Every region has legends of haunted locations; from the Winchester Mansion in San Jose, California, to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, to the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Louisiana has more than a few notoriously ghostly locales, such as the Lalaurie Mansion in New Orleans’ French Quarter, the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, and the Hotel Bentley in Alexandria. Southwest Louisiana, too, has stories of sites occupied by (as the old Scottish prayer calls them) “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night.”
Just north of U.S. 190 in Eunice, along the Acadia/St. Landry Parish border, a rough gravel road halts visitors at a barred entry bearing a large warning sign. Past that gate, the road, heavily shaded by overhanging trees on either side, comes out onto a small open field. Off to the right, a life-sized concrete crucifix stands at the entrance to an even smaller plot of graves.
This is Miller Cemetery, which local legends have colloquially rechristened “Headless Cemetery.”
According to the stories, vehicles break down along the gravel road, or won’t restart after parking, while the graveyard itself is purportedly the haunting grounds of a headless apparition. The story says the unskulled spectre is a man, whose tombstone portrait has become unrecognizable so he cannot find his proper resting place.
I went to find out more.
Opening the gate into the waist high chainlink fencing that surrounds the burial plots, one of the first graves one sees bears a disembodied head of Jesus. The grave marker facing the sculpted head doesn’t match, as it bears no pictures, defaced or not.
Strolling through the tombs, I noticed graves so old, they bore no names, and others interred as recently as 2020. Then, there it was. The tomb of Faustin Fruge, born 15 August 1892; died 6 December 1947. The face of his picture, affixed to the gravestone, is obliterated. One might think it had been burned away, had it not been laser etched on a stone plaque.
What might have Mr. Fruge done in 55 years of life, so that his gravestone portrait became defaced, and he might be haunting this cemetery? Further research turned up his obituary, and the answer is…apparently nothing.
A native of Eunice, Fruge was a well-respected farmer in Mamou, married, with grown children. It wasn’t sudden, either, for according to the obituary he had been battling an illness for nine months.
Further west and north of the “Headless Cemetery,” you’ll find the “Hanging Jail.” Even the names for the architectural style of the DeRidder Jail— “gothic revival” or “collegiate gothic”— conjure up creepy impressions, as does the building itself. Built in 1914 and used to house prisoners until 1984, the building is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, due to the singularity of its design.
The building has three stories above ground, with a central spiral staircase, and a subterranean tunnel connecting the jail to the courthouse next door. The jailer stayed on the first floor, which also contained a single prison cell. The second and third floors each have four more cells, and, uniquely, every cell has its own toilet, shower, lavatory, and window. The walls of the entire building are solid concrete, a full foot thick, and while it could house up to 50 inmates at a time, none ever managed to escape.
The second floor, with windows visible from U.S. Highway 171 which passes by the jail, was used to house the less violent, as well as any female prisoners. The stone floor retains scars where a second set of bars was installed to prevent potential traffic accidents.
“Rumor has it that the women would try to hang out the windows, and even remove their tops to flash cars as they went by,” Beauregard Parish Tourism director Lori Darbonne explained.
However, it’s not the style of the building nor tales of the Mardi Gras-esque exhibitionism of some of its former tenants that brings visitors willing to pay for guided tours of the vacant structure. Instead, it’s the building’s alleged haunting by two convicted murderers whose tragic tale led to the gothic structure earning the “Hanging Jail” nickname.
It was a steamy evening near the end of August 1926, when Molton Brasseaux and Joe Genna hired a taxi to take them from DeRidder, so they could visit their “girlfriends” in the LaSalle Parish sawmill village of Tullos. It was a trip of more than 100 miles, one way, but 45-year-old taxi driver J.J. “Joe” Brevelle never made it out of Vernon Parish. Some 13 miles into the trip, Genna and Brasseaux killed Brevelle by hitting him in the head with a hammer, then stabbing him to deliver the coup de grace. They robbed the body of $14 and dumped it in the mill pond in Pickering. Then the pair made off with Brevelle’s vehicle.
Boys fishing in the pond discovered the body two days later, and the burned-out chassis of the car was found well south of the scene, on the Louisiana side near the ferry that crossed the Sabine River into Orange, Texas. The taxi company’s dispatch records led to the arrests of Genna and Brasseaux, who subsequently confessed and, despite offering insanity pleas, were convicted and sentenced on Dec. 11, 1926 to death by hanging.
According to a newspaper report of the executions, Joe Genna tried to take matters into his own hands by ingesting poison the day before the scheduled hangings. But on March 9, 1928, the noose was tied to the grate of bars above the third floor section of the central stairs, and thence put over each man’s head. Each was, in turn, required to step off into the central open space of the spiral staircase. Joe Genna was pronounced dead at 1:08 p.m.. He was 25 years old. Molton Brasseaux, age 26, was pronounced dead of a broken neck at 1:29 p.m.
Genna is buried in Lake Charles. Brasseaux is interred in Erath.
Their restless spirits remain in Deridder’s gothic jail. Or so they say.
The Calcasieu Courthouse in Lake Charles is also reputed to be haunted, by the ghost of the only woman ever executed in Louisiana’s electric chair.
Born in Shreveport on Jan. 3, 1916, Anna Beatrice McQuiston had a difficult childhood. Her mother had tuberculosis and Anna, at age 13, went to work at a macaroni factory to try and help. After her mother succumbed to the illness, Anna was fired because it became known there was TB in the family. Her dad beat her for losing that job, and Anna left home. Without other marketable skills, the girl became a prostitute and began using the name Toni Jo Hood. She knocked around Louisiana and Texas, following the oil boom, its men and their money.
