THE RESIDENT GHOSTS OF THE JEFFERSON HOTEL
Spend a day in the historic town of Jefferson, Texas, and you will find yourself surrounded by the style and beauty of the 1800s riverboat days. Spend a night in the stately old Jefferson Hotel, and you may also find yourself surrounded by ghostly visitors from that bygone past.
After the city’s heyday as a riverport, the Jefferson Hotel spent decades changing hands and struggling to survive, until the town finally revived itself as a peaceful getaway for vacationers. Restored to its original beauty, the grand old hotel is alive again — and with it, a few unseen visitors that reside within its walls.
This was a fun chapter to write, because I’ve stayed at the Jefferson Hotel several times, and always came away with a new ghost story to tell. During my last stay, I had a chance to visit with the owner.
When I asked about the ghosts there, he smiled and said, “We have several non-paying guests.” And he should know — many things happen there when he is working late and the hotel is quiet. “In the evening I’m often at the front desk, working at the computer and getting caught up. Once the traffic has stopped on the stairway, I’m used to the stairs ‘un-creaking’ from the day’s activity. You know, a pop here, a snap there. But one night something different happened. I heard the distinct squeak of the stairs as someone walked down them. They were evenly paced, the kind of thing we hear all day long as guests go up and down. I thought it was a little odd, since it was a weeknight and we didn’t have anyone staying upstairs. They suddenly stopped after three or four steps, and when I glanced over, there was no one there. I was alone in the lobby — at least, I was the only physical person there.”
It soon became that this was a common occurrence at the hotel. In fact, the stairway is one of the high-points of supernatural activity. A playful spirit once teased a hotel guest that was attending a formal dance in town. She wanted to have her photograph made on the stairway to show off the back of her ball gown, so she spread out her gown and positioned herself halfway up the staircase. While her friend was getting ready to snap the picture, the guest suddenly screamed loudly and dashed down the stairs. “Someone grabbed my shoulder!” she squealed. When asked about the stairway, the hotel staff is quick to start relating their own experiences — there isn’t a worker at the hotel that does not have a story about the old, creaking staircase.
A great deal of the activity takes place in the hotel rooms themselves. I had an interesting experience one evening while staying in notorious Room 19. We had turned in for the evening, when my wife woke up to see a strange, gray shape at the foot of the bed. She shook me awake, and I immediately grabbed our video camera from the nightstand, where I’d set it when we returned to the room earlier. It was equipped with night vision, so I hoped to capture whatever she was seeing on tape. While I couldn’t see anything but the end of the bed and the far wall through the camera lens, I noticed something very strange happening. The camera has automatic focus, and it kept whirring as the lens moved in and out, trying to lock onto the area at the foot of the end of the bed. When I pointed the camera toward anywhere else in the room, it snapped to focus right away. At the foot of our bed, however, there was something there that the camera couldn’t grab. I finally moved the camera away from my eye, but since I’d been looking into the bright green of the night vision feature, I couldn’t see anything in the dark room — certainly not the form at the foot of our bed. When we played the tape back, it was obvious that the camera was having trouble focusing just on that one area, where my wife saw the gray form.
I’m not the only person who captured some unusual footage at the Jefferson Hotel, though. A couple that stayed in Room 21 had been taping the hotel and had set a camera up in their room while they were at dinner just to see if something ghostly would show up on film. When they returned and checked the tape, they found something startling. As the couple was preparing to head out for the evening, the tape showed bright orbs following each of them around the room. There were several different sizes. After the couple left, the orbs continued to float around the room in front of the camera, which was stationary.
Walking down the hallways and into one of the many rooms, a person might not suspect that the supernatural activity is so pronounced at the hotel. Room 5, for example, exudes warmth and welcome, with two four-post beds decorated with country flair. A couple checked into Room 5 on a particularly cold evening, turned on the heat, and went to bed. The wife told a curious tale when they came downstairs the next morning. It seemed she had awakened several times during the night, shivering in the cool air. It was cold enough that she didn’t dare want to venture outside the covers, not even to turn up the heater. The woman suddenly sensed a warm, heavy blanket being placed on the bed, and it felt wonderful. She opened her eyes and was surprised to see it wasn’t her husband taking care of her. Instead, an elderly lady dressed in a white, flowing dress with her hair in a bun was standing beside the bed. The old woman reached out and touched her hand softly. The wife never felt threatened, and in fact was very calm. She stretched over to wake her husband, and as she did the elderly woman faded away — but an extra blanket was indeed on the bed.
