The Lightning Portrait of Pickens County
The overwhelming majority of ghost stories are usually the result of local folklore passed from person to person and generation to generation within a community. However, every so often, an unusual phenomenon will occur that is not only verifiable, but documented by clear primary evidence as well. One such phenomenon can be found at the Pickens County Courthouse in Carrollton, Alabama. On a pane of glass in the window of the uppermost floor of the courthouse, there is the permanent impression of an anguished human face that reportedly dates back to the era of Reconstruction. The image has resisted all attempts to wash it out, and the pane of glass itself has reportedly escaped destruction from multiple severe hailstorms over the past century. The “lightning portrait” of the Pickens County Courthouse is a curious marvel that is one part natural, one part man-made, and multiple parts mystery.
Owing to the tumultuous events of the Civil War, the history of the Pickens County Courthouse as it stands today differs depending on who is telling the story. The facts that most people seem to agree on, however, are as follows. On April 5, 1865, Union troops on their way to take the nearby city of Tuscaloosa passed through Carrollton, overcoming the local resistance and burning the town’s original courthouse to the ground. Despite the presence of federal troops in the town for the remainder of the war and a severe lack of materials and money, the town’s residents vowed to rebuild the courthouse bigger and grander than before.
The townspeople, through great personal sacrifice and hard work, erected the new court house right under the watchful eyes of some of the very same Union troops who had originally burned it down. For the next twelve years, it stood as a symbol, a living monument of the pride and character of Carrollton, as well as defiance of the Union. However, on November 16, 1876, tragedy struck as the new courthouse burned to the ground. Arson was determined to be the cause, and even as a third courthouse was being built, a manhunt began to find and bring justice to the culprit.
Suspicion fell upon Henry Wells, a freed slave who lived on the outskirts of Carrollton. Wells had something of a bad reputation in the community, even as freed men in the Deep South went. He was reported to have a horrible temper, and had been involved in several public brawls. Contemporary accounts indicated that he carried a straight razor, and had threatened multiple people with it at one time or another. Despite these reports, however, there was only circumstantial evidence linking him to the arson of the courthouse.
Nonetheless, there was tremendous public outcry over the burning of the town’s symbol of pride, and when word got out that Wells had been taken into custody in connection with the arson and was being held in a cell at the newly constructed courthouse, a lynch mob formed with the intent of dragging him from the building and hanging him in the public square. The sheriff’s office got word of the mob, and moved Wells to the highest floor of the courthouse for his protection. When the mob arrived at the steps of the new courthouse in the midst of an evening thunderstorm, Wells appeared at the window to plead his innocence with the crowd, reportedly yelling, “I am innocent. If you kill me, I am going to haunt you for the rest of your lives!” At just that moment, a bolt of lightning struck very close to the courthouse, resulting in a tremendous flash of light that exposed Wells’ terrified expression to the crowd below.
The angry mob forced its way into the courthouse, dragging Wells out to exact their vengeance. What exactly happened to Wells is not known for sure, but if the accounts of the time are correct, it is almost certain that he was killed. What is known is what happened afterwards. The next day, a member of the lynch mob was passing by the courthouse when something caught his eye. From the highest window, exactly where Wells had been standing the previous night, the lynch mob member could see a ghostly image of Wells’ terrified face staring back down at him. One by one, more people came past the window, and each and every one of them could see the exact same image. It wasn’t an illusion; it wasn’t a product of their imaginations. It was there, frozen permanently on the window pane in all of its horror.
As the authorities began to investigate the image, they discovered several interesting aspects. For starters, it was completely resistant to being scrubbed away by soap, water, or the cleaning chemicals of the period, both from the inside and the outside. It remained in place when the window was opened up in order to access the sill outside it. Most interestingly, it was completely invisible from the inside of the window, as well as from certain angles on the ground. You had to stand in a certain defined area on the street or a few feet above it in order to be able to see the face.
In addition, the pane itself seemed to take on some unexplained properties itself. Over the decades that followed, the window containing the image of the face had been completely destroyed by more than one hailstorm, and had to be replaced. However, the individual window pane containing the image had never been damaged in any way, and remains intact to this day. It is the combination of all of these factors that led the residents of Carrollton to believe that the image was the ghost of Henry Wells, haunting the community that murdered him for all time.
There is one key element to this story which may serve to explain the seemingly-paranormal properties of the image on the window. All accounts of the incident make note of the great flash of lightning while Wells was standing directly in front of the window. There have been many recorded instances of people and animals who have been struck by lightning and who have had indelible perfectly replicated images of people and objects that were right next to them at the time imprinted onto their bodies. Though there is no scientific proof of the phenomenon, there is speculation that these images may be a result of an awesomely powerful form of natural photography.
Photography, in the non-digital sense, is a process whereby a durable image is created by the recording of the light or radiation emanating from an object onto a surface that is chemically sensitive to light. The recording of this energy is normally achieved by focusing it through a lens in order to direct its exposure to the surface. It is conceivable, though not proven, that an incredibly bright flash of light associated with a lightning strike could, when focused at a particular angle to a chemically-sensitive surface like the inside of a pane of glass, create enough of an exposure to imprint the image of the light from a reflected image onto the other edge of the inside of the glass pane. If Henry Wells’ face was in line with the window pane and at the right angle to reflect the most focused part of the intense flash of light from the lightning, it is speculatively possible that it might have caused a “lightning portrait” to be permanently imprinted on the glass.
The “Lightning Portrait” Today
The image of Henry Wells’ face remains on the window of the Pickens County Courthouse to this day. It has been photographed on numerous occasions, and a pair of mounted binoculars has been installed across the street at what has been deemed to best angle for viewing it. Recently, a reflective highway sign with an arrow has been attached to the wall to serve as a helpful marker for people who have never seen it before. A curious natural phenomenon, the “lightning portrait” serves as a stark reminder of the history of race relations in the American South, and will continue to be the fodder of ghost stories for generations to come.
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