The Face in the Courthouse Window

A Ghost in the Window in Carrollton, Alabama

The face of Henry Wells was etched in the window of the old Pickens County Courthouse by lightning in 1878. This and other photos on this page by Kristina Martin.

by Dale Cox

The South is filled with tales of ghosts and strange apparitions. Only one of these specters – the Face in the Courthouse Window in Carrollton, Alabama – can be seen by anyone, day or night.

The ghost in the window was immortalized by author Kathryn Tucker Windham in her beloved 1969 book – Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. It is one of Alabama’s most bizarre stores of the supernatural and involves a mysterious face that can been seen in a window of the old Pickens County Courthouse.

According to Windham’s account, the face is that of Henry Wells. A former slave set free at the end of the Civil War, he was accused of burning the county courthouse to the ground on November 16, 1876. The alleged crime was galling to the people of Pickens County as their previous courthouse was burned by Union soldiers during Wilson’s Raid in 1865. They spent eleven years raising funds and rebuilding only to see their hard work and money go up in flames.

Wells was looking out the attic or garret window of the courthouse when lightning struck.

No one was immediately fingered for the crime and the citizens had no choice but to rebuild yet again. They finished work on the county’s third courthouse – which still stands today – early in 1878. The building was still new when someone accused Henry Wells of starting the fire fire that had destroyed the previous structure. A lynch mob formed to string him up for the crime, but Wells escaped as a sudden thunderstorm brought confusion to the streets.

The man went up into the attic or garret of the new courthouse and watched the crowd below from a window there. To his shock, however, a bolt of lightning suddenly struck the window and etched the image of his terrified face into one of the panes of glass! More than 140 years have passed since that fateful night, but the face of Henry Wells continues to stare down on Carrollton.

Like most ghost stories, the legend of the Face in the Window has its skeptics. They point out that Wells was shot at the time of his capture in January 1878 and died a few days later, while the window in question was not set in place until February of that year. Original sources, however, suggest that perhaps the skeptics have this one wrong.

Court records in Pickens County suggest that Wells did not die until February 1878. The Daily Inquirer, a Georgia newspaper, added support on February 12, 1878, when it reported that “Henry Wells, a notorious colored outlaw, has been captured and confesses to burning the Court House at Carrollton.”

The timing fits and the legend could very well be true. The real question is whether lightning really could etch a photograph of a living person on a glass window?

The Face in the Courthouse Window has faded through the years but can still be seen.

Scientists don’t think much of the idea, but who can really judge the true power of such a massive burst of electricity? In fact, the alleged ghost photo of Henry Wells was not the only photograph attributed to lightning in Alabama during that same decade! Mrs. Norborne B. Powell was standing at the window of her home at Chennuggee Ridge in 1873 when the glass was struck by a bolt of lightning. A perfect image of her appeared on the window pane, right down to the hat and cameo pin that she was wearing.

The Chennuggee Ridge photograph came into the hands of Mrs. Powell’s grandson, Dr. Edward H. Cary. He was at one time the president of the American Medical Association and believed the image to be a priceless artifact of Alabama history and science. Dr. Cary donated it to the Department of Archives and History in Montgomery in 1920, but someone there dropped it! The remarkable artifact shattered and could not be restored.

The Pickens County “Face in the Window” still survives. While time has softened its features, the image of a man is still visible in the historic piece of glass. A large arrow on the wall of the old courthouse points to the window in question and a marker on the grounds tells the story of the building and its mysterious face.

The historic courthouse is at the central intersection in Carrollton, a city 35 miles west of Tuscaloosa. The address is 1 Courthouse Square, Carrollton, Alabama. The map below will help you find it.

Please click here to read more great stories of ghosts, monsters and mysteries from the American South.