While working in Austin, one of her customers, Claude “Cowboy” Henry, fell in love with her, and they got married November 25, 1939. Henry had at least one skeleton in his closet and after returning to Texas from their honeymoon in Southern California, the law caught up with him. Less than two months into their marriage, Toni Jo’s husband had been tried and found guilty of killing a former San Antonio policeman, Arthur Sinclair. “Cowboy” Henry was sentenced to 50 years in prison and sent to the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville.
It didn’t take Toni Jo long to decide to bust her husband out of prison. She hooked up with an Army deserter and ex-con, Harold “Arkie” Burks, who claimed to know the prison layout. On Valentine’s Day 1940, they initiated a less-than-foolproof plan.
They began by hitchiking. They caught a ride with 42-year-old Joseph P. Calloway, a car salesman who was delivering a Ford coupe to a friend. Before long, the pair pulled guns on Calloway and had him pull over. They robbed him and then stuffed him in the trunk. On a country lane among rice fields near Lake Charles, they stopped and had Calloway get out and strip (Toni Jo later reportedly said she wanted the man’s clothes for her husband to wear in the escape). She shot Calloway in the head, and they left his body, covered with rice straw, in the field.
With plans to rob a bank prior to executing the jailbreak, Toni Jo and “Arkie” drove north. By the time they reached Camden, Arkansas, Burks had worried himself into a panic over what else Toni Jo might do. He left her and took off in the car. She caught a bus and went to Shreveport to stay with an “aunt.”
Of course, she had to explain why she needed shelter, and the whole sordid tale came tumbling out. Unbeknownst to Toni Jo, that “aunt’s” brother was a Louisiana State Trooper, and she shared the story with him. Toni Jo was arrested by Shreveport police. She confessed to them too, telling them where Calloway’s body had been hidden.
Toni Jo Henry’s initial trial at the Calcasieu Courthouse in Lake Charles, held March 27-29, 1940, aroused a publicity frenzy that was highly unusual for that time and place. She was, after all, pretty and a female accused of murder. Plus, she faced the death penalty if convicted. During the trial, Toni Jo claimed Burks fired the shot that killed Calloway, but the jury convicted her and sentenced her to death by hanging.
Toni Jo’s lawyers appealed, citing the prejudicial nature of the publicity, and she was tried for the second time, in February 1941. This time Burks, her accomplice, took the stand and blamed it all on Toni Jo (He’d already been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death). Again the verdict against her was “guilty” with an accompanying death sentence. Again there was an appeal, and again a new trial was ordered.
Toni Jo Henry’s third and final trial at the Calcasieu Courthouse was held in January 1942, and the jury verdict and sentence did not waver from the previous two results. What did change was, however, denial of her appeal on this conviction. Likewise her clemency plea, tendered to then-Gov. Sam Houston Jones, was denied.
Four days before her scheduled execution on November 28, 1942, Claude “Cowboy” Henry escaped from prison, trying to come see her one last time. Like so much during their marriage, that didn’t work, as he was captured in Beaumont and returned to the prison at Huntsville.
Between Toni Jo’s second and third trials, the state Legislature had changed Louisiana’s mode of execution – from hanging to the electric chair. As state law also required that executions take place in the parish where the crime was committed, the state had a van to transport the electric chair and its supplemental generator around.
Two days after Thanksgiving, in the basement of the Calcasieu Courthouse, Toni Jo Henry was strapped into “Gruesome Gertie” (as the chair came to be called) and the switches were thrown, reportedly dimming the lights in downtown Lake Charles as Toni Jo died.
Now when items go missing or equipment in the building malfunctions, most who work there nervously laugh as they blame it on Toni Jo. But they say you can still smell her burning hair in the basement.
Big Woods Cemetery, northeast of the Calcasieu Parish town of Vinton, has been in continuous use as a burial site since 1844, so it’s unsurprising that folklore of phantoms have been part of local legend for generations. Current stories include that of a shadowy figure at the gate, whose crossing the path ahead of you is an admonition to go no further, and generalized warnings that paranormal phenomena in the area can disrupt and/or damage electronic devices, including watches and cell phones.
The most persistent tales of supernatural manifestations, though, center on sightings of strange glowing orbs. That is actually the most Halloween-y thing of all these Southwest Louisiana spooky legends.
Known as “marsh lights” or “will-o’-the-wisps,” the ignis fatuus (Latin for “foolish fire”) has both a long history in folklore and a very real scientific explanation.
Tales that have come down to us from Europe tell of travelers wandering near the marsh at night and spotting a light in the distance would think it the glow from a candle in a home’s window.
Following the light deeper into the bog, they would become lost and either die of cold or drown. One of the legends says it’s the spirit of a man named Jack, who was denied entry to the afterlife, so he haunts the bogs and fens with a homemade light, made of a burning piece of coal inside a carved out turnip. Thus “Jack with the lantern” ultimately became “jack-o-lantern.”
The science involves gas bubbles produced by anaerobic bacteria feeding on dead plant material. These microorganisms produce methane, a flammable gas, as a by-product. Bubbles of methane can get trapped under the stagnant waters of a swamp, only to be released by any physical disturbance of the water.
But, in the absence of an applied flame, how does the methane in an uninhabited wetland ignite to form one of these glowing orbs of light? Recent studies indicate other organisms that thrive in the oxygen-deprived waters of bogs produce phospine gas. When it rises from the water and encounters ample oxygen in the air it reacts, forming phosphoric acid, which spontaneously combusts – igniting the methane bubbles and creating the mysterious-looking marsh lights.
So as you go a-haunting this Halloween, remember to beware the lure of jack-o-lanterns. You don’t want to lose your way…or your head.