Friday, July 24, 2015

Old Brit Bailey

James Briton Bailey was born in North Carolina in 1779 and married at a young age. He and his even younger wife, Edith Smith, had 6 children over the next 10 years. Sadly, his wife died of an unspecified illness. A year later, "Brit" as he became known, married his deceased wife's sister, Dorothy (nicknamed Dot) which wasn't uncommon in those days. He took his new wife and 6 children with him when he moved to Kentucky where he managed to get elected to the state legislature. He earned a bad reputation for being quarrelsome and confrontational while he served, but apparently everything was fine at home as he fathered 5 more children with Dot. He eventually resigned from the legislature and moved with his large family to Tennessee. There is some indication he was about to be prosecuted for forgery when he left, but no definite proof has been found for this. 

While in Tennessee, Brit enlisted in the military and fought in the War of 1812. In 1818 he once again moved his family along with 6 slaves he had managed to acquire, this time to the wild and wide open spaces of south Texas (still a part of Spanish-ruled Mexico.) Bailey purchased his land from the Spanish government in what would later become Brazoria County between the present-day towns of West Columbia and Angleton south of Houston. On the prairie land in the middle of his property he built a house large enough to accommodate his family and painted it barn red. He built quarters for his slaves, barns, outhouses, sheds, and several storage buildings over the next year and had them all painted the same barn red color.

Everything was fine until 1821 when Mexico won its independence from Spain and the newly installed Mexican government refused to recognize Brit's claim that the land belonged to him. Legal wrangling ensued over the next several years with Bailey refusing to back down an inch and daring anyone to come and try to take his property. In 1824, Mexico granted Stephen F. Austin the right to settle up to 300 Anglo's on land which included Bailey's. Austin tried to force Brit to give up his claim and move along, but Bailey didn't back down from the imposing and strong-willed Austin any more than he did the Mexican government. After numerous confrontations, Bailey informed Austin he was unwilling to move, but more than willing to make him a corpse with his Kentucky rifle. Soon after, Austin recognized Brits claim to a league and labor of land (4,605.5 acres). This land became known as Bailey's Prairie.

There is nothing left of the Bailey
homestead and nobody knows exactly
where Brit stands in his grave.
Over the next 8 years, Brit once again gained a reputation for his eccentric behavior, hard drinking, and being quick to engage in brawls. He remained a constant thorn to Stephen Austin, loudly and often proclaiming his dislike of him. He fought several duels and in true Texas fashion, did things his own way and dared the world to have an opinion about it. 

In late 1832, he became very sick, probably of cholera. On December 5th, while on his death bed but still lucid, he dictated his last will and testament and gave specific directions for his burial. He insisted he was to be buried standing up, "for I never lied to a man in my life and I want no man, on passing my grave, to say, 'there lies old Brit Bailey.'" He wanted to be buried with his face to the west, for he had begun going west when he left Carolina and had never ceased looking toward the setting sun. He wanted to be buried with his trusty rifle at his side with a full horn of powder and his pouch filled with bullets and fresh flints; with his possibles bag filled with pipe, tobacco, strike-a-light and a large chaw and a full jug of whiskey at his feet. He proclaimed the reason for his demands was because, "a man doesn't know how long the road may be and what hazards may be along it and my rifle has never failed me yet and I may be in need of refreshment along the way." Brit died the next day.

"Uncle Bubba," one of Bailey's slaves, dug a shaft grave 8 feet deep in order to bury Brit standing up as he requested. The funeral was held and Brit was prayed over by a local preacher. His body was placed in the hole feet first facing west. Into the grave his wife placed his long rifle, a full horn of powder, his bullet bag full of bullets and flints and his possibles bag loaded with a pipe, tobacco, a strike-a-light and a chaw. However, Mrs. Bailey was a devout Methodist and she simply could not in good conscious put a full jug of corn whiskey in the grave with Brit. She hadn't been able to stop his drinking while he was alive, but she sure could keep the jug away from him now that he was dead.

Very shortly after Brit's death, Dot moved the family to Harrisburg (now part of Houston) and rented out the red house. The first family of tenants moved out suddenly and without explanation just a few weeks after moving in. So did the next and the next and the next. There was a reason. 

The first couple who moved into the Bailey house practiced the most effective form of birth control of the time - they slept in separate bedrooms. Just a couple of nights after moving in, the wife came flying into the husband's bedroom one night and jumped into bed with him. "What's wrong with you, woman?" the husband asked. "There was a man in my room," she exclaimed. "I thought it was you. He was on his hands and knees feeling for something under the bed. I reached out to touch him and my hand went right through him!"

The husband was, of course, skeptical, but the wife refused to spend the night in that room again. Finally, the husband had had enough and decided to sleep in the wife's room to prove it was just her imagination. Shortly after midnight, the husband came running from the room and said, "Not only is there a man in there, but I recognized him. It was old Brit Bailey himself!"

It turns out, the bedroom in question had been Brit's and it was his habit to keep his jug under the bed. Each and every tenant moved out of the house saying they saw Brit Bailey walking around the room that used to be his, obviously looking for something under the bed or in the closet or behind furniture. Eventually, nobody would rent the property. The house and buildings fell into disrepair and crumbled to the ground. Today, no trace of the house remains and nobody knows the exact spot where Brit still stands facing west, but Brit has never left. 

