A firebrand phantom—Athens, Georgia

T. R. R. Cobb House
175 Hill Street
Athens, Georgia

Several years ago, a visitor to the T. R. R. Cobb House was touring the upstairs alone when his cell phone rang. Answering it, the gentleman stepped into the room that had once been T. R. R. Cobb’s bedroom. Suddenly, he heard a voice shushing him.

The gentlemen quickly headed back down the stairs. After sheepishly apologizing to the museum’s staff, the guest discovered that none of them had been upstairs or had shushed him. Perhaps Mr. Cobb wanted some undisturbed sleep.

Portrait of Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb by Horace James Bradley 1860
Portrait of Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb by Horace James Bradley, 1860.

Cobb certainly may need sleep after living a vigorous life. Born in Jefferson County, Georgia, Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb moved with his family to Athens at a young age. After graduating from the University of Georgia at the top of his class, he married the daughter of Judge Joseph Henry Lumpkin, later the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, and served as a reporter for the same court, producing the 15-volume Digest of the Statute Laws of the State of Georgia in 1851. In the tension-filled days leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, Cobb’s legal scholarship heartily defended the institution of slavery in his massive volume, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America.

Angered by the election of Lincoln as president, Cobb vociferously denounced the Federal government and began preaching the gospel of secession throughout the state. After the state’s secession, he became a member of the Confederate Congress and set to work writing the Confederate constitution as well a new constitution for the state. Despite his effort in creating the constitution, Cobb resigned from the congress in frustration from the lack of cooperation. He set about forming a military regiment that became known as Cobb’s Legion.

He led his legion the Seven Days Battles, the Second Battle of Manassas in Virginia, and Antietam in Maryland. While defending the infamous stone wall at Marye’s Heights south of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Cobb was mortally wounded when a Union shell exploded nearby. With his femoral artery severed, he bled out at a field hospital as his troops continued to hold their position behind the meager stone wall.

Years later, Woodrow Wilson described the fiery Cobb, “One figure in particular took the imagination and ruled the spirits of that susceptible people, the figure of Thomas R. R. Cobb. The manly beauty of his tall, athletic person; his frank eyes on fire; his ardor…given over to a cause not less sacred, not less fraught with the issues of life and death than religion itself; his voice…musical and sure to find its way to the heart…made his words pass like flame from countryside to countryside.”

Thomas Cobb’s majestic home has led a life that’s equally as twisting and turning as the firebrand who lived there. The house started life as a much plainer Federal-style home around 1839. It was purchased in 1842 by Cobb’s father-in-law who presented it, according to family lore, as a wedding present to his daughter and son-in-law. It was Cobb who added octagonal additions and columns, elevating the home’s appearance in 1852.

HABS T. R. R. Cobb House Athens Georgia 1939
The Cobb House in its original location on Prince Avenue, 1939, by Thomas Waterman. Photo taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the house saw a variety of residents and uses ranging from a boarding house to a fraternity house. It is from this period that the earliest report of paranormal activity was documented regarding the house. Collected as part of the WPA Writers’ Project during the Great Depression. That account recalls the spirit of “a gentleman wearing a gay dressing gown” who is seen descending the stairs and sitting in front of the fire in the drawing room.

In 1962, the house came under the ownership of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, who used the structure as a parish house, rectory, and offices for St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. During that time, two priests and several nuns living in the house had encounters with a man in grey who entered the library and stood by the fireplace.

One priest recalled a fascinating moment in the house. The priests tended to accumulate newspapers on the back porch. After reading the papers, they were consigned to a stack that soon reached from floor to ceiling. One day, the papers erupted into flame. While the papers burned, the house remained untouched and the fire extinguished itself miraculously.

After serving the church, the dilapidated house was sentenced to demolition in 1984. Instead of resigning the house to the wrecking ball, the house was dismantled and moved from its original Prince Avenue location to Stone Mountain Park, just outside of Atlanta. The park intended to restore the home as part of its Historic Square, which contains a number of historic structures collected from throughout the state along with their accompanying ghosts. Instead, the Cobb House was put up on cinder blocks and sat unrestored for nearly twenty years.

With funding from the Watson-Brown Foundation, the home was returned to Athens, having taken the scenic route from Prince Avenue to its new location on Hill Street, but not without some controversy. A 2004 article in the New York Times stirred the pot by enumerating Cobb’s ardent positions on slavery and race, positions that do not mesh with the current atmosphere in modern Athens. Despite protests from throughout the city, the house was returned and restored.

