On the evening of Thursday, June 10, 2010 I went to prison – not as an inmate, but as a researcher. The Huntsville Unit Penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas is an ominous red brick structure jutting up from the East Texas hillside. The ‘Walls,’ as it has commonly been called for decades, is the oldest prison in Texas and it still currently processes and houses inmates. Stories of ghostly apparitions and strange noises abound, and it’s no wonder; history has been made here. Texas leads the country in the number of inmate executions every year, and this is where all of them are carried out.
There are two death houses here, though only one currently remains operational. From 1924 to 1964 Texas executed inmates via the electric chair. A total of 361 condemned individuals rode the “thunderbolt” into the afterlife, paying the ultimate price for the crimes they had committed. “Old Sparky” now resides at the Texas Prison Museum, also located in Huntsville. Today, inmates on Death Row are put to death by means of lethal injection.
I will admit that I was initially drawn to Huntsville and the prison museum to see the electric chair, wondering if it held residual energy from its past. As it turns out, the electric chair draws more people to the museum than any of the other displays; this, according to the museum’s director and retired warden of the Walls, Jim Willett.
I fully expected to see Old Sparky front and center immediately after walking in the front door, but I didn’t. Instead, it was sitting at the back of the museum with a singular light shining directly down on it, and a faux red brick façade directly behind it. This is how the chair would have looked when it was still in use over at the Walls, and its image momentarily took my breath away.
My husband and I had decided to carry our digital recorder in for our visit, though we didn’t truly expect to capture anything out of the ordinary on it. It has become more of a habit of ours than anything, so we left it running the entire time we were there. As we walked away from Old Sparky, my husband pointed out the display of inmate-made weapons and we spent several minutes studying how creative (and destructive) many of them were.
When my husband sat down to review the recording, he discovered an unknown male voice speaking while we were standing at the weapons display. He moans as if in a great deal of pain and says, “Now…I’m bleeding.” I sent the unedited clip to Mr. Willet who found it just as interesting. He had never before heard anything like it, nor had he suspected that anything paranormal had ever happened in the museum. I went in with the pre-conceived notion that if we got anything on tape, it would have been near the electric chair. It just goes to show you that when it comes to the paranormal, pre-conceived notions will almost always fail you.
Before leaving the prison museum, I noticed a book in the gift shop area entitled, Warden: Texas Prison Life and Death from the Inside Out and it was written and signed by Jim Willett. I purchased a copy, and began devouring it on the trip back home. It was a fascinating read. Honest, insightful, and not at all a sensationalized account of his three decades working for the Texas prison system. I appreciated his empathy for both inmates and co-workers, and the detail he provided about a specific part of his job as warden that he did not enjoy – inmate executions. One thing in particular stood out to me in his book. In the epilogue, Jim writes:
“Old Sparky, the most popular attraction in the Texas Prison Museum, never seemed as intimidating in its display setting as it had when I used to take a squad of convicts into the death house to clean. It had been in its natural element back then, in the place it had done its gruesome work, in that dark little room, always either too hot or too cold, where inmates felt the presence of ghosts. Here, behind three glass walls and in front of a panel of fake red bricks, it never made me think of an arrogant lion, full of its prey. Now it looked more like a trophy in a taxidermist’s collection.”
My visit to the museum that day (coupled with the intrigue of Jim’s book) did more than educate me on the history of life for inmates in the Texas prison system. It sparked within me a desire to go and personally see what life – and death – was like from inside prison walls; the Walls.
Not being a native Texan, I was initially taken aback by the amount and frequency of executions in the state. I have lived all over the country and have never been as aware of capital punishment as I have become since moving to Texas three years ago. Being a paranormal researcher, my thoughts went immediately to the possibility that either the location of these executions (the death house) or the items involved in them (i.e. the electric chair or lethal injection gurney) might have some residual energy attached to them. After all, the events that have taken place in these situations are very emotionally charged and traumatic, not only for the individual sentenced to death, but also for those whose jobs require them to participate in delivering the punishment.
I wanted in to the prison, and proceeded to send a series of letters to the current Warden’s office requesting a possible visit. I was becoming fairly discouraged after several weeks passed and I did not hear back. But alas, all hope was not lost. An associate of ours with the Denton Area Paranormal Society, Royce Ball (who also happens to work for the TDCJ) had recently submitted a request to investigate and had been approved. She was kind enough to extend an invitation to me and a couple members of my team, The Paranormal Source, Inc. to accompany her. We eagerly accepted her invitation and waited as the days slowly inched toward our night in.
The much anticipated moment arrived, and as we walked up the stairs to the entrance, I began to feel a bit nervous. Here I am doing everything I can to get IN while so many inside the prison desire nothing more than to get OUT. I left my ID with the guard, signed in, and walked with the others down the gated entryway. Our bags were searched, we were patted down and wanded to make sure we weren’t carrying any sort of weapon or contraband. That in and of itself was an experience I never thought I’d have.