Other experiences are less dramatic, but still send goosebumps up the spine of hotel guests: cold spots in the rooms and halls, knocking on the walls and headboards of the beds, mysterious whispers in the hallway. As the guest journal testifies, it is hard to spend a night in the Jefferson Hotel without something to report when the sun rises. Each room seems to have its own particular curiosities. Room 1, with its wrought iron beds and Victorian décor, is a place where shadowy figures are frequently seen moving around the beds and bathroom. Odd noises are heard throughout the night, and people who have slept in the room have often reported very strange dreams.
A visitor to the hotel will find something very unusual in Room 17, where several guests have witnessed the closet door opening itself, even though it had been securely closed. After one such occurrence, a pillow flew out of the closet and into the room. What significance could this simple act have? “Our ghosts love to play tricks on guests,” the hotel manager told me during my visit. “None of them are harmful at all — they’re very playful, in fact.” When asked to pinpoint the paranormal activity, she just laughed. “It’s everywhere: all the rooms, the hallways, the restaurant, even the lobby. I was visiting with one of the guests at the front desk when we both heard a gun discharge right there beside us, just a few feet away from the desk. The shot wasn’t outside, or in another room, it was right there! We were both startled, especially since we were alone in the lobby at the time. There’s just always something happening.”
That may well be true, since the stories cover the width and breadth of the hotel. In Room 7, a maid heard mischievous laughter as she was cleaning the room after the previous night’s guests left. The maid had been expecting her grandchildren to stop by, and assumed it was them. When she turned around, though, there was no one else in the room. She looked for them out in the hallway, only to discover she was completely alone upstairs. Starting to feel a little eerie, she ran downstairs to find the desk clerk, and together they went back to Room 7. There wasn’t a child to be seen, but in the light coming through the window the noticed two small sets of handprints on the bottom panes of glass. The maid later learned that several weeks prior, a family had stayed in the hotel with children that repeatedly got in trouble for romping and playing in the hallways. The youngsters explained that it was the “other” kids that were making all the noise, even though there were no other children present in the hotel at the time.
As I mentioned before, dark, foreboding Room 19 is the center for much of the activity in the hotel. The former owners reported that some occupants have asked to change rooms in the middle of the night, and others have flat refused to sleep in Room 19 after spending a few nights inside. A woman and her daughter once left in the middle of the night, leaving a check at the front desk with a scribbled note explaining that they could not stay another minute in the room.
So who are these spirits, these specters that seem intent on remaining at the Jefferson Hotel? No one really knows. The owners once hired a psychic to examine the building, and after thoroughly exploring the hotel, she announced that seven different entities were involved in the haunting. During our visit, the manager summed it up with the explanation, “It’s really no surprise that the hotel is haunted. Jefferson was like a mini New Orleans in the 1800s. Along with the proper society folks, the town also had riverboat gamblers, robbers, thieves, money, and a little bit of everything else.”
Some people who know the history of the hotel believe that a woman named Schluter, one of the proprietors during the 1890s, may be one of the phantoms. There is also a legend of a bride who hanged herself in one of the rooms at the turn of the century when her groom sent a messenger with words that he had changed his mind about marrying her. True or not, there are definite, individual spirits that frequently make their presence known in the hotel.
A guest in Room 25 came out of the bathroom one evening to find a young girl standing in the room with shoulder-length brown hair, dressed in a pink floral dress with 1920s flair, who turned to the guest and actually spoke. “I’m waiting on a young man,” the ghost girl said, “and we’re going to dance the night away!” As the guest approached, the girl’s image faded without another word.
A couple that was a repeat customer at the hotel described another example of a particular apparition. On each of their visits, they asked to stay in Room 12, which is decorated in traditional Victorian motifs with a king-sized, antique bed. They finally confided to a hotel clerk that their insistence on Room 12 wasn’t because of the beauty of the room but was instead due to an entity they had encountered there on previous stays. On past visits, the wispy image of a thin, blonde woman had appeared at the foot of the bed during the night. She stayed for some time, and exuded a feeling of total peace and unconditional love. It was such a spiritual experience for them that they sought it on repeat visits. The previous owners of the hotel moved the bed from Room 12 to Room 14, and to the couple’s disappointment, the spectral lady stopped appearing.
