Monday, March 23, 2015

Court Is In Session And The Gallows Await

It was an unusually hot day in Fort Smith, Arkansas. A crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle and as they impatiently stood in a semi-circle facing the large wooden structure, the sun beat down on the men's hats and the ladies parasols and a hot wind swirled dust across the children's bare feet as they played chase. Finally, a group of armed lawmen led by the sheriff escorted six dirty, unshaven men from the jailhouse. Four of the men had faces filled with fear, one of them openly crying, while the other two men had a bearing of insolence and pure evil as if they didn't care what happened to themselves, much less anyone else. All had their hands securely bound behind their backs and leg chains fastened around their ankles.

The six men were led up the wooden stairs and onto the wooden-planked floor of the gallows. The crowd of spectators was quiet as the condemned men stared back at them. The one among them who was crying, the youngest one, kept repeating, "I'm sorry, Mama! I'm sorry!" The ropes were placed around their necks while a preacher prayed aloud for their souls. Without warning, the hatch underneath each man's feet opened and all six dropped to their deaths. Five of them hung there limp in a quick death from the broken neck caused by the hangman's noose, but one of them, the young crying man, twitched and kicked for several minutes until, unable to breath, he joined his fellow murderers and rapists in death. It was 1891 and such was the fate of men who broke the law in the "Hanging Judge's" territory.

Fort Smith Courthouse where Judge Parker dealt
harsh punishment to criminals.
For 21 years, from 1875 - 1896, Judge Isaac Parker was the federally appointed judge for the Fort Smith territory. This territory stretched across the western half of Arkansas and all of Indian Country, what is now Oklahoma. During this time, Judge Parker would preside over 12,000 cases. Of those who came before him for sentencing, 160 were slated to die at the end of a rope. 81 of those either were spared with long prison sentences or died of other causes before they could be hung, leaving 79  to end up with a noose around their necks. Judge Parker was actually against the death penalty, but his hands were tied when it came to murderers and rapists as the law then had only one punishment for such crimes and that punishment was death. 

Fort Smith Courthouse. Jail cells on bottom floor is
where condemned men waited to be hung on the
gallows (in background).
Perhaps his guilt over ordering the death of so many is the reason he still haunts his courthouse and gallows. Thousands of visitors now come to see the preserved courthouse and gallows in Fort Smith, to stand and see where so many men were executed. Many of them report odd feelings, an uneasiness while walking the grounds, especially when standing on the gallows where so many condemned souls once stood and breathed their last.

Many of the employees and volunteers manning the historical site tell of seeing the ghost of Judge Parker sitting at his desk as if waiting for the next case. The sound of his gavel slamming down is often heard when there is nobody in the courtroom. One former employee told of the experience she had which caused her to quit and not return. She was working by herself late one evening, closing up the courthouse and cleaning in preparation for the next day's visitors. After completing her duties and making one last round to ensure nobody was still in the building before locking the doors, she was turning off the lights when she came to the courtroom. Just before flipping the light switch, she heard what could only be the sound of a gavel being repeatedly struck against Judge Parker's bench. She quickly turned to look, but saw no one. She felt a cold draft of air wash over her and then, distant voices began to be heard. Slowly, they became louder, the voices of angry men. They were shouting and she clearly heard the sound of the gavel banging down over and over. She whirled around and around desperately looking for anyone in the room, but there was nothing except those sounds. Then she was startled to see a heavy mist forming around the defendant's table and as it became heavier, it began to spread across the whole room. Just before the mist reached her, she bolted out of the door, down the hall and out of the building. Not even stopping to lock the outer door, she ran through the dark to her car and drove straight home. She called her supervisor and told him what happened. He agreed to meet her in the parking lot of the courthouse where she gave him her set of keys to the building and left. Her supervisor told her later he had gone into the building to check it out and all was quiet as a mouse, but she refused to ever go back.

Another employee named Jessica told of her own experience at the gallows one day. She was standing just below the structure keeping an eye on the tourists, making sure nobody defaced or damaged it. She caught a movement on the gallows itself out of the corner of her eye and when she turned to look, she gasped as she saw a man there hanging from the middle of the hanging beam with a noose around his neck. He appeared to be in his 30's wearing dirty clothes, dusty, worn-out boots and was obviously dead. At first, her mind told her it must be an actor, they must be doing a reenactment, but then surely, she thought, they wouldn't have such a gruesome display where children were running around.

