By Norman, Michael
Tor Books Copyright © 1995 Norman, Michael
All right reserved.
The Face in the Window
The imposing Pickens County Courthouse on the town square in quiet, old Carrollton is perhaps the most unusual seat of local government in all of Alabama. There are courthouse older and larger than this two-story edifice, quite a few that harbor within their walls stories of Civil War horror and heroism, and not an insubstantial number with ghostly legends. But, for the sheer oddity and grotesqueness of the event, few can match what can be found at the Carrollton courthouse.
Embedded in the windowpane of a garret window high above the casual pedestrian is the likeness of a human face. To be exact, it is the face of one Henry Wells, an African-American man accused of burning an earlier courthouse in 1876. How and why Henry Wells's face etched in that glass for all eternity is a story both sad and bizarre.
It begins on April 5, 1865, when Union troops under the command of General John T. Croxton burned the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, some forty miles east of Carrollton. General Croxton then sent a detachment of soldiers to destroy the Pickens County Courthouse at Carrollton, although why he issued such an order remains a mystery. There was no military value in the act. But the Yankees carried out their mission with soldierly precision, and the stately old building burned to the ground.
The people of Pickens County vowed toerect a new structure, despite the presence of carpetbaggers and a radical, federally installed government in the county, which made the task doubly difficult. But rebuild it they did, and for twelve years the courthouse stood, symbolizing, as one writer observed, "the return to law and order in a strife-torn land."
But all that changed on November 17,1876, not quite twelve years after Northern troops torched the first courthouse. On that late autumn night, two men, one of whom is alleged to have been Henry Wells, a former slave, set fire to the new Pickens County Courthouse.
A newspaper of the era, the West Alabamian, contained an account of the fire on page three of its November 22, 1876, edition, which said in part: "The burning was unquestionably the work of an incendiary. It took fire in several places about the same time."
Henry Wells and his buddy, Bill Burkhalter, were suspects from the beginning. According to Dan Turnipseed, a Carrollton historian and an expert on the legend, Wells had been accused of raping a white women. He was allegedly told that if he burned the courthouse all the records of his arrest would be destroyed and he woludn't come to trial. Just who gave this "advice" to Wells isn't clear, but the fire did burn all the books and records of the probate court. However, the "dying confession of Henry Wells," published in the February 6, 1878, issue of the West Alabamian, contains a different account. That story quotes Wells as saying Burkhalter persuaded him to break into the courthouse to steal money. One of the men accidentally knocked over a candle left in the probate court office and that started the fire, the confession claimed. However, some doubt can be cast on the validity of the well-written confession. Wells could neither read nor write. He signed the "confession" with an X.
Burkhalter had been indicted for a series of burglaries at about the same time the courthouse burned, including ones at stores in Reform, Carrollton, and Lineburg, all in Alabama, along with three other business across the state line in Mississippi.
Both men fled the county before they could be arrested for the courthouse fire.
Two years passed. Pickens County built another new courthouse. Then, on January 29, 1878, Henry Wells was arrested while working on Bill McConner's plantation near Fairfield, now a western suburb of Birmingham. Wells tried to escape and was shot twice in the legs. The other suspect, Bill Burkhalter, was soon captured near Tuscaloosa.
The men were returned to Carrollton. The sheriff feared for their safety and decided to house Wells and Burkhalter and several other prisoners in a garret storeroom. There is no record that Wells was treated for his legs wounds. Word soon spread through the town that Wells, the man many thought mainly responsible for burning their courthouse, had been found. A mob gathered on the night after his arrival in Carrollton, intent on imposing their own brand of "justice."
Storm clouds rolled across the sky, bringing intermittent rain and a spectacular lightning display to the mob of whites calling for Well's hanging. The frightened prisoner started down from his attic cell shouting his innocence through the half-opened window.
What happened next is part legend and part fact. A tremendous bolt of lightning struck near the courthouse. The imprint of Well's horrified expression was said to have been permanently emblazoned on the garret window glass.
It remains there to this day.
The mob eventually dispersed. Although accounts of what finally happened to Henry Wells differ, the generally accepted story is that he died shortly after that loathsome night from wounds inflicted during his capture at Fairfield.
Burkhalter was convicted of complicity in the burglary and fire and died while serving a sentence at the state prison.
Not long after Well's death, passersby started to notice the distinct image of a man' face on the garret window. One man described it as having a moustache and wearing a black hat.
Carrollton's Dan Turnipseed said it "looks like a negative, when someone sees it from the street." strangest of all, he said, is that the face cannot be seen when looking out the window from inside. Turnipseed said the face clearly has the look of someone distressed or frightened.
In the mid-1980s the courthouse was renovated. During the cleaning operation, Turnipseed said the bottom portion of the great window, where the face is seen, was raised so workmen could paint the sill and destroy some beehives. Even with the bottom portion of the window up, the face in the top part was perceptible.
Over the decades unsuccessful attempts have been made to remove the image from the window by washing or scrubbing the glass. In recent years the county has decided to leave the window alone.
"We don't fool with it," Turnipseed said.
In the mid-1980s, the Atlanta Center for the Continuing Study of the Shroud of Turin took close-up photos of the face in the window using a power company' truck to lift photographers to within a few feet of the image. Copies of the photographs, clearly showing the mysterious face, were sent for analysis to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and to a laboratory in West Germany.
A close-up view of the window shows that the face seems iridescent with a variety of colors, somewhat suggestion of an oil slick. One supposition is that the molecular structure of the window changed over time, causing the portion of the glass with the "face" to actually take on a different composition. However, a change of this nature could be caused quickly by heating the glass. Iridescence can occur by shooting an X ray through glass. Could electrical current, such as that caused by a lightning bolt, also produce such an effect?
Gary Moore, a former student at the University of Alabama, studied the face in the window. In a report, he wrote that lightning is caused by an imbalance of electrical charges between the earth and sky. Negative electrons in the sky are disproportionately smaller than the positive protons on earth. Lightning is really the larger number of protons rushing upward to correct the imbalanced neutrons in the clouds. Moore speculated that a human face might produce a "very high positive charge, causing protons to flow toward the sky from eyes, nose, mouth, or other features discretely, until this flow was deflected by the insulation of a window pane, which then was disfigured."
The window itself has escaped destruction at least once, during the early part of this century. Incredibly, a hail storm knocked out every window on the north side of the courthouse save the one with the terrified image of Henry Wells!
Does the ghost of Henry Wells also walk the Pickens County Courthouse? Some say he does, particularly on those nights like that of a century and more ago when thunder rockets across the late winter landscape and lightning jabs at the old courthouse. On those evening, folks say that the figure of Henry Wells stares out of his garret cell toward the square where the mob called for his quick hanging. If he does appear, or if it is really Henry Wells' face embedded in that window, perhaps it serves as a remainder that mob violence does not bring justice, just sorrow and ruin for those on both ends of the noose.
Copyright 1994 by Michael Norman Beth Scott
Excerpted from Haunted America by Norman, Michael Copyright © 1995 by Norman, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
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