A masculine spirit in the hotel seems to be that of a man in a long, dark coat wearing high boots. He has been seen roaming the first floor hall and ducking into the alcove between Room 20 and Room 21. Steps are often heard in empty hallways and may belong to this mysterious gentleman. To punctuate the dark man’s presence, a couple walked into the lobby one morning and reported their child woke them up in the middle of the night, complaining he couldn’t go to sleep because, “The man with the tall boots wouldn’t go away.”
Is the Jefferson Hotel haunted? Skeptics might try to explain away the nocturnal knockings, subtle pinches, and spectral sightings that occur weekly in the rooms and hallways of the regal building. Look into the eyes of the staff, or any visitor that descends the stairway in the bright light of morning, however, and you will know the truth. As Mr. Lakey says with his playful smile, “We have some very interesting things going on here at the Jefferson Hotel.”
THE WALLS OF HUNTSVILLE PRISON
The roots of the prison go all the way back to 1848, when the Texas Legislature saw a need for organized incarceration and passed a bill to establish a state prison. The governor appointed three committee members: John Brown of Henderson County, William Palmer of Walker County, and William Menefee of Fayette County. Together they selected Huntsville as the home for the new prison facility; their reasoning in selecting that city is a mystery to this day. Perhaps the fact there was a local rally to attract the prison played a major part, or even that the town was the home to Sam Houston, but no matter what the reason, Huntsville was chosen.
Construction began late in 1848 and proceeded smoothly, except for a brief dispute of the quality of some of the materials being used. By late spring 1849, workers had finished most of the ground floor of the first brick cellblock and expected to complete the entire structure later in the year. In anticipation of possible construction delays, prison officials had erected a makeshift jail of heavy logs and iron bars to house any prisoners who might arrive before the permanent structures were completed. In these temporary cells the first prisoners were confined when they arrived on October 1, 1849.
But what about the ghosts there? Well, most of the activity is in the east and south wings of the unit — both are part of the first building constructed at the prison. Although empty now, those wings were apparently prime real estate for most of the prisoners. The cells were slightly larger than average, and were also cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter due to the heavy construction of the unit. It may be that with those comforts came a spirit or two. An inmate named Sam Houston (not the hero of Texas, but someone named for him), who was in and out of Huntsville State Prison for different crimes, apparently encountered several apparitions during his tenures there.
On one instance, for example, a guard was escorting Houston between the east and south wings, where a heavy armored door separated the two sections. Houston is said to have seen a spectral form in prisoner’s garb step right through the door. As the story goes, he turned to the guard and asked if he’d seen the spirit. The guard said, “I sure did.”
Another spirit said to frequent the Walls Unit is the “Ax Man,” a ghost who strolls down the hallways carrying a head in his hands. Sam Houston swears to have seen him, as have other inmates through the years.
The ghost of Chief Satanta of the Kiowa Indian tribe lingers in an area between the Walls Unit and the walkway to the Death Chamber. On October 11, 1878, while the Chief was serving out a life sentence at the prison, he complained of a pain in his chest to the prison physician. He was taken to the prison hospital on the second floor, and when the doctor left him alone briefly, eerie strains of the Kiowa death song were heard issuing from the room. Satanta leapt headfirst from the second-story balcony to the ground below, killing himself rather than remaining imprisoned. A flowerbed marks the place where he died, and his presence has been reported there throughout the years by prisoners and correctional officers alike.
The haunting of the Walls Unit isn’t restricted to specific ghosts, though. Guards have heard the clanging noises of cell doors opening and closing, when it would literally be impossible for that to occur.
Since there will always probably be a need for Huntsville State Penitentiary, the ghost stories from the Walls Unit will probably continue to be told as well. This is one place, however, that I hope I never get to investigate.
CHESTER, THE THESPIAN GHOST
Why do spirits seem to always be found in theaters? I certainly don’t know. Maybe it’s the emotionally charged plays that are performed there over the years that attract a ghost or two. Or perhaps the strong devotion to the craft that thespians seem to have that causes them to return to the stage for an occasional visit. Whatever the case may be, show me a theater, and I’ll show you a ghost.
One legendary example is a fellow known only as “Chester,” a lively specter who takes an occasional curtain call at the Turner Auditorium at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches.