T. R. R. Cobb House Athens Georgia 2011 ghosts haunted
T. R. R. Cobb House, 2011. Photo by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Throughout two house moves and a major restoration, spirits have remained active in the home. Staff members regularly hear the sounds of people entering the home during the day only to discover that no one is there. They are also regularly treated to the sounds of footsteps and laughter when the house is quiet. One of the more amusing incidents took place late one afternoon when an older couple was touring the house.

Their tour was led by the education director who politely answered the question about if the house is haunted. The lady who asked, responded that she would be freaked out if she saw a chandelier swinging on its own accord. Lo, and behold, the chandelier in the front parlor was swinging so wildly when the trio entered that the education director had to physically stop it herself.

An antique armoire in the hallway of the house has a door in its side that opens on its own. The furniture, which is original to the house, has an opening in the side that reveals a coat hook. At certain times of the year when the wood expands and causes difficulty in opening the door, it is found open anyway.

There are also apparitions that have been seen by visitors and passersby including an elderly black woman and a little girl. No reports as to whether the grey-clad man has been seen in the house. Perhaps the firebrand phantom is too busy trying to rest in his bedroom.

Sources

  • Adkins, Tracy L. Ghosts of Athens. CreateSpace Publishing, 2016.
  • Battle of Fredericksburg. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 23 June 2019.
  • Brice, Plott. “Cobb House bears weight of history.” Atlanta Constitution. 28 June 2004.
  • Day, Kathleen A. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for T. R. R. Cobb House. 25 March 1975.
  • Jacobs, Andrew. “Athens Journal; A Symbol of Slavery, and a Storm, Shall Rise Again.” New York Times. 28 April 2004.
  • Killion, Ronald G. and Charles T. Waller. A Treasury of Georgia Folklore. Atlanta, GA: Cherokee Publishing, 1972.
  • Miles, Jim. “Weird Georgia: T.R.R. Cobb Haunts Athens Home.” Brown’s Guide to Georgia. Accessed 18 June 2011.
  • Nash, Steven & Matthew Bailey. “Thomas R. R. Cobb (1823-1862).New Georgia Encyclopedia. 18 March 2005.
  • Reap, James K. Athens: A Pictorial History. Norfolk, VA: Donning Company, 1985.
  • T. R. R. Cobb House. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 18 June 2011.

The Giving Tree—Athens, Georgia

Tree That Owns Itself
277 South Finley Street
Athens, Georgia

…the Tree was happy…
–Shel Silverstein, “The Giving Tree,” 1964

When I read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree as a child many moons ago, I found the story disturbing. There is more than a bit of sadness in this story of altruism, and I found that disquieting. Perhaps this was one of my first introductions into that grey area where noble ideals spar with reality, morality and immorality square off, or the dramatic tension begrudgingly lies between the blacks and whites of good and evil.

Tree That Owns Itself Athens Georgia
The Tree That Owns Itself in 1910, by Huron Smith for the Field Museum.

The legend of Athens, Georgia’s Tree That Owns Itself exists in this same grey realm of fact and legend. When I stumbled across this 1916 article while browsing the historic newspaper collection of the Digital Library of Georgia, I was happy to be able to add this story to my collection on Athens. Unfortunately, the bottom corner of the paper has been torn and part of the paragraph describing the phantom is lost. 

The Daily Times-Enterprise
Thomasville, Georgia
July 1, 1916
Courtesy of the Digital Library of Georgia

GHOST HAUNTS TREE THAT OWNS ITSELF
_____
AT LEAST THAT IS STORY COMING
OUT FROM ATHENS, AND
THERE IS MUCH SPECULATION
OVER REPORT.
_____

Atlanta, July 1—Has the ghost of William Jackson come back to haunt the Tree That Owns Itself?

That’s the tale they are telling in Athens, Ga., where on a big hill in the center of the city stands a giant white oak, the only tree that owns itself, trunk, twig and leaf, together with eight feet of land on all sides.

Early in the nineteenth century William Jackson was one of the largest plantation owners of Clarke county. Under the white oak, which is four or five hundred years old, he used to sit and direct his slaves at work. When he died, this paragraph was found in his will:

“For and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides.”

