Not All Jail Ghosts Were Prisoners

Published 10:01 pm Sunday, October 22, 2023

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We have been at sea a couple of times and have talked about a puzzling conditions. So, for today, we will investigate another type of haunting, some of which occurred in Georgia’s oldest jails. Let’s start out in Greene County and then make our way to Troop County, Turner County, Washington County and end up in Dougherty County. A pecan pie with a file in it may be a necessity.

The first jail we will visit is in Greensboro and is behind the Greene County Courthouse. Looking more like a fortress than a jail, it has the distinction of being the oldest standing, masonry jail in Georgia, and served as a jail from 1807 to 1895. This two-story structure was built with granite from the local quarry. Its walls are 2 feet thick and there are small barred windows making this structure more like a medieval fortress. Some who researched its history, say it was modeled after the notorious Paris Bastille.

A noose around the neck and a drop through a second-floor trapdoor was the fate for those who were executed. Visitors will see the original gallows, a trap door, and the interior which resembles the European catacombs. This is where the prisoners were kept.

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Next, we will travel over to LaGrange and go through this jail which is now the Chattahoochee Valley Art Museum on Lafayette Square in the downtown district. This jail was once the headquarters for Troop County law enforcement. When the sheriff and the jail moved into more modern quarters in the 1970s, the Chattahoochee Valley Art Association saved this landmark, which was built in 1892, from destruction and made it into a showcase for local artists. The dreary cellblocks are now divided into four galleries, which are brightened by paintings, sculptures and other artistic media that has been created by local and regional artists. It also hosts traveling national exhibitions and educational outreach programs.

When the Turner County jail was built in 1906. Its architecture was such a contrast to most of the structures in Ashburn, that it was called the castle.  Here, the Turner County sheriffs and their families lived on the main floor. They kept the grounds so meticulously clean and trimmed that sometimes travelers would mistake it for a hotel and would stop and want to check in for the night.

Those who stop in to tour the Crime and Punishment Museum, get a more realistic idea of what a jail was really like in this era. You will see the pale gray cell blocks, the death cell, as well as the hanging hook and trap door through which felons were sent to eternity. There also is a model of the type of coffin that was used for their final resting place.

You can use your imagination by thinking about what it must have looked like downstairs, in the sheriff’s office, as the legs and feet of the hanged criminals fell through the trap door, that was right above his desk. You will also see the cemetery where most of those who met their maker here are buried.

I have saved the jails that have been proved to be haunted for last. Jails, like hospitals, always seem to have resident ghosts. The two most haunted ones in Georgia are the Washington County jail in Warthen and the Dougherty County jail in Albany. Since I know that you enjoy a good ghost story, let me share these two with you. First, we will go up north to the jail in Warthen.

Traveling along GA Highway 15, we come to a one room log structure, nestled along an abandoned railroad track. Built somewhere around 1783-93, it is Washington County’s first jail. The legend is that here is where Vice President Aaron Burr was held overnight, while he was on the journey to Richmond, Virginia, to stand trial for treason.

You may recall that Aaron Burr served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, was elected to the State Assembly in New York and served as the United States Senator from New York from 1791-1797. He also served as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson from 1801 to 1805.

Mostly, he is known for shooting to death of his political rival, Alexander Hamilton, in an illegal duel in 1804. He never went to trial but was eventually arrested for treason in 1807. This came about because Burr helped Mexico overthrow the Spanish government, which was in violation of the Neutrality Act of 1794. Burr was caught in Alabama, as he was going towards Spanish Florida. He was then charged with treason and then traveled over Georgia to Richmond, Virginia, where after his trial, he was acquitted. Burr then lived a self-imposed exile in England from 1808 to 1812, before he returned to the United States to live out the remainder his life in New York.

Now, let me share the ghost story associated with the second Washinton County jail in Warthen with you. Our star haunter is Essie English, a 16-year-old girl who lived upstairs, in the family portion of the jail, in 1901. She was happy and engaged to be married.

One Saturday morning, when she stood too close to a fireplace, her dress caught fire and she was horribly burned. Newspaper accounts recorded the frantic but useless efforts of her father and brother to extinguish the fire. After two weeks of excruciating pain, Essie died. She lies in an unmarked grave, in the cemetery behind the jail.

However, the hauntings didn’t start until the Washington County Historical Society turned the old jail into a museum. For years, now those who work there, have experienced paranormal events, with most taking place upstairs, in what was Essie’s room. They mostly report the record player, which sets by the door, is often  seen spinning and there is no reason for this since it is not connected to any electricity. Also, there are no windows up there to cause a draft. After several volunteers have stopped the record player from spinning, they have continued to look around the room, and when they turn back around to look at it, the turn table has started spinning again.

Some of the other happenings that have been witnessed by many others, both workers and visitors, have felt a pressure that makes you feel like there is something behind you or that you are surrounded. Some say that it is scary and some say it is an awesome feeling. Essie is most welcome because most everyone feels how unfortunate she was not to live long enough to really enjoy life.

