Friday, October 28, 2016

TOP STORY >> Ghosts of Lonoke County Courthouse

Leader staff writer

There are published reports of hangings, a suicide and a death in a dumbwaiter, of a loud bang and a scream at midnight and an early morning ghost sighting by a well-respected and beloved Lonoke County journalist, law- enforcement officers and other residents.

Still, the county judge remains skeptical of ghosts roaming the halls of the Lonoke County Courthouse, but there are others who claim to have heard strange noises and witnessed flickering lights, an old man whose presence can’t be explained but who seems to have the ability to appear or disappear in an instant, and there are unusual office machinery malfunctions that can’t be explained.

For years, rumors of ghosts have swirled around the building that’s nearing it 88th birthday, but the grounds where it was built has a much longer, more colorful history dating to before the Civil War.


Just a few feet from Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin’s office, his assistant, Leigh Kennedy claims her adding machine starts clicking at odd moments and when no one else is around.

“It’s always zeros,” Kennedy says about the key that acts up. She believes the ghost’s fascination with the adding machine means the ghost is a woman.

Her office mate, Jenny Nelson, nods in agreement, but otherwise, she says, she’s seen “nothing strange.”

The judge muses that perhaps Kennedy needs a new calculator.

Two floors above, Margaret Uzzell, court assistant to Circuit Court Judge Sandy Huckabee, has heard her share of noises, including the slamming doors — ones that were open only moments earlier, she says.

“I’ve never seen a ghost but have heard doors shutting and open in the morning before other people have gotten here and in the evening after everyone is gone.”

She tells the story of a prisoner who got stuck in the dumbwaiter and died.

Erwin says, “I’ve heard that story before.”

Uzzell says about the third floor, located just below the old jail, “I just don’t know, but there are things that I can’t explain.”


While Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley says he’s heard stories, Deputy Keith Sorrells, who serves at the courthouse, claims to have heard and seen “things” he can’t explain.

While locking up for the evening, Sorrells says there are strange noises and “lights going on and off” for no reason.

Staley says, “I’ve heard of the (old man) ghost” firsthand and from a trusted source.

Sorrells has heard the same story from others as well.


A few blocks away at the Lonoke County Museum, its director, Sherryl Miller, says the Lonoke County government has a colored past that predates the Civil War and its first courthouse at Brownsville.

The first courthouse was a wooden structure, built in 1847, that burned down about seven years later. The next courthouse and the county jail were built in 1854 but were later torn down by the Union Army.

She says the brick was moved to DeValls Bluff, and it was used to construct ovens to bake bread needed to feed Union soldiers.

The cells and doors from the original jail were saved and used by a local Brownsville farmer as a corn crib.

The county seat was moved from Brownsville to Lonoke in 1873, and the courthouse at Brownsville was dismantled and moved to Lonoke.

In 1928, a new four-story brick courthouse with the county jail on the fourth floor was built. The original jail doors from the Brownsville jail were again recycled and used to secure prisoners on the fourth floor. There are 20 cells, 18 for men and two for women, and the jail opens to the roof, where prisoners could get a little exercise and fresh air.

The original door still hangs on the old jail.

The Lonoke County Courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s a beautiful courthouse,” Miller says.


While Miller has no firsthand experience with ghosts at the courthouse, she says deaths have occurred at the building.

Before construction of the present day courthouse, Miller says, “Henry Burnett was hanged Thursday (Sept. 3, 1885) in the presence of 4,000 people,” according to a newspaper report.

She believes it probably happened on the courthouse lawn as was the tradition at that time.

Tragically in 1893, Lonoke County Judge H.T. Bradford’s son entered the nearby jail and with a gun he found there, he “took his own life,” whether accidentally or on purpose.

He was in the fifth grade.

Erwin tells the tale of a prisoner jumping off the fourth floor’s exercise yard on the roof to the ground below.

He didn’t die but broke both legs.

At one point, coffins for paupers were made onsite.

There’s also an Oct. 27, 1999 article, written by Ed Galucki for the Lonoke Democrat. The now retired reporter turned ghost hunter spent the night at the courthouse with his wife, Sue.

They were awakened at midnight by a gunshot or slamming door and a scream, but Galucki also reported seeing a vanishing old man and an overturned potted plant, among other unexplained events.

In retrospect, Galucki says, “I never did go back, though I wanted to. And yes, I think there is something there.”

He says he has tried to find someone to talk about the old man — perhaps the same one he saw — but, he adds, “I found no one willing to speak for print. They were worried about being thought a little crazy.”


Whether ghosts roam these halls or not, Erwin says he wants to give the old jail new life.

“All it needs is a facelift,” that, Erwin says, includes a good cleaning and a new coat of paint.

Currently, it remains off-limits to the public because it’s filled with decades of court papers — already mountains of papers are being moved to the old county jail at 301 Court St. that was replaced by the new Lonoke County Sheriff Detention Center at 440 Dee Dee Lane.

Each county department gets its own cell for storage, he says.

Erwin believes he could do the work on the cheap, and the old jail with its 162-year-old door and other hardware, as well as the building, could potentially draw tourists to the courthouse, he said.