Now comes the report that a phantom has been seen beneath the Tree That Owns Itself.

[page torn]…mist of a man, fading is-
[page torn]…a man with powdered
[page torn]…a broad hat
[page torn]…and laces and frills sitting there under the tree, with one hand resting gently on the bark.

Was it the ghost of William Jackson?

Ask the boys of that college town—they don’t know.

A surprisingly thorough article on Wikipedia examines the legend and its inconsistencies, noting that the first documented version of the tree’s legend appeared in the Athens Weekly Banner in 1890. That article, couched in the heroic language of the period, describes the tree as seeming to “stand straighter, and hold its head more highly and proudly as if we knew that it ranked above the common trees of the world.” The 1890 article continues with the history of the tree but noting that the tree’s deed of ownership is mysteriously missing from the county’s records.

Postcard of the Tree That Owns Itself Athens Georgia
The original Tree That Owns Itself shortly before it fell in 1942. Postcard from the Boston Public Library.

Since 1916, the original tree succumbed to rot and fell on October 9, 1942. The Athens Junior Ladies Garden Club took up the cause of the tree and replaced it with a sapling grown from one of the original oak’s acorns. The current tree sometimes deemed “Son of the Tree That Owns Itself,” continues to flourish from its space on South Finley Street. The tree is now surrounded with a retaining wall and a chain barrier with a plaque denoting the tree’s ownership of itself. Perhaps Col. William Jackson still appears on occasion to rest beneath the stately branches that he gave so much for?

Son of the Tree That Owns Itself Athens Gerogia
Son of the Tree That Owns Itself, 2005, by Bloodofox, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sources

  • “Deeded to itself.” Athens Weekly Banner. 12 August 1890.
  • “Ghost haunts tree that owns itself.” Daily Times-Enterprise (Thomasville, Georgia). 1 July 1916.
  • Tree That Owns Itself. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 19 June 2019.

Exploring “ghost-ridden territories”—A Review of Haunted Charlottesville

Haunted Charlottesville and Surrounding Counties
Susan Schwartz with photographs by Cliff Middlebrooks Jr.
Schiffer Publishing, 2019

In her introduction to this book, Pamela K. Kinney succinctly describes the Charlottesville region as being among the many “ghost-ridden territories” in the state of Virginia. Susan Schwartz sets out to prove this in her book, Haunted Charlottesville and Surrounding Counties. Covering some familiar haunts and many that are unfamiliar, Schwartz has laid out a brilliant new guide to this most important region.

Not far from the geographical heart of Virginia, the Charlottesville area encompasses a historically important region within state and national history. Before the arrivals of Europeans, this area was the homeland for several noted Native American tribes and afterwards became one of the first frontiers for new settlers. The growing pains of nationhood were distinctly felt here in the form of military action during the Revolution and the Civil War. Among these hills and valleys lived presidents, planters, statesmen, scholars, industrialists, and many others who may remain in spiritual form.

Prior to this book, the region’s spiritual fabric has only been described in one book, L. B. Taylor’s 1992 Ghosts of Charlottesville and Lynchburg…and nearby environs. While Mr. Taylor’s numerous volumes on the ghosts of Virginia are excellent, his book is nearly 30 years old. Ghost stories need regular tending, with information being updated to include not only new encounters, but fresh historical research which may shed light on these hauntings. Indeed, new stories should also be added as they come to light.

Schwartz masterfully navigates readers to some 77 locations in 12 counties. In the process of this tour, Schwartz examines some familiar hauntings such as Castle Hill Manor, Tuckahoe Plantation, and Gordonsville’s Exchange Hotel with stops that she serendipitously discovered as she traveled the backroads in search of ghosts. From abandoned roadside stores to a small deli in the community of Troy in Fluvanna County, Schwartz provides a fresh and lively commentary on these newly discovered haunts.

cover Haunted Charlottesville and Surrounding Counties Susan SchwartzAs she guides readers to these locations, Schwartz does well to cite her sources by including in-line citations. Often, I’m left to puzzle over where an author got their information, but Schwartz sees to it that there is no question. Her bibliography forms an excellent guide to the foundations of her book and is exceedingly useful for researchers like me.

