Betty Stone: The face in the window

February 27, 2009

Betty Stone -

 

The storm raged and the lightning cracked in jagged, frightening bolts. The prisoner looked out the garret window at the terrifying crowd outside. They had come for him, he knew. He was injured and scared, even though the sheriff had hidden him upstairs in the new courthouse to protect him from a lynch mob. One account of the 1878 drama has Henry Wells shouting to the mob below that he was innocent and that, if they killed him, he would haunt them. 

 

At any rate, while the black prisoner stood at the window, a bolt of lightning split the air by the building, and Henry Wells'' face was etched indelibly on the glass of the window of the Carrollton, Ala., courthouse. 

 

It might make the story more dramatic to say the mob succeeded in lynching him and that he fulfilled his promise, but that is not so. Perhaps the crowd dispersed because of the storm. They were angry enough for violence, however. Wells was suspected of burning the courthouse two years earlier, as well as of arson elsewhere and a number of robberies. The courthouse fire had destroyed all the books and records of the probate court. The sheriff''s books and some of the most important books of the circuit clerk''s office were burned. The building was new and had cost $18,000 to $20,000 dollars. One did not have to be hot-headed to be angry about the fire, but the crowd left without harming Wells. 

 

Nevertheless, he died while in custody, perhaps from the wounds of two pistol shots he received while trying to escape. Newspaper accounts at the time quote an observer recalling seeing him brought into town, wounded and bloody. Before he died, he signed the following confession: 

 

 

 

The State of Alabama  

 

Pickens County 

 

I, Henry Wells, being duly sworn, depose and say: I, Bill Buckhalter, and Mose Ligon, broke into Jack Adam''s store. We took fifteen or twenty dollar''s [sic] worth of goods. Next place, I and William Buckhalter broke into Burris'' store at Reform -- took just as many goods as we could "tote." I was at work at Harskin''s and came to see my wife, and met Bill Buckhalter, and he agreed to return with me and work with me. On the night the courthouse was burned we started off, and Bill Buckhalter told me there was a large amount of money in the iron safe in the probate office, and proposed to me that we would go in the office, break the safe open and get the money. 

 

When we got to the courthouse, Bill Buckhalter raised the sash, got into the office, and lit a candle, and then attempted to break into the safe, but could not open it. He then got a hammer and attempted to open the safe, but failed. I then went in, searched, and found some tobacco and some little brass things. I left the candle near some papers. We then left. Peter Harston, Constance Hill, Cain Hill, Bill Buckhalter and myself [sic], robbed James Coleman''s store. We took about as much as we could carry. With Peter Harston, Constance Hill, Cain Hill, and Bill Buckhalter, I broke into the warehouse at McLaren''s, and loaded ourselves. They got after us and we (that is Bill Buckhalter and I) left and went to Sanford County, and from there to Fulton, Miss. Bill Buckhalter and I broke into a store there, and robbed it, and then set it on fire. 

 

Over the river I went by the name of Peter Jackson. In Sanford County I went by the name of John Williams and Bill by the name of Dock Williams; near Windham''s I went by the name of George Lewis. 

 

Henry Wells X (His mark)  

 

 

 

Henry Wells'' "curse" remains to this day. Visitors to the Carrollton courthouse can see a face imprinted on the glass of an upstairs window. It is visible from the ground below, where the mob gathered, but not up close to the window. 

 

Throughout the years, storms and hail have destroyed every other window in the courthouse, but not this one. It has been scrubbed with soap and washed with gasoline, but the face remains. Henry Wells is counted among Alabama''s 13 recognized ghosts; during storms he is said to peer out the window. 

 

I have seen the "face." We have often driven a carload of children (who always seem to revel in a ghost story) and/or visitors over to Carrollton. I must say, though, that our "ghosting" trips contained what was a little like a microcosm of humanity: Some claimed to see the face immediately and clearly. Some skeptics said they did not see it at all. 

 

As for me, I always see something, a blur, maybe something like a film negative, but certainly not a clear image of a face. So some are gullible, some are skeptic, and some just don''t know. What do you think? Drive over and take a look. It is an interesting outing. 

 

Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.

Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.