Behind that wooden fence is the gallows where 79
men dropped to their death and the jail cart
which brought them to Judge Parker's court.
She watched the hanged man for a minute and then looked around to see the reaction of others, but realized nobody else was looking at him. It became obvious she was the only one seeing this ghostly image of death as she watched several tourists walk right through the man. For several seconds Jessica held her breath and simply stared at the specter with his head tilted at a grotesque angle where the noose had snapped his neck. Even though they were outside, the air seemed to have been sucked away. The birds stopped chirping and all sound disappeared into complete and total silence. Suddenly, the dead man's eyes opened and he was intently looking straight at her! Jessica tried to scream, but no sound came forth. She tried to run, but her legs wouldn't move. The long-dead outlaw then slowly began to grin; a hideous sideways smile showing his blackened teeth and wormy tongue. This horrified Jessica so much that she was finally able to look away. When she got the courage to take a peak again, the apparition was gone.

Judge Parker and the men he hanged obviously still inhabit the area, forever damned with no possibility of parole to a better place. With all of the death and anguish that took place on these grounds, there can be no doubt there is a horrible scar on the fabric of time. If you have the courage to visit, be sure to obey the laws. The punishment around here can be severe.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Well Preserved Julia

The Mount Carmel Cemetery is located in the Chicago suburb of Hillside and is the forever resting place for many of Chicago’s gangsters, including Al Capone. Consecrated in 1901, there are over 200,000 people buried there.  In spite of the many notorious bad men laid to rest within its grounds, Mount Carmel is most famous for the spirit known as “The Italian Bride.”

Born in 1892, Julia Buccola Petta died at the age of 29 while giving birth to a stillborn son 10 months after getting married. Her funeral is held 2 days later on March 19 and she is laid to rest wearing her wedding dress and holding her son in the crook of her right arm.
Five years later, her mother, Filomena, and father moved to California. It was during this time that Filomena began having nightmares about Julia. Every night, Julia would come to her begging to be dug up.  The dreams disturbed Filomena so much that she couldn't sleep and began having health problems. She almost had a nervous breakdown thinking her daughter had been buried alive. She traveled back and forth to Chicago several times over the next year to get an order of exhumation.

In 1927, more than 6 years after Julia’s death and burial, her grave was opened and the deteriorated coffin unearthed.  To everyone’s shock, Julia’s baby and her right arm which held the baby were both badly decomposed, but the rest of her body was in perfect condition; as if she had just laid down to take a nap. Even her cheeks retained the rosy red color they had before her death. The wedding dress she was buried in remained as white as the day she was laid to rest. There was no evidence she had been buried alive, but she looked so “normal” that several people in attendance reached out and actually touched Julia’s skin. They reported that although cold, it was still soft. To document this miracle, a picture was taken of the body as it laid in the mud-caked coffin.

An elaborate new monument with a life-sized statue of Julia was commissioned by her brother later that same year. Engraved on it are two messages from her mother, Filomena. The message on the front states, “Filomena Buccola Remembrance of my Beloved Daughter Julia Age 29 yrs.” On the back, in Italian is carved, “Filomena Buccola I offer this gift to my dear daughter Julia.” Embedded in the monument are 2 pictures of Julia wearing her wedding dress on her wedding day and the picture taken of her well-preserved body when her coffin was opened.  For some unknown reason, only Julia’s maiden name and not her married name of Petta is engraved in the monument.

Shortly after Julia was exhumed, stories of her ghostly presence began to circulate. Numerous cemetery night watchmen and policemen patrolling a beat around the cemetery have reported seeing a white mist or fog which hovers around Julia’s grave but nowhere else in the graveyard. Mysterious orbs of light have often been observed floating around her monument.  Cemetery visitors with no knowledge of Julia’s story have reported the strong smell of roses as they passed her grave, but there are no flowers are in evidence on or anywhere nearby. One of Julia’s favorite pastimes as she was growing up was working in the flowerbeds around her parent’s house where she tended her mother’s rose bushes.  An apparition fitting the description of Julia wearing her flowing white bridal dress and wandering around her grave has been reported so many times that the cemetery caretakers are no longer surprised and don’t even bother to investigate. One family told of attending a late afternoon burial ceremony and through miscommunication and misplaced understandings, a young 4-year-old boy was left behind for a few minutes. Once they reached the car, the realized the lad wasn’t with them so they rushed back to the cemetery grounds only to be totally surprised to see their son walking down the path toward them and holding the hand of a beautiful, young woman wearing a white wedding dress. As the young boy saw his parents, he let go of the lady’s hand and rushed toward them. When the parents and older children looked up to thank the lady, she had disappeared without a trace. The little boy told of being alone and crying because he was scared and then a kind lady came and told him to not be afraid, she would take him to his mommy and daddy.

Some spirits appear quiet happy and content to remain a part of this mortal realm. One day, Julia will no doubt move on to the next phase, but until then, it seems there is nothing to be frightened of in Mount Carmel Cemetery. Even the notorious bad boys are resting in peace there.