Overall, this book is a spectacular guide to these “ghost-ridden territories” in central Virginia for everyone from the paranormal dilettante to the serious, academic researcher and provides well-marked trails for all to follow to explore the haunted past of the Charlottesville region.

Haunted Charlottesville and Surrounding Counties is available on Amazon.

Strange LaGrange: Ghosts, Legends, & Spirited History—A Walking Tour

There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in proportion.
–Edgar Allan Poe, “Ligeia,” 1838

The South is a very strange place. Even after years of researching and writing about the South, I continue to find masses of odd stories, not just from ghostlore, but stories regarding cryptids, UFOs, aliens, dreams, premonitions, and other high strangeness. While the South isn’t any more active than any other region in the world, it seems that Southerners, who are natural storytellers, have created a stranger version of their world through their storytelling.

Lafayette Square LaGrange Georgia
Lafayette Square in downtown LaGrange, Georgia. Photo 2012, by Rivers Langley, courtesy of Wikipedia.

My hometown of LaGrange, Georgia has its own strange and storied landscape. Growing up here, I heard stories and tales of haunted places, but was never able to confirm much of this. After starting this blog, I have pursued some of these stories, but rarely with much success. When I got the call from the director of the Troup County Historical Society several months ago, asking if I would be interested in creating this tour, I jumped at the chance. It has always been a dream to create a ghost tour locally, but I never had the backing of such an august group.

As cliché as it may be to say, this tour is a labor of love. Not only has led me to ponder local history, but my own personal history here, as well as reinforcing my love for this little West Georgia town.

The tour winds through downtown LaGrange stopping by a number of historic and haunted locales as well as other places of strangeness, which doesn’t just include ghostlore. During the mid-1990s, this area was the scene of a large number of UFO sightings, leading ufologists to dub it the “Troup-Heard Corridor.” During this time, locals not only witnessed strange things in the skies, a few even had some very close encounters with possible aliens.

Indeed, the strangeness also includes the discovery, in the late 1960s, of an ancient Sumerian tablet, now known as the Hearn Tablet. Discovered by a local housewife in her garden, this apparent ancient receipt in the form of a small lead tablet is certainly out of place and produces many questions as to how it ended up here in West Georgia.

Hearn Tablet ancient Sumerian tablet found in Troup County Georgia
The Hearn Tablet, an ancient Sumerian tablet found in Troup County, Georgia. Photo courtesy of the Troup County Historical Society and Archives. All rights reserved.

From downtown, the strangeness extends all the way to the august halls of LaGrange College, the oldest private institution of higher learning in the state. Recently, a pair of young ladies were working in the college’s Smith Hall late in the evening. The first entered and was walking towards her office when she suddenly tripped over something. Looking around, she tried to identify what she had tripped over, but nothing was there. She realized that it felt as if someone had stuck their leg out to purposefully trip her. Shrugging off the incident, she continued to her office and set to work.

Smith Hall LaGrange College ghost haunted
Smith Hall ,LaGrange College, 2010, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The second young lady arrived a few minutes later, entering the office with a curious expression. She noted that she had had a strange thing happen to her on her way in, describing being tripped in the same manner that the first had. The pair returned to work, now wary of the prankster spirit that has haunted the halls of this building for years.

Stories have circulated for years about a spirit within Smith Hall, but many of the stories don’t exactly add up or stand up to historical scrutiny. Nonetheless, students and staff continue to have experiences here and within several other college buildings. All of these stories contributing to make LaGrange very strange.

Stops on the tour also include the LaGrange Art Museum, whose peculiar history I have examined closely in my article, “Its hideous use—LaGrange, Georgia.”

Strange LaGrange Tour Georgia ghost tour
The Strange LaGrange tour stops in Hill View Cemetery. Photo by Ashley Blencoe, courtesy of VisitLaGrange. All rights reserved.

The Strange LaGrange Tour steps off at 7 PM on Friday nights from the Legacy Museum on Main, 136 Main Street, in downtown LaGrange. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, $15 for kids ages 5-12, and can be reserved at the tour’s Eventbrite page. Each tour will last approximately 2 hours and will involve quite some walking, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing. Come walk with us!

 

Grey-Garbed Ghost of the Governor’s Mansion–Georgia

N.B. This article was originally published as part of “Apparitions of Atlanta,” 28 October 2013.

