Tens of thousands of criminals move through the halls of justice each year. The turmoil and emotion involved with these cases often leaves behind scars, scars that are imprinted on history. Though the accused, lawyers, judges, law enforcement, and the media eventually move on, these halls echo with ghosts from the past. At Mysterious Heartland, we have found that there are many jails and courthouses in the Midwest alleged to be haunted, but which will prove to be the most haunted of them all?
10. Davenport City Hall
Designed by architect J.W. Ross in Richardsonian Romanesque style, the Davenport City Hall was built in 1895 using Berea sandstone and steel for a cost of around $80,000. It is located at the corner of 4th and North Harrison streets. Today, the Davenport Police Department sits across the street, but prior to 1980, accused criminals awaiting trial were housed at the police station in City Hall. According to legend, upon conviction, prisoners were led up to the bell tower, where they were unceremoniously hanged. This is almost certainly a myth, but that has not stopped many passersby from seeing the figure of a man hanging from a rope in the bell tower. Ghosts of other former prisoners have been seen, as well as a heavyset man smoking a cigar named Hal, who died while attending a City Council meeting.
9. Old Knox County Jail
In 1876, Knox County built a small red brick jail on Cherry Street, across from Knox College’s George Davis Hall. It served in that capacity for a century. After the county built a more modern facility in the late 1970s, Knox College purchased the former jail. It is now home to the Eleanor Stellyes Center for Global Studies, the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and a bicycle repair shop. The basement of the jail is reportedly haunted by a number of tortured spirits from the past. One prisoner, having been recaptured after an escape attempt, committed suicide in his cell. Today, university staff members have been overcome by negative feelings when they approach the old cells. Ghost hunter Troy Taylor, after climbing into solitary confinement, found that his flashlight and camera stopped working, only to work again upon exiting the room. Knox College uses the supposedly haunted cellblock to stimulate discussion about belief in ghosts for a course on death and dying.
8. Old Lake County Courthouse
Crown Point, Indiana
Chicago architect J.C. Cochran designed this beautiful Romanesque and Georgian style courthouse in 1878. Its architecture is thought to be so aesthetically pleasing that it became known as Crown Point’s “Grand Old Lady.” It is also (perhaps appropriately) believed to be haunted. In late January 1934, John Dillinger and his gang were apprehended in Tucson, Arizona and extradited back to the Midwest for trial. Dillinger was arraigned at the Lake County Courthouse and housed, believing it to be escape proof, in the Crown Point Jail. He did, however, manage to escape using a fake gun he carved from a block of wood. No longer used as a courthouse, the building is now home to several shops and restaurants, as well as the Lake County Historical Museum. Today, many visitors claim to have heard strange sounds in the old courthouse, including heavy furniture being dragged across the floor, banging, sighs, and muffled conversation. Some have also smelled the scent of rosewater and have seen an apparition of a petite old lady wearing a white gown.
7. Old Washington County Jail
West Bend, Wisconsin
Now owned by the Washington County Historical Society, the old Washington County Jail is located at 340 South 5th Avenue in West Bend, Wisconsin, just a few short blocks west of the Milwaukee River. Built in 1886, the jail was designed to be both escape proof and home to the county sheriff and his family. It served in that capacity until 1962, when the county built a new jail and turned this building over to the Historical Society. According to J. Nathan Couch, author of Washington County Paranormal, museum staff and visitors have routinely heard strange voices and have seen moving objects and apparitions. One popular legend concerns a former sheriff who allegedly murdered an inmate in a fit of rage and buried his body in the basement. While this story is probably not true, paranormal occurrences continue to the present day, leading the Washington County Historical Society to conduct ghost tours of the facility.
6. Old Porter County Jail
The Porter County Jail began as an unassuming private residence at the corner of South Franklin and Monroe streets in downtown Valparaiso, Indiana. It was built in the 1860s and purchased by Porter County less than a decade later to use as a sheriff’s residence and jail. In 1947, a second story was added to the jail and it could then accommodate up to 36 prisoners. In 1973, the county built a more modern jail, and the Porter County Historical Society acquired the building and called it the Old Jail Museum. That name was changed in 2007 to the Porter County Museum to better reflect their general history collection. Since opening, museum staff have reported a number of odd occurrences, including hearing phantom footsteps, the sound of small stones or marbles skipping across the floor, muffled voices, and groans. Prisoners used to wrap messages around stone marbles and roll them from cell to cell. Shadowy figures have appeared, and several tour groups have witnessed the apparition of a lady wearing a long, old fashioned dress.
