For the supernaturally-intrigued, historical old East Texas towns like Huntsville are the destination of choice for ghost-pursuing escapades. Huntsville Ghost Tours, the only official guided tour in Huntsville, offers weekly tours on Thursday and Friday evenings beginning around dark at the burial place of General Sam Houston, a renowned Texas hero and the local university’s namesake, in the historic Oakwood cemetery. The guided tour leads travelers from afar and locals alike through historic downtown Huntsville.
Before the tour began