There was a time when even the august pages of The New York Times published ghost stories. In 1908, this curious item appeared:

The New York Times
2 June 1908

GHOST IN GOVERNOR’S HOUSE
__________

Wife and Daughter of Gov. Smith of
Georgia Say They Saw It.

Special to the The New York Times

ATLANTA, Ga., June 1.—The ghostly gray-garbed figure of a young woman, which appears at all hours of the night, is causing the inmates of the Executive Mansion of Georgia much perturbation.

Gov. Smith is away nearly all the times engaged in a heated contest for re-election, and the mysterious ghost has been appearing to Mrs. Smith and her daughters.

The gray-garbed lady is said to be young and very beautiful. She was first seen by Miss Mary Brent Smith about three weeks ago, about 12 o’clock at night, as the latter returned to the mansion. When Miss Smith entered that hall she noticed the gray figure before a long mirror. Miss Smith approached, but the figure melted away.

Miss Smith in alarm told her mother, but the latter ridiculed her daughter. A few nights later, as Mrs. Smith and her daughter were together, the gray-gowned woman appeared to both of them. Mrs. Smith and her daughter were so overcome they fainted. To a physician Mrs. Smith related the story of the vision. Since then it is said the ghostly woman has appeared frequently.

The negroes say the figure is the ghost of Miss Price, the niece of Gov. A. D. Candler, who died in the mansion when her uncle was Governor. It is said Miss Price was very happy in the mansion, and when dying said she would revisit the place, where she was so happy while in this life.

Old Georgia Governor's Mansion before 1923
Postcard of the Old Georgia Governor’s Mansion which was torn down in 1923.

There are several interesting things to note about this article, first off, I find it interesting that the residents of the Governor’s Mansion are referred to as “inmates,” perhaps it reflects on the status of women in this period? Secondly, it’s noted that the lowly, unnamed reporter who wrote this story evidently sought out local African-Americans to comment on the apparition, something that doesn’t often happen with articles of this time.

As for the historical context of this article, the governor in this article is Hoke Smith, who made his name as the owner of the Atlanta Journal. During that time he used his position to back Grover Cleveland during the presidential election of 1892. Following his election to the presidency, Cleveland appointed Smith as Secretary of the Interior. Returning to Georgia in 1896 after serving as secretary, he allied himself with the now notorious populist firebrand politician, Tom Watson. Smith was elected governor in 1907.

Hoke Smith, governor of Georgia.
Gov. Hoke Smith of Georgia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

While he worked hard to appease Watson by disenfranchising the vote of African-American Georgians, Watson was still not pleased and in 1908 threw his support behind Joseph M. Brown, son of Georgia’s Civil War governor, Joseph E. Brown, thus necessitating long absences from his wife and the governor’s mansion.

The spirit is identified as Miss Price, the niece of Governor Allen D. Candler. A search of period papers brought up a notice of Miss Alice Price being ill on January 4, 1899. Ten days later, on January 14, there is a notice that Miss Price passed away. She was related to the governor through his wife and was visiting from Macon “to assist with the social honors at the executive mansion.”

Alice Price niece of Georgia Governor Allen Candler
Alice Price, as pictured next to the notice of her death in the Atlanta Constitution,. 14 January 1899.

Notably, young Miss Price died from typhoid fever which, according to the paper, she acquired from poor sanitation at the governor’s mansion.

The illness of Miss Price was caused by the poor sanitary arrangements which existed in the executive mansion at the time of Governor Candler’s inauguration. Before the days of the Atlanta waterworks a windmill supplied the mansion with water, the pipes being distributed through the house from a tank.

When the windmill was discontinued this tank was allowed to remain, and it is thought the decaying wood caused the illness of the young lady. After she became ill plumbers were put to work, and the water now reaches the mansion without passing through the tank.

Postcar view of Old Georgia Governor's Mansion before 1923
Postcard view of the Old Georgia Governor’s Mansion before 1923.

This indicates a misunderstanding of how typhoid is spread. Decaying wood does not cause typhoid, it is spread by water contaminated with human fecal material from someone carrying the bacteria, which speaks to the early problems of water utilities and sanitation. It should also be noted that the governor’s mansion was torn down in 1923 because of the building’s poor condition. The site of the old mansion is now occupied by the Westin Peachtree Plaza at 210 Peachtree Street, NW.