5. Freeborn County Courthouse
Albert Lea, Minnesota
Located in south central Minnesota, just north of the Iowa border, Albert Lea is a historic town of 18,000 residents. It was incorporated as a village in 1859 and became the Freeborn County seat. In 1888, Iowa architect C.A. Dunham designed a redbrick Richardsonian Romanesque courthouse on South Broadway Avenue in Albert Lea to replace the older courthouse that was already starting to decay. Originally, the courthouse featured a bell tower and several turrets, which were removed in 1953. On the morning of July 5, 1938, a custodian discovered the bloated body of a red haired man hanging in the bell tower. He had been hanging for two weeks, and any identifying tags or marks had been removed. The identity of the man is still a mystery, and to this day, despite several modern additions to the courthouse, his ghost is believed to roam its halls. Doors reportedly slam on their own, and his apparition has been seen on several occasions. In 2009, a television show called Dead Reckoning filmed a paranormal investigation in the courthouse.
4. Old Allegan County Jail
Located at 113 North Walnut Street, near the Kalamazoo Riverfront in downtown Allegan, the old Allegan County Jail is now home to the Allegan County Historical Society. The building was erected in 1906, with a home for the sheriff and his family in the front and a jail in the back. The new county jail was built across the street in the 1960s, but remnants of the past remained behind. Graffiti still adorns the walls of the basement cells and the juvenile cell on the top floor. Some visitors report seeing a floating streak of light and being touched by unseen hands. Others have heard footsteps in the sheriff’s residence bedrooms and have seen a small figure moving through the kitchen and dining room, where Elsie Runkel, Sheriff Walter Runkel’s wife, cooked dinner for the inmates.
3. Pulaski County Courthouse
Mound City, Illinois
Ghostly encounters at the Pulaski County Courthouse go back at least three decades, and local resident Cleo King has been there in one capacity or another for most of them. The courthouse was built in 1911 and its basement was formerly home to the county jail, before it was recently remodeled. The earliest encounter King recalled was when a fellow student at Lovejoy School, located across the street from the courthouse, saw a man hanging from the tree in the courthouse lawn. No one had been hanged in Pulaski County for many, many years. According to King, the courthouse is haunted by four ghosts. One, the man seen swinging from the tree, was the last man hanged in the county. He usually haunts the former jail in the basement. The other three ghosts are that of an elderly black woman, an anonymous lady called the “Taffeta Woman” who is believed to have died in an accident, and the ghost of a former attorney who makes his presence known with thick cigar smoke.
2. Preble County Courthouse
Located in southwestern Ohio, off Interstate 70 west of Dayton, the Preble County Courthouse sits at the corner of East Main and South Barron streets in downtown Eaton. The original courthouse was built in 1851, but in 1918 a new neoclassical style building was erected in its place. No one is sure of the origin of the ghostly activity, but for years employees have reported strange encounters. Disembodied voices carry down the hallway, and the sound of boots have been heard walking past the fourth floor jail (which is currently closed). Employees have also reported doors and blinds rattling on their own. “You can see them moving and you can hear rattling like a child play with blinds – not just a little bit – but just actually like if they were running their fingers up and down the blinds or moving them back and forth,” Lori Rea told Court News Ohio.
1. Old Jackson County Jail
In 1859, this brick, Federal style house and adjacent limestone jail was built at 211 North Main Street in Independence, Missouri for a cost of over $11,800. It served as the Jackson County Jail until 1933. During that time, it housed several infamous criminals, including Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill and Alexander Franklin “Frank” James, brother of the outlaw Jesse James. On August 25, 1863, Union General Thomas Ewing, Jr. issued Order No. 11, evacuating rural residents in a four county area of western Missouri. Some of those evacuees were housed in the Jackson County Jail. Today, the Jackson County Historical Society maintains the building as the 1859 Jail and Marshal’s Home Museum. Local residents have long considered the old jail to be haunted. In one cell in particular, volunteers will find bedding tussled as though someone was sleeping there, and a psychic once refused to enter the cell. Museum staff have also seen shadowy figures moving in and out of that cell, and have heard the sound of metal bars clanking. Others have smelled the scent of cigars in the former sheriff’s office.