For years afterward, he manifested himself in various ways in and around Bailey's Prairie. His appearances became so well known that even the most skeptical of the hardy settlers believed whole-heartedly in the ghost at Bailey's Prairie. He was still making appearances in the late 1930's when a passing traveler reported seeing a gauzy apparition of a man alongside the darkened road he was driving on. His car abruptly stopped running. The radio came on without his touching it and the antenna started waving around in the air. The windshield wipers, which in those days worked off manifold pressure and wouldn't work at all if the engine wasn't running, began to quickly sweep back and forth. The horn honked and the lights flashed, all without any human actions. The traveler said the phantom looked right at him, then appeared to look into his car before shaking his head and disappearing. When the apparition vanished, the car stopped going crazy, could be started again and driven normally. 

In the late 1940's, an oil well being drilled near the site of the old house collapsed in upon itself every time the bit was removed. When casing was placed in the hole, the casing collapsed inward. There was no known physical reason for either the collapse of the hole or the casing. No other wells in the area had any trouble like this and no fault was found in the casing pipes. The well was finally moved just 20 feet away and no further problems were experienced. Old-timers said the well was being dug too close to Brit's grave and he didn't appreciate it.

Today, a mysterious light is often seen floating around Bailey's Prairie. It appears as a bright, white ball moving about 4 - 6 feet above the ground, the same height a man would hold a lantern. Too many sober, well-respected people have seen it for the phenomena to be dismissed. No scientist has been able to explain what causes what is known as Bailey's Light. Perhaps they should just accept the explanation that has been verbally handed down by generations of area residents - old Brit Bailey is still out there, looking all over for his missing jug of whiskey.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Doing Eternal Time at Alcatraz

The end of the line for scores of America's worst criminals was the prison called Alcatraz, aka "The Rock." For almost 30 years, the damp, dank, fog-enshrouded prison on a rocky outcrop 1 1/2 miles out in the San Francisco Bay kept the public safe from over 1,000 of the baddest of the bad. With the heavy fog, the swirling currents of the freezing water of the bay which totally surrounded the rocky island, the searchlights sweeping the barred windows all night every night and the ominous foghorns, it was a most lonely place to be incarcerated. Those who survived often did so at the cost of their sanity. For some, the cost was even higher - their very souls.

Alcatraz tested the limits of men's endurance, both physical and mental. Over the years, many prisoners reached their limits and attempted suicide. Many of them succeeded. Many more were driven to insanity. One prisoner who worked in the machine shop took a hatchet and, placing his left hand on a wooden table top, methodically began chopping off each finger and then his hand at the wrist, all the while laughing maniacally. He then handed the bloody hatchet to one of the guards, placed his right hand on the table and began begging the guard to chop off his right hand while calmly saying he had no more use for hands. Another inmate used the small blade from a disassembled pencil sharpener to slice the inside of his arms into strips of spaghetti. A third man broke the lenses of his eye glasses and used one of the shards to cut open his jugular vein.

In May, 1946, six of the prisoners managed to overcome five of the guards in an organized escape attempt. The guards were locked in cells 402 and 403 and when the inmates could not find the key which would let them out of the cell block, they used rifles they found in the guards office and shot them, killing two and severely wounding the other three. Other guards, trained troops and even Marines were brought in and began firing into the doors and windows of the cell block. In addition to bullets, the cell block was barraged with tear gas and rifle grenades. Three of the convicts ran back to their cells and lay on the floor behind their water-soaked mattresses while the other three took refuge in a small corridor that ran off from the main passageway. After the guards retook the cell block, the bodies of these three were found riddled by bullets and shrapnel.

 Not long after, prisoners began complaining about noises, moaning and screams, which seemed to come from the corridor where the 3 men had died. Eventually, the iron door was welded shut. In 1976, long after there were no more prisoners or anyone living on Alcatraz, a night watchman heard strange sounds coming from behind the door. After much effort with special tools, the door was once again opened, but nothing was found. Several nights later, the guard heard the noises again and immediately opened the door. As soon as the door was opened, the noises stopped. Shining his powerful flashlight into the maze of pipes and conduits the guard found nothing that could have caused the noises. As soon as he shut the door, the noises began again. For several years, different guards all reported hearing the noises as they made their rounds, but the noises always stopped as soon as they opened the door and nothing was ever found. When the guards began to refuse to go into the area at night, authorities decided to re-weld the door shut. Today, Alcatraz visitors walk right past this door every day and never hear anything, but in the dark of night, long after the last visitor has left the island, guards say if you are brave enough to put your ear to the door, you sometimes will hear the muted sounds of moaning and desperate voices crying out.

Sounds coming from behind welded-shut doors are not the only signs of haunting. Through the years, night watchmen have told of hearing footsteps echoing from upper walkways and voices of long dead men talking. Upon investigation, no rational cause can be found. In the machine shop where the insane prisoner chopped off his own fingers, unexplained loud crazy laughter is often heard.