Westin Peachtree Plaza Atlanta Georgia occupying the site of the Old Georgia Governor's Mansion
One of the more notable structures in the Atlanta skyline, the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel now occupies the site of the old Governor’s Mansion. Photo 2013, by Robert Neff, courtesy of Wikipedia.

This house is not the first Georgia governor’s mansion to be haunted, the Old Governor’s Mansion in Milledgeville is also known to be haunted.

Sources

  • “Ghost in Governor’s House.” New York Times. 2 June 1908.
  • Maysilles, Duncan. “Hoke Smith (1855-1931).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 22 August 2013.
  • “Miss Alice Price Died Yesterday.” Atlanta Constitution. 14 January 1899.
  • “The Sick List.” Atlanta Constitution. 4 January 1899.

“Its hideous use”—LaGrange, Georgia

LaGrange Art Museum
112 Lafayette Parkway
LaGrange, Georgia

N.B. Starting on Friday, June 7th, I will be giving ghost tours of my hometown, LaGrange, Georgia. “Strange LaGrange” will cover all types of oddities, ghosts, UFOs, and strange history throughout downtown. This location is one of the primary stops.

In the January 1, 1892 edition of the LaGrange Reporter, an article appeared hailing a new structure that would be constructed later that year; “the new building will be an ornament to the town – barring its hideous use – and an honor to the county.”

The phrase, “barring its hideous use” is quite curious, though apt when you consider that this building, now dressed in a penitent’s white, opened as the Troup County Jail. This building recalls the cruel history of executions at a time when they were carried out by local governments, rather than at the state level as they are now.

LaGrange Art Museum formerly the Troup County Jail ghosts haunted LaGrange Georgia
The tower of the LaGrange Art Museum is popularly thought to have been used for executions, though executions were only conducted in the cellblock. Photo 2019, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The Pauly Jail Building Company of St. Louis, Missouri, which today remains in the business of constructing correctional facilities, designed and built this jail along with hundreds of similar structures across the South and throughout the country.

The contract to build the jail was awarded in January of 1892 for the sum of $13,500. Construction likely commenced shortly thereafter and was completed by September.

To test the quality of the steel cells, the Troup County Commissioners summoned a machinist and tools from Georgia Tech to test the steel cells. The LaGrange Reporter notes that Mr. Frank Hudson “entered the steel cells with his compliment of tools, and, after boring, sawing and chiseling for two hours, without making an appreciable impression, desisted.”

interior Troup County Georgia stockade
The interior of the Troup County Stockade is likely similar to the interior of the jail. The sparseness of the facilities provides scant hope to the incarcerated. Photo by Snelson Davis, courtesy of the Troup County Historical Society and Archives. All rights reserved.

On September 15th, the “county’s boarders,” as they were deemed by the paper, were moved into the new building. They were given haircuts, a bath, and new uniforms to correspond with their new quarters. The paper continues:

It was a gala day for these unfortunates, and they greatly enjoyed the change from the close, dark, and generally uncomfortable cells in the old structure to their bright, white, clean quarters in the new. It was like going into another and a better world, although they are more prisoners than before, so far as means of escape are concerned. They left their filth and much of their gloom behind. Light, air and larger space will make their confinement henceforth more endurable.

About five years after the jail opened, the Atlanta Constitution took the Troup County Commissioners to task in a brief article on January 1, 1898:

Recently, it has been published that the commissioners of Troup county, in order to provide against the public execution, and with the view of saving the city of LaGrange from the usual crowd which an execution draws together, decided to erect a gallows inside the jail building, where it would be in full view of the two condemned men who were to be hanged therefrom.

The LaGrange Reporter very sensibly urges the commissioners to meet and change this order, taking the ground that the prisoners have some rights as well as the citizens, and that they should not be compelled to pass several days in constant view of the dread instrument which is to execute the sentence of law.

It is hoped that the views of The Reporter will be listened to by the county commissioners, and that some other plan should be adopted. To have a private execution it is not necessary that the jail corridor be used.

[The “two condemned men” in this article were George Gill and Will Smith who were sentenced to death for murder. They were supposed to have been executed on January 7, but their sentence was suspended for 30 days, and later commuted to life in prison by the governor.]

The Troup County Commissioners did not take heed of the opinions of the LaGrange Reporter or the Atlanta Constitution and change their decision to hold executions inside the jail.