The William M. Turner Auditorium is a part of the Griffith Fine Arts Center at the university. The complex is a wonderful place for both academia and visitors alike — it has been host to some of the world’s most famous touring companies, yet it offers students a place to hone their craft with two lab theaters, classrooms, and the offices and facilities for the College of Fine Arts and the Department of Theatre.
Talk to any student who’s spent time there, and you’ll hear several legendary tales about Chester. One of the most common description of him is simply a feeling that occurs when there are only a few people in the building. Just imagine being alone in the theater, sitting on the edge of the stage with your feet dangling off. It’s dark and quiet, so much so that your breathing seems to echo through the empty hall. If I were to slip in through a side door, take off my shoes, and start sneaking across the stage with as much stealth as possible, at some point you’d get that eerie feeling that someone was watching you. We’ve all had it. Chances are that as I got closer you’d feel it stronger, until you finally turned around to catch me creeping up on you.
That’s how people describe Chester’s presence, although on some occasions he has made himself known in a more tangible manner. When a few lone actors have been rehearsing on the stage, the curtains have been seen rustling as if someone was walking behind them. Thinking themselves alone, the actors rushed to see who might be passing through backstage, but no one was there.
On other occasions, a solitary person on stage has heard footsteps on the overhead scaffolding as if a stagehand was pacing back and forth to adjust the lighting or prepare a backdrop. Calling up to the person above, there is no answer — because no one is there. There is something about the theater scaffolding, though. At other times, dust has gently drifted down in waves to the stage, just like someone was disturbing the matrix of walkways and props overhead. All heads look up, but again, no one is there.
Chester has tapped actors on the shoulder, been blamed for the disappearance and reappearance of countless objects, and has even been heard pacing the backstage area.
Only once has the mysterious Chester been seen, and that was back in 1987 during a performance of “The Scottish Play” which non-thespians know as Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” A ghostly scene in the play represented by a projection of eight spectral faces onto a stage backdrop. Only the actors noticed that there were nine faces there during the play — of course, Chester was blamed.
But perhaps it isn’t that odd that Macbeth was the play where Chester manifested himself. A legend has surrounded that play from the time that it was first produced on stage, which may explain why the spirit of the Turner Auditorium chose that time to appear to the audience. In any theater where the play is produced, its name is never spoken aloud, and is simply referred to as “The Play,” “The Unmentionable” or “The Scottish Play” by the staff — to do otherwise would bring misfortune down on the actors. In many cases, props are destroyed once they are used in Macbeth, because they tend to bring bad luck upon future productions.
Some blame the scene with the witches for the curse, saying that Shakespeare himself wove actual spells into the text of the play. Others point out that because there is quite a bit of physical action in Macbeth, someone inevitably gets injured in most productions. Perhaps the explanation is just that simple.
On the other hand, during its premier on August 7, 1606, the actor portraying Lady Macbeth died backstage during the opening performance. In a 1934 production, three different actors in the role of Macbeth quit within the period of one week, with no explanation. Other injuries and deaths are associated with the play throughout the years, making actors around the globe wary to tempt the fates associated with the play.
Did the staging of a cursed play give the spirit of Chester the chance to play a bit onstage? Who knows. Maybe there is some magic in Shakespeare’s words:
No matter what happened on that night when “The Scottish Play” was produced in the Turner Auditorium, the existence of Chester seems to be a reality to the people who work there. He has been called the spirit of an architect who designed the theater and is so proud of his work that he periodically returns to inspect the building and poke his nose into what is going on there. Others believe Chester to be a former drama student who is coming back for a recurring role at Stephen F. Austin University. Still another theory is that the spirit lingers from a time long before the university was formed, when the area that is now Nacogdoches was part of the of the frontier. He might be a carry-over from those past times, when the gentle piney woods of East Texas saw bloody Indian battles, brutal conflicts during the Civil War, or patriots’ blood shed for the independence of the Republic of Texas.
It really doesn’t matter who he is or why he’s there; Chester seems to be a very benevolent spirit intent solely on gracing the stage at the Turner Auditorium. Unless you’re an actor there, chances are that you’ll never cross his path. Unless, of course, a production of “The Scottish Play” is being done, in which case there will be at least one guaranteed presence in the theater — I’ll be sitting there in the front row, hoping to catch a glimpse of Chester.
To see Mitchel’s entire bibliography which includes many books on East Texas history and a variety of other subjects, as well as his public speaking schedule, visit his website whitington.com.