windham said happened. Basically, the story that I heard was that Henry was placed in the attic for safe keeping from a mob, and lightning struck and illuminated his face as he peered down at them and said, "If you hang me, I will be with you always." After they hanged him, his face appeared on the garret window the next day, and it is still there.

I asked Mr. Curry, "When did this face first appear on the courthouse window? Was it right after that episode in 1878 when Wells was held up there in the attic for safe keeping?" He never could answer that. I've wondered about that all my life.

Now there are a lot of side stories that people have told over the years about the face appearing on other panes. There is a story that I think is authentic that there was a terrible hale storm in the north end of Pickens County in 1929 or thereabouts, and it broke out every pane in that courthouse except for that one pane. And Mr. Curry told me that was true. So that hints of some kind of mystical protection or guardian angel over that window.

Over the years while I was probate judge, several interesting experiences related to the place occurred. Curiosity seekers came from all over to see it--a lot of school buses too. I remember back in the 1960's before the integration of the public schools took place, a teacher called me from Birmingham and said she had a 5th grade class that wanted to see the face in the window. They were doing a project on folklore, and she wondered if I would tell them about it. I said, "Sure." The day for their visit arrived, and I was standing outside of the courthouse. Two Trailways buses pulled up. The children came out of the bus, and they were all black. I remember thinking that I had never told the story to black people before. Well, I decided that I would just tell them the truth. So I got 'em in the auditorium right across the street, and I told them the story. I tried to think about what I could say to let them know that I saw this incident as a bad thing, and I wound up by saying something like, "You might ask what that face in the courthouse is saying. It says to me, 'Don't ever let this happen again!' Then I said, "Dos anyone have any questions?" One little boy spoke up and said, "How do you know that's a black man up there?' Looking at it, you can't be sure.

I was concerned during the worst stages of our racial turmoil in the late 1960's and early 1970's that the window might get damaged. We had a lot of what we called "black agitators" who came down here to get the people in the county discontented. They turned over school buses and disrupted classes and went into schools and turned over desks. The county board of education went to federal court, and they sent a federal marshal down with a warrant for them to cease and desist these disturbances. I was afraid that someone might break out the window because it symbolized an era of terrible racism, kind of like the Confederate flag flying over the state capitol. I believe the way it worked out is that most of the black people--even the most radical liberals we had in this county--looked on the face in the window as something of a sacred relic. Nobody hurt it at all.

I (Mother Moon) and my family visited Pickens County court house while on a family vacation in 1999. We didnt catch anything strange in our photos, nor did we feel anything weird while on the premisis. But as you can see in the photo below, someone definitely caught something on film!

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