Troup County Jail LaGrange Georgia now the art museum
A view of the jail, probably in the 1920s. Photo by S. Hutchinson, courtesy of the Troup County Historical Society and Archives. All rights reserved.

The first execution to take place inside this building was that of Edmund Scott, August 2, 1901. Scott, an African-American, was put to death for the deaths of Lena and Carry Huguley in West Point, Georgia (in southern Troup County) in 1900. He claimed the shooting was accidental and that one of the young ladies had been his sweetheart.

According to articles in both the LaGrange Reporter or the Atlanta Constitution, Scott was “ready to go.” During his confinement, he had met with pastors from the Methodist Church and the pastor of the Presbyterian Church met with him the morning of his execution. The Constitution provides a good description of the hanging:

The hanging took place inside of the jail at 12:18 o’clock. The gallows is built over the space between the iron cages and the brick wall of the building. Thirty or forty persons saw the hanging. Scott was dressed in a black suit with a standing collar and black tie. He walked up the ladder to the top of the cells without assistance and was calm. He had but little to say and spoke in a low voice. Rev. J. Kelsey, pastor of the colored Baptist Church, offered an earnest prayer. The black cap was then placed over his head. As the noose was being arranged Scott asked:

“Who is placing the rope about my neck?”

The sheriff’s deputy replied:

“Sheriff Brady.”

“The man,” said Scott, “who places the rope about my neck will die.”

The sheriff sprung the trap and Scott’s body went down. Death came in fifteen minutes and the body was cut down in sixteen minutes from the time it dropped. His neck was not broken.

The note that Scott’s neck was not broken is particularly cruel. The use of a drop in hangings is meant to provide a relatively quick and humane death to the condemned with the short, sharp, shock of a jerk of the rope. However, this requires some mathematical calculations involving the height and weight of the condemned and a specific length of rope. If the rope is too short, the condemned will strangle to death. If it’s too long, the condemned could be decapitated.

The next man to die here was Ingram Canady, Jr. who was executed here for the rape of a white woman. Canady, or Canida as his name is sometimes rendered, was hung March 20, 1908. His last words were recorded by the Atlanta Constitution:

I don’t know anything in the world about it; I am ready to meet death, and know my soul will be saved. I don’t know a thing in the world about the crime, and am innocent. All be good; expect to meet you in heaven.

Just before the trap was sprung he said, “The old Master will straighten all mistakes.”

The Reporter noted that again, his neck was not broken. Canady died of strangulation after sixteen minutes.

On January 2, 1909, Lucius Truitt was hanged for the murder of Dock Tatum during a robbery and home invasion. Walter Thomas died here on June 10 of the next year for the rape of a child.

The final man to die here was 22-year-old John Marvin Thompson, who was hanged in July 26, 1918 for the slaying of Troup County Sheriff William Shirey. The sheriff led a raid on an illegal liquor still in the southern part of the county. Thompson, who owned the still, opened fire on the raiding party and the sheriff was killed.

Before “a small crowd of friends of Thompson, his father, and the newspaper men,” Thompson ascended towards the fateful noose. His last words were recorded by the Atlanta Constitution:

I want all of you to know that I am dying innocent of what I am accused of. I have done things that I ought not to have done in my life, and God will forgive me for all I have ever done and take me home.

To his father he said, “Tell all of my people good-bye for me, papa.” His father responded, ““I am sorry for you, John; I wish I could go with you.”

The reporter for the Constitution notes that, “No struggle whatever occurred after the trap was spring, his neck evidently having been broken by the fall.” Thompson was the first and only white man hung in the county as well as being the last man to die a state sanctioned death in the jail. Several years later, the state revoked the privileges of localities to conduct their own executions and executions were removed to state correctional facilities.

With the construction of a new jail facility, the inmates were moved elsewhere in 1939, and the structure was converted to use as an office for the local newspaper, The LaGrange Daily News.” The building also served as a furniture store until the local Callaway Foundation granted funds to convert the building into an art facility.

LaGrange Art Museum formerly the Troup County Jail ghosts haunted LaGrange Georgia
The jail probably around the time it ceased being used as a jail in 1939. Photo by S. Hutchinson, courtesy of the Troup County Historical Society and Archives. All rights reserved.

