Saved because of a song—Columbus, Georgia

This is the third entry in my Twelve Days of Southern Spirits Series celebrating traditional ghost story telling over Christmas.  

Columbus Stockade
700 East 10th Street
Columbus, Georgia

Way down in Columbus, Georgia,
Wanted back in Tennessee,
Way down in Columbus Stockade,
Friends have turned their backs on me.
–Jimmie Tarlton & Tom Darby, “Columbus Stockade Blues,” (1927)

In her 2012 book, Haunted Columbus, Georgia, Faith Serafin relates a story that happened to a trio of sheriff’s deputies in 1990. A deputy noticed a light inside the old Columbus Stockade building adjacent to the modern Muscogee County Jail. Knowing that the building should have been empty at that hour, the deputy asked two of his colleagues to walk over to the building with him to check it out.

Entering the building, the deputies encountered the stench of rotting flesh. Assuming that an animal had died inside, the men split up to find the decaying remains. One of the deputies backed up against a cell and had something pull him against the bars. As he screamed out of shock and fear, the other deputies came running.

It took the strength of two deputies to free their frightened colleague. The three men searched for the culprit, but were surprised to find the cell and the whole building empty.

Like so many other jails and prisons I have covered, see the Kentucky State Penitentiary; LaGrange, Georgia’s LaGrange Art Museum; West Virginia’s Moundsville Penitentiary; and Charleston, South Carolina’s Old City Jail, the architecture chosen for the structure was meant to evoke a sense of foreboding and oppression. The Columbus Stockade employs heavy architecture with Italianate elements that add a sense of lightness and also help it to blend with the other buildings of that period.

ghosts Columbus Stockade Georgia haunted
An undated photo of the old Columbus Stockade.

There is a question of when the building was built. In her recent history of the city, Virginia Causey notes that building may date to as early as 1858, though she believes it was likely built around 1870. The preparers of the Georgia Historic Resources form which was used when listing the building on the National Register of Historic Places, state that the building is made up of two structures that were likely connected in the early 1900s. Originally, these buildings housed both the police department offices and the jail, and the building was used to incarcerate inmates until 1972.

After closing, the suggestion was made to demolish the building, but history-minded locals saved the structure based on, of all things, an old country song.

In 1927, a pair of local musicians, Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarleton wrote and recorded a song, the Columbus Stockade Blues.” After recording the song, the pair made the regrettable choice of accepting a flat payment of $75 rather than signing a contract for royalties. The song was a hit and sold two hundred thousand records in the first year alone. While the song put Columbus and its stockade on the map, the song’s writers lived out the remainder of their lives in obscurity.

It turns out that neither Darby nor Tarleton spent any time in the place they made famous, but it seems that a number of spirits remain incarcerated in the old stockade.

Sources

  • Alexander, Nancy, Roger Harris & Janice P. Biggers. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. 2 December 1980.
  • Causey, Virginia E. Red Clay White Water & Blues: A History of Columbus, Georgia. Athens, GA: U. of GA Press, 2019.
  • Kyle, Clason F. “Fate Unsure: Stockade ‘Way Down’.” Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. 23 April 1978.
  • Serafin, Faith. Haunted Columbus, Georgia. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012.
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