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Truth about the face: Is Henry Wells the face in the courthouse window?

By P.J. Gossett, Journal Record (Hamilton, AL)

 

CARROLLTON — Most north and west citizens of Alabama have at least heard about the “Face in the Courthouse Window” or the “Ghost in the Garret” in Carrollton (Pickens County.)

Many have seen the image for themselves. And many of these know the tale behind said face, which was popularized by the storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham in her 1969 book “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey.”

The legend says a man by the name of Henry Wells was responsible for the burning of the courthouse and that upon his arrest, citizens appeared at the courthouse and lynched him.

Supposedly, he stood in the courthouse window and proclaimed his innocence, to no avail to the crowd below.

A lightning flash seared his likeness in the glass pane while he was looking at the crowd. A variation of the legend says upon the sheriff’s return to the courthouse, he found Wells deceased beneath the window.

“And on stormy nights, some people swear they can hear Wells’ wails coming from the twisted mouth of the face in the window,” as the story ends in Windham’s book.

Upon my visit in 2021, I was able to view the face for myself and took a photo of it, which, after colorizing it to reduce the glass glare and grayscaling it, accompanies this article.

Much of the legend can be put to rest, so to speak, by reading local newspapers at the time.

Wells was born in Alabama about 1845, according to the 1870 census. One of the first newspaper mentions of Wells lets readers know he was walking with the wrong crowd.

“Bart and Wells…living on the Shankling place near Fairfield, got into a difficulty last Friday two weeks ago,” an Aug. 30, 1876, newspaper stated. “When last heard from, Wells was picking the shot out of his legs.”

Trouble began shortly thereafter when the Pickens County Courthouse burned on Nov. 16, 1876, most likely the work of an “incendiary.” It was a newly constructed courthouse in the amount of $18,000-$20,000.

An article mentioned Wells and Bill Burkhalter could have been the ones who robbed the store of Burris and Graham in Reform on Dec. 5, 1876, as part of the stolen goods were found on their premises.

Adding more to the legend of Wells was the fact that on Sept. 26, 1877, Nathaniel T. Pierce was taken out of the jail in Carrollton by a lynching mob and killed. Along the way, the legend says the same about Wells, which was obviously not true.

In regards to Pierce, a detailed account was given in the newspapers.

“On the night of the 26th inst., at about 11 o’clock, he was taken from our jail by an armed mob of thirty or forty men, cruelly and brutally dragged through the street of our village by a rope around his neck and out about a mile on the Pickensville road, when he was pulled up and left hanging to the limb of a tree…”

During 1877, the courthouse was reconstructed, and by Jan. 1878, it was “nearing completion.”

Burkhalter was captured on Jan. 6, 1878, near Tuscaloosa, and according to the newspaper article, of his own free will, he gave an outline of what happened at the courthouse after mentioning the places he had robbed and burned.

“…He also states that Henry Wells burned the courthouse; that he went there with him and saw him go into the probate office, light a candle and search the room. He left Henry in the office and went down near Mr. Cohen’s stable and waited for him. In a few minutes Henry came up and told him that he had set the d__m thing on fire, and that he got nothing out of the office, only some tobacco.”

Wells was captured on Jan. 29, 1878, on the plantation of Bill McConner near Fairfield. Wells made an attempt to escape, and he was shot twice. He was then carried to the jail. He lived until Feb. 3, 1878, before dying from the two gunshot wounds.

The next edition of the newspaper had the article “Dying Confession of Henry Wells.” Could the confession have been coerced? Absolutely, though the truth will never be known, thanks to the passage of time.

The confession was “sworn to and subscribed” before Probate Judge T.G. Williams on Jan. 30, 1878.

“On the night the courthouse was burned we started off, and Bill Burkhalter told me that 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,” the confession stated. “When we got to the courthouse Bill Burkhalter 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…” The statement also mentioned he went to Sanford (now Lamar) County before going to Fulton, Miss.

“Over the river I went by the name of Peter Jackson, and Bill Wm. 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.”

The courthouse was not completed yet and did not have any windows at the time, so naturally, he was carried to the jail.

“The windows that are being fitted in their respective places in the courtroom of the courthouse, makes that building look like it was nearing completion,” the Feb. 20, 1878, newspaper stated.

Many people have declared his “likeness” in the pane was due to “lightning photography,” but we must remember there were no windows there yet, and it is doubtful he was ever in the garret of the nearly complete courthouse.

A trial date for criminal cases was scheduled for Wells and Burkhalter on March 26, 1878.

“Many explanations have been given for its presence and many are the stories that have been told about its mysterious appearance,” a 1928 newspaper article said of the face that appeared in the window. A “dreadful hailstorm” passed through Carrollton on Dec. 30, 1927, which ended up breaking another pane in the window where the face is.

“One pane in this window was shattered, but the picture remained unharmed and still stares one in the face,” the article added.

J.E. Oglesby was the carpenter who fixed the broken panes on Jan. 6, 1928. According to the article, when one pane was replaced, another face appeared on the new pane. “And still the ghastly faces looked down on the crowd that quickly assembled.” The picture would fade and then return on the new pane.

“Oglesby said he is not superstitious [sic], but that picture has disturbed him even in his hours of sleep. He dreamed Saturday night that someone came to his bed in the darkness of the night and told him not to discuss the picture when asked about it, that it appeared for a purpose and that the people of Carrollton would someday know and understand its meaning, and until then, it would not be wise to discuss it.”

The article mentioned Burkhalter was tried and found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.

“He lay in jail a long time, and his hair grew to be very long and shaggy. He was hanged at the appointed time with his shaggy hair clustered about his troubled face.” Other reports say Burkhalter was turned over to authorities in Noxubee, Miss. for crimes committed there. In yet another report, it was said he escaped and was never seen again.

The original face in the window was speculated to be Burkhalter, while the newer one was of the one who killed Deputy Bert C. Johnson on Nov. 23, 1926.

Concerned citizens entreated several “responsible men” to examine the pane. It was washed in acid and returned to the window. The face was still there.

There have not been any further reports in the newspapers about a second face. Upon looking today, there is only one face, and several articles have stated the glass pane has not only been washed with acid, but with soap, gasoline and lye, all to no avail.

Court documents of the 1870s have not been perused in research of this article, but there may yet be some clues in the tomes at the courthouse. A late newspaper article mentioned the county paid $7 for Wells’ coffin and for burial. The whereabouts of his grave is unknown.

So, is this face in the window Henry Wells? Facts say no. However, due to the legends which have come from this tragedy and the belief that people need to explain the unexplainable, the face will forever be known as that of Wells.

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