I’m still trying to understand the original layout of the building. So far, research has pointed to this first section as being used as a residence for the jailer and his family. I have been told that there was no interior connection between the buildings, therefore to reach the cellblock, the jailer would have to leave his residence and use an outside door to enter.

It should be noted that there is no evidence that the building tower, which resembles a finger uplifted in moral admonishment, is not a “hanging tower.” In the newspaper accounts of executions in the building, all of the hangings took place within the cellblock, and not in the jailers’ personal space.

LaGrange Art Museum formerly the Troup County Jail ghosts haunted LaGrange Georgia
Oblique view of the museum building. The section of the building in the foreground was added when the building was converted into a museum. The middle portion with the bricked up windows was the cellblock. The galleries now occupy that portion. Photo 2019, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The second section contained the cellblock. This section was also two stories and prisoners were separated by race. Contemporary sources say that white male prisoners were held on the first level with women, juveniles, and people of color being held on the second. On a recent tour of the building, I was able to see the basement space located underneath this section. As we closely looked at the original brick walls, we were able to see names carved into the brick, perhaps by restless inmates.

The conversion to an art museum, reconfigured the building to include office space in the front section with connecting doors between the two buildings. In a space where inmates wiled away their sentences, visitors now contemplate works of art. Sighs of the condemned have been replaced with the joyful chatter of children enrolled in the museum’s educational programs. Growing up here, I spent time at the museum attending an arts camp and classes.

With my curiosity about ghosts, I’d always wondered if the museum was haunted. A co-worker reported to me that she had seen faces peering from the tower windows at night. When I worked for the LaGrange Daily News some years ago, I interviewed the museum’s director and asked about activity. She responded that there were often odd sounds, especially at night.

When I started work on my upcoming ghost tour of downtown, I talked with the current director. She shared with me that she would frequently smell the odor of tobacco smoke in the entrance hall of the museum, which is a smoke free facility and has been for many years. I also spoke with the maintenance man who said he regularly heard footsteps in the building when he was alone at night. He noted that he would walk throughout trying to find the source, but to no avail.

In preparation for my tour, I visited the museum with a sensitive friend. As we walked up the front steps he noted that there were three spirits in residence. Upon entering the gallery portion (which had once been the cellblock), he saw an African-American man standing against one of the walls. He attempted to communicate, but the spirit didn’t want to talk. Walking to the other side of the gallery, we felt a chill in the air where the sensitive detected the presence of a hunched back man.

We attempted communication with the first spirit again. This time, he was a bit more forthcoming and revealed that his cell had been at the back of the space. He proclaimed his innocence, saying that he was defending himself. Still, he was reticent to speak.

LaGrange Art Museum formerly the Troup County Jail ghosts haunted LaGrange Georgia
Second floor of the gallery which occupies what was once the cellblock. Photo 2019, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

Heading to the second floor of the gallery, we encountered a feminine presence, which the sensitive noted was related to a man incarcerated here, “either a mother or an older sister.”

LaGrange Art Museum formerly the Troup County Jail ghosts haunted LaGrange Georgia
The old jail, now dressed in a penitent’s white, provides educational opportunities to many local children, some of whom are featured in murals that currently adorn the building’s brick wall. Photo 2019, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

This building, which once was so hideous, now rings with the chatter and laughter of children, or the silent contemplation of adult art patrons. It is my sincere hope that whoever the spirits are in this old building, they have finally found the peace.

Sources

  • “The Contract Given.” LaGrange Reporter. 8 January 1892.
  • “Edmund Scott Hanged.” LaGrange Reporter. 9 August 1901.
  • Hanging. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 27 May 2019.
  • Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in Georgia: A Comprehensive Registry, 1866-1964. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2016.
  • “John Thompson hung for Murder of Sheriff.” Atlanta Constitution. 27 July 1918.
  • Johnson, Forrest Clark; Glenda Major, and Kaye Lanning Minchew. Travels Through Troup County: A Guide to its Architecture and History, LaGrange, GA: Family Tree,
  • “Negro Hanged at LaGrange.” Atlanta Constitution. 21 March 1908.
  • “New Jail Received.” LaGrange Reporter. 16 September 1892.
  • “Scott Hanged in LaGrange.” Atlanta Constitution. 3 August 1901.
  • “That Jail Corridor Hanging.” Atlanta Constitution. 1 January 1898.
  • “To Be Hung To-day.” LaGrange Reporter. 20 March 1908.