In the late 1990's, a female National Park Ranger told of working one cold, rainy day when the number of visitors was few due to the weather. She went for a walk in front of A Block and was just past the door which leads down to the infamous dungeons, the cells of solitary lockup where severe and unusually cruel punishment was administered, when she heard a loud scream from down below. Knowing this area was locked and off-limits to tourists, she ran away. When asked why she didn't report it , she stated, "I didn't dare mention it because just the day before, everyone was ridiculing another worker who reported men's voices coming from the hospital ward and when he went to check it out, it was completely empty."

A number of the Rangers and guards talk, off the record of course, about one particular cell in the dungeon, 14D. They all speak of a sudden feeling of intensity, a strange, heavy feeling immediately upon entering the cell. They all will tell you that cell 14D, even on the hottest summer day, is always cold, much colder than the other 3 cells right next to it. 

A guard who worked there in the 1940's told the off-the-record story of solitary confinement in cell 14D. About 1946, one particularly hardened prisoner was locked in 14D for some infraction. Within seconds of being locked in the dark cell, the convict began screaming in terror. Upon being looked in on, he was found to be shaking uncontrollably and crying. He said a a creature with fiery eyes was locked in the cell with him. He begged to be locked up in a different cell, but the guards, used to hearing claims from the prisoners about ghostly spirits walking the catwalks at night, ignored the man's pleas and locked him in the dark again. The man's screams continued on into the night, shouting that he was being attacked by "a devil." Finally, just before the sun rose, there was silence in the cell. When it was time for the man to be fed his breakfast of a single slice of bread and a cup of water, a guard found the man dead, his eyes wide open, a look of horror frozen on his face. There were clear marks of finger prints around his neck. An autopsy showed the man had been strangled to death, but the indention of the prints proved he could not have strangled himself in such a way. Rather than try to explain how someone could have strangled a man while he was by himself in a locked, tiny cell with multiple guards monitoring the cell door all night, his death was officially declared to be of "natural causes." Even stranger, the morning after the man's death, two other guards who had been informed of the man being sent to the dungeon but knowing nothing of his death, reported they were 1 over on their count as the prisoners lined up for their walk to the cafeteria for breakfast. They found the man who had been sent to cell 14D the night before standing at the end of the line. When they began to approach him, he vanished right in front of the guards and several of the prisoners standing close by.

Could it have been just a coincidence that cell 14D was the exact cell where a notorious bank robber and murderer, Henry Young, was locked up for several months after an escape attempt? Guards reported Henry had gone quite insane during his stay in 14D, his eyes "crazy looking" and constant incoherent babbling. He was finally moved back into the general prisoner population where he later murdered another inmate by strangling him. Did Henry leave a piece of his insanity behind in 14D? Or perhaps, did an evil something that already inhabited that place give a part of itself to Henry?

It is said the ghosts of people return to places where they suffered traumatic experiences when alive. Prison guards from the 1940's through 1963 when Alcatraz was finally shut down as a prison, told of experiencing many strange happenings. They told of hearing disembodied voices speaking out, of hearing sobbing and moaning, inexplicable smells, cold spots and spectral prisoners and soldiers who inhabit all parts of the island. Phantom gunshots sent seasoned guards ducking to the ground in the belief that prisoners had escaped and acquired guns. The deserted laundry room sometimes filled with the smell of acrid smoke, but upon investigation, the air would be clear with no evidence of fire. 

James Johnston, the first Warden of Alcatraz, did not believe in ghosts, but even he experienced several unexplained events.  He was once in the middle of personally giving a tour of the facilities to several important visitors when they all heard the unmistakable sound of someone sobbing as they walked past the 4 empty solitary confinement cells in "The Dungeon." Trying to find the source, the warden put his head right next to the wall before quickly leading his visitors from the area. He later swore the sounds were coming from the wall itself. 

One of the most famous prisoners on "The Rock" was Al Capone. Warden Johnston refused to allow any special treatment for Capone, insisting he be treated just like all the other criminals in his prison. As time passed, Capone had very few friends among the other prisoners because he refused to take part in several strikes the convicts tried to stage for better treatment and since he wasn't allowed any privileges the other prisoners didn't have, he wasn't able to dispense gifts or favors to anyone. One of the jobs he was assigned was to mop the halls and he was quickly given the nickname "the wop with the mop" by the other prisoners. Capone learned to play the banjo and for a short time, even played in the prison band, but as the years went by, he slowly began losing his mind due to the harsh conditions of confinement in Alcatraz and an untreated case of syphilis. He was finally admitted to the hospital ward where he would sit unresponsive to people, playing simple snippets of music on his banjo. Guards, tour guides and tourists sometimes hear soft banjo music coming from the hallways Capone called home and the infirmary where he spent his last days on Alcatraz before being transferred elsewhere. 

Could it be the famous gangster himself, his lonely and broken spirit returned to where he lost his sanity? Maybe it's the spirit of a long-forgotten soldier from the days when Alcatraz was a military fort. Or perhaps it's simply one of the other countless spirits condemned to eternally do time on The Rock.