Newspaper Article, October 31, 2003
Special thanks to Corpus Christi Caller-Times and to Mike Baird for the wonderful write up.
Past haunts the old courthouse
Paranormal group gathers tales of lives lost
By Mike Baird Caller-Times October 31, 2003
A skeleton once attended a trial at the old Nueces County Courthouse. The historic building served as a gruesome makeshift morgue during one of the town's worst tragedies. But on this Halloween night, don't search for ghosts in the gallows because it was never used.
The South Texas Paranormal Society has found a few ghost _stories in the old courthouse. Here's an example from the society's Web site, an account submitted by a former sheriff's deputy:
"On nights that the moon shined into the cells on the south side you could see the figure of an older woman in old-fashioned clothes sitting on one of the bunks in an unused cell unit. The story goes that she died in the cell back in the early '40s, before there was a jail crew at night to check on things, and that she came back on these moonlit nights. We also had an intercom system strung through the cell units so we could hear anything going on and sometimes on the one for that area you could hear someone crying. The female inmates would complain about the sobbing keeping them awake. When a jailer and matron would go check, it would stop until they left again. This would happen even when the female section was empty."
The Web site doesn't mention the courthouse's role in the 1919 hurricane. But if spirits of the dead should swarm sites of great despair tonight, those hallowed halls of justice would fill with restless images proclaiming the human tragedy.
The hurricane brought flood waters that buried downtown Corpus Christi. People leashed themselves to cows, or clung to their children and spouses while gripping uprooted telephone poles as they were swept by in the flood.
The courthouse, built in 1914 on a rise, stood alone in the midst of the storm's chaos. Entire rooftops of houses and buildings became the pontoon islands of citizens riding the torrents of destruction.
Men seeking refuge in the aftermath of the hurricane at the courthouse formed a human chain across Belden Street to scoop the struggling survivors and the dead into the building. The men remained locked arm-in-arm for several hours, sifting oil-slicked bodies and seaweed-entangled survivors from the raging waters that demolished the downtown with 11-foot tidal waves.
Hundreds of bloated and unrecognizable bodies were lined in rows in the courthouse basement - oil-soaked and mutilated.
The official tally was 284 dead, but those who were there said there were many lost and never seen and that the number totaled more than 600. About 2,500 people found solace and safety in the upper floors of the building.
Lucy Caldwell, a teacher from Terrell, wrote an account of the hurricane in a letter to her mother after visiting the courthouse basement morgue: "And, oh, the condition they were in. Arms and legs and heads almost severed, some with all the hair gone, swollen beyond description, and black from oil, hair entangled with seaweed, and bodies so mutilated that identification was impossible."
The old courthouse hosted several spooky epochs that conjured lingering memories for generations.
A local attorney instigated a shock tactic by dragging the skeleton of a murder victim into a courtroom for jurors to see the indentations in its skull. The attorney professed that a ball-peen hammer was used to bludgeon the man.
A hangman's gallows and two death cells were built with a trap door for hangings, common local practice on previous courthouse grounds. But the state took over the responsibility of carrying out executions before the courthouse gallows could be used, and the room where feet would have danced their last became a kitchen instead.
The first officially sanctioned hangings in Nueces County were on Friday, Aug. 7, 1874. Two men caught by a posse were found guilty of killing four men in a raid on a one-store community called Penascal, on Baffin Bay. The gallows were built extending out from the second-floor balcony of the first courthouse, built before the Civil War, which the county outgrew in the 1870s. It was replaced with The Hollub Courthouse, finished in 1875, only three decades before voters approved a $250,000 bond issue for the third, now "old" courthouse.
County commissioners early this year approved a contract for local architects to design and oversee restoration work on the historical building. Local fundraisers have devoted $749,500 in pledges, and Friends of the Courthouse and the Nueces County Historical Society surrendered $97,000 for the project. More than $650,000 has rolled in since from local contributors.
But the memories of the macabre events that are part of the building's history will linger as long as the structure survives.
To see the ghostly stories that the South Texas Paranormal Society has dug up on the old courthouse, go to www.angelfire.com/sk2/stparanormal/index.html and click on Nueces County Courthouse.