Anna Molly, who in the course of her work spends some time in courthouses, asked me awhile back if I’d ever run across a story of a haunted courthouse. At the time, I hadn’t; despite the drama that goes on in courthouses, there do not seem to be many that retain the residue. I knew that ours here in Knobite Corner has been investigated as an allegedly haunted location, but I’ve never learned any details. There’s the story of the courthouse window in Carrollton, Alabama, where the face of a prisoner allegedly still shows in the glass of an upstairs windowpane, and there’s the tale of Gonzales, Texas’s courthouse clock, cursed by a man awaiting execution never to tell the correct time again. But actual haunted courthouses? Not many.
Then, the other night on an episode of Travel Channel’s series Ghost Stories, I first heard the story of the haunted courthouse of Calcasieu Parish, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, haunted by a murderer–a female murderer, at that.
So, AM, here, at last, is a haunted courthouse story. 😉
Lake Charles, Louisiana is a city of some seventy thousand people in the heart of Cajun country. It has a huge courthouse, built in a couple of years around 1912. Thirty years later, the only woman ever to die in Louisiana’s electric chair went to her death there, on a November morning.
Her birth name was Annie Beatrice McQuiston, but somewhere in the course of her short life she began calling herself Toni Jo. A stunningly beautiful girl, born in Shreveport in 1916, she grew up in a tough environment, and by her teens had drifted into drug addiction and prostitution.
In 1939, when she was twenty-three, Toni Jo McQuiston met a good ol’ boy named Claude Henry at the brothel where she worked. Claude was a Texan who went by the nickname Cowboy. He fell in love with the lovely Toni Jo, and she with him. They were married in November of the same year.
They honeymooned in California, where, it’s said, Cowboy managed to get Toni Jo off the drugs. Almost immediately upon their return to Louisiana, though, Cowboy was arrested and charged with murdering a man back in Texas, prior to their marriage. He was extradited back to Texas and, in January 1940, convicted and sentenced to fifty years at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.
Toni Jo, without her man, drifted back into her old ways. She wanted Cowboy back, and, with an accomplice named Harold Finnan (Arkie) Burks, began plotting to go to Texas to break Cowboy out of prison.
She and Arkie began hitchhiking toward Texas, and were picked up just outside Lake Charles by a man named Joseph P. Calloway. Evidently thinking that Calloway’s Ford V8 coupe was the perfect getaway vehicle for their planned caper, the pair forced Calloway to pull over just outside Jennings, a smaller town nearby. There, they forced him to strip, tortured him, and finally, after ordering the seriously injured man to “say his prayers”, Toni Jo shot him between the eyes, killing him instantly.
They left his body in a ditch.
It was a spectacularly brutal and supremely stupid killing, and Toni Jo and Arkie couldn’t keep their mouths shut. They had developed a powerful thirst in the commission of their crime, and in a roadhouse, while getting drunk, they bragged loudly about killing Calloway. In short order they were arrested, the body was found, and from there on it should have been thirteen steps up to a long rope for the both of them.
Arkie, protesting that Toni Jo had done the killing and he was only along for the ride, was sentenced to death as a matter of course.
Toni Jo, insisting that no, it was Arkie who had shot Calloway while she looked on in horror, was also convicted and sentenced to death in March 1940–a sentence her lawyers promptly appealed, and succeeded in winning a second trial for the sultry murderess. She was treated as somewhat of a celebrity in the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse, with its jail cells; she was allowed privileges no other prisoners got, such as being allowed to keep a pet. When her hair was cut off before she was executed, a hairdresser–not the jail’s barber–was called in to do the honors.
Her second trial ended in another death sentence, and again, her lawyers appealed. Incredibly, she was granted a third new trial, which ended the same way as the previous two–with a death sentence.
A fourth appeal for a new trial was denied. The courts evidently realized that her appeals fit a certain famous definition of insanity.
Toni Jo Henry was originally sentenced to hang. By the time of her third trial, Louisiana had changed its method of execution to the electric chair. And so it was, in November of 1942, three days after what would have been her third wedding anniversary with Cowboy, still imprisoned in Texas, Toni Jo was executed, seated on Ol’ Sparky’s lap.
Before the end she wrote to Cowboy, assuring him of her eternal love and devotion. She also wrote a letter to the courts–a long overdue letter–confessing that she, not Arkie Burks, had shot Joseph Calloway.
That note didn’t save Arkie; he was hanged on schedule.
And ever since Toni Jo’s execution, the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse has been haunted. Some of it is fairly routine stuff: footsteps, a husky female voice whispering words the hearer cannot ever quite make out, occasional scents of perfume of a type no one has worn since the 1940s.
Then there are phenomena that are not so routine. One such involves a rotating file system in a courthouse office, which has on several occasions been turned on and running smoothly when, unaccountably, it stops; when workers check, the system proves to have been switched off–with no one living within reach of the switch.
There seems to be some debate about where, exactly, in the building Toni Jo’s execution took place. The most usual spot is identified as a stair landing, largely because it is from there that the most alarming phenomenon comes: a woman’s long-drawn-out screams.
Yes, agree workers in the courthouse, there are some strange things go on in that building–
and they are convinced that Toni Jo Henry is the entity behind them.