To investigate these events, the historical society got in touch with a paranormal group called Lost Souls. In response, a ten-member team arrived to spend the night and conduct a scientific search for evidence of the supernatural. The equipment they used included: video cameras, audio recorders, motion sensors and electromagnetic meters. They targeted three rooms within the jail: Essie’s room, her mother Elizabeth’s, room and a cell used for female inmates.

It was in Essie’s room that the group hit the jack pot. The motion detector went off multiple times, which may have indicated the presence of a spirit or slight movements by the investigators who were in the room. To do further research here, the Lost Souls placed several flashlights in Essie’s room and asked her, “Are you happy?” There was one flashlight activated. They then asked Essie, “If she would answer additional questions from them”. Immediately, the light flashed. Then other questions were asked and Essie answered by flashing the lights, which were able to come on in different amounts of brightness.

Another incident happened after the staircase had been refinished, a bloodstain from Essie accident, remained engrained, deep within the wood. One night, firemen saw lights in the jail turning on and off. A museum volunteer, a police man and a fireman investigated but found no one in the building. When they reached the top of the landing, an electric candle in a window abruptly fell off and landed on the stairs by the bloodstain.

Then an investigator gave Essie this challenge: “I am going to count to ten and then, if you do not communicatee with us, we are going to move to another room”. At that point, an audio recorder captured the words that apparently indicated that she had difficulty complying in such a short span of time. Another audio recording revealed footsteps climbing the stairs when no one was there.

Not much is known about Elizabeth’s room. However, volunteers have reported seeing strange things and hearing strange sounds, sometimes all over in the building. Most said that they were skeptical. However, some events have caused them to have second thoughts. Sometimes, the front door opens and closes a lot and no one is there. Also, the toilet occasionally will flush. Often books spontaneously fall to the floor.

Only one happening was in the prison cell. This is when an investigator felt a pull on her ponytail. She felt that it was definitely a weird sensation. The investigators then concluded, that there was paranormal activity in the rooms.

The staff was glad to have their experiences confirmed. Now, when there would be tours of the jail in the future, they would include information about the supernatural.

An article on Essie’s death and the hauntings appeared in a newspaper article in October of 2010. This reported that there was a light in Essie room, which burned after closing the house doors, locking them and even wiring them shut! The light still burned!

Essie now knows when she’s being investigated. Although the fire alarm is turned off, it immediately starts the announcement saying that: the alarm will sound again, in 60 seconds, then 30 seconds and on down until it turns off again. This happens each time.

During one investigation, the alarm started to announce its message in minutes rather than seconds, which the alarm company stated was impossible. The jail staff finally had to unscrew it and disconnect all the connections to make the alarm remain quiet. It was as though Essie did not want anyone else to suffer like she had.

Our last story takes place in Dougherty County, which was created in 1854. The first proposal was for the construction of a courthouse and jail in the new county seat of Albany. The jail, on Washington Street, measured 40 feet by 23 feet and was constructed with brick brought from Macon by wagon.

When a new jail was constructed in 1900, the barred cages and windows were removed from the old jail and installed in the new facility. The prisoner part of the old jail, located in the rear, was now merely a shell but the front part, which had always been a comfortable apartment for the jailer and his family, was rented out.

By 1922, the Z. T. Pate family had occupied the apartment for several years. They were happy in their lodgings until late May, 1922. This is when a newspaper article appeared in the Albany Morning News, on June 9, 1922.

“Late one night, Mr. Pate heard an unfamiliar voice speaking in his home. Concerned, he searched the dwelling. The talking continued but he could not locate its source. The voice continued its one-way conversation each night and throughout the apartment but it was the loudest in the kitchen. Repeated searches of the building found no possible explanation.

One night, Pate asked the voice to identify itself. It did not say its name, but addressed Pate by name. On another night, he asked, ‘What is the matter with you?’ The troubling response was, ‘This rope around my neck hurts!”

The natural assumption was that the disembodied voice was the spirt of a man who had been hanged in the old jail.

On several occasions, the voice commented on the environment, saying that he is in a mighty warm place. He also had mentioned the names of persons known to be local folks. The owner of the voice declares that: “They are in the same place as me”.

The story of the old haunted jail spread quickly through the city and although many laughed at Pate, his kitchen was soon crowded each night after supper, by folks that were curious. All heard the voice and none could offer an explain for it.

The article stated that: “Not once has the mysterious voice failed to materialize. It will not speak unless there is absolute quiet in the building nor will it answer the questions of others. But it comments to Mr. Pate about what the others say. On several occasions, persons in the room have spoken in whispers, and instantly, according to the testimony of a number of persons, the voice comments intelligently on what has been inaudible to those a few feet away”.

One night, two employees of Pate’s, walked into the kitchen. “Who are those men, Mr. Pate?”, the voice asked. After Pate told the voice who the men were, there was a terrific uproar in the building that sounded like a house falling down. There still is no expiation for the noisy but invisible attack.