Our group consisted of six individuals. My husband Allen and Jerry Bowers, one of our board members, made up our half of the team while Royce and two other individuals from DAPS made up the other. We began a tour of the prison with Officer Seitz, who was very helpful in relaying information about each area we were led into. First, was the East Building. Inmates are no longer housed here, and have not been for quite some time. A majority of the ghost stories told by guards emanate from this section of the prison, but we still had other areas to venture into before officially beginning our investigation. With my recorder in hand (and running) Officer Seitz then escorted us to a building that people generally want to keep clear of – the current death house.
Even if I had entered that building with no previous knowledge as to what it actually was, I truly believe I would have felt the same ‘heavy’ feeling I did as I stepped over that first threshold. Whether I was for or against capital punishment was irrelevant at that moment; I was deeply impacted by the reality of the room in which I was standing. Certain people walk into this room alive, and are never able to walk out of it again. At the same time, the Warden and various prison employees assisting in executions make several trips in and out on a fairly regular basis. While it is simply a matter of conjecture, I assume that their emotions imprint on that environment as well; not just the men and women who are put to death here, or the witnesses who watch from behind a pane of glass.
I stood at the head of that gurney, absolutely loving and hating my presence there simultaneously. I was thrilled as an investigator, and torn as just another regular human being. The group took a few more moments to ask a couple of questions, and Officer Seitz led us back out of the death house.
It was about dusk when we were taken out into the prison’s recreation yard. We needed to cross it to make our way into another building where the old death row and execution chamber were housed. This, too, was a place I did not expect to be – standing in the middle of a hundred or more convicts, all dressed in white and all eyes on us.
Several minutes later, we had entered another building and made our way down a couple of hallways until we reached the prison’s pill line room. Inmates line up here to receive their daily medications. It is well lit, air-conditioned, with rails running the length of the room to keep the inmates moving through in an orderly fashion. This room has a darker past, however, as this is where Old Sparky had executed the 361 condemned individuals when death by electrocution was still being imposed by the state. I wondered if the inmates today had any idea, or if it even mattered either way.
Recording audio in this room was impossible, as the air-conditioning system and a large fan were running. Still, I was glad I had the opportunity to see it.
Next up was the old death row. The yellow paint was peeling away from the walls and ceiling; the heavy cell doors showing the same wear. At one point or another, the prison had stopped using this area to house inmates, and now it just sits, dark and decaying. Poetry and other various phrases had been written inside some of the cell walls, along with names, dates, and calendars of days long passed. We’d be back to this section of the prison later in the night to investigate, but it was time to set up shop and begin in the East Building.
We’d taken in a limited amount of equipment in the interest of keeping to the prison’s security standards, so we were armed with just the simple tools of the trade – EMF meters, digital audio recorders, digital cameras, video cameras, flashlights, lasers, and of course, notebooks. The group split up into teams of two, and Allen and I began the night back near the old solitary confinement cell. I sat on a set of stairs facing the cell; the wood so worn down by the years of foot traffic they had seen.
About thirty minutes into an EVP session, something touched my left leg about halfway between my knee and hip. Seconds afterward, Allen saw something cast a very distinct shadow down from the catwalk above me, and as he went to chase after it with the video camera, he stumbled a bit on a raised area of concrete on the floor. The shadow vanished just as quickly as it had appeared. As it so often goes, we were not able to capture the shadow on video.
Jerry later reported to me that he had an odd experience in this area as well.
“I was sitting on the window ledge in the third window south of the isolation cell in the east building. I had a sudden and very sharp pain in my head above my left eye on my forehead. I had no idea where it came from, but it passed fairly quickly.”
Unfortunately, I did not experience anything further in this building that I could label as paranormal. However, the night was not over. We still had time to spend back on the old death row cell block. Shift change had come and gone, so a new guard was assigned to escort us back. His first name was Lou and had been working at the prison for over two decades. I did not catch his last name. He was pretty quiet, answered our questions when we had them, and kept mostly to himself as we went about our business.
My husband set up a couple of laser grids, one at each end of the block. We all fell silent as we intently watched for movement to disrupt the laser pattern. Visually, nothing happened. However, upon review of our audio, my husband discovered a disturbing scream that could not be otherwise accounted for. None of us had heard a thing, yet there it was… a voice piercing through the silence, obviously in distress. Who the individual was, we’ll probably never know for sure.
It was a long, hot, and humid evening, but it was well worth it for me. As we all gathered back over in the East Building, we discussed how fortunate we had been to have had the experience of investigating the Walls, and how we hoped to return one day to further experience whatever activity may be likely to occur. We collected our gear, waited for the guard to buzz us through the gate, and thanked everyone on our way to the front entrance. I signed out, reclaimed my I.D. and walked through the front door. As I reached our car across the street, I stared back up at that red brick building and said to my husband, “If these walls could talk, I imagine they would tell us some pretty fascinating stories.”
All photographs (except cover image of WARDEN) © April Slaughter
The Texas Prison Museum
Warden: Texas Prison Life and Death from the Inside Out
Written by Jim Willett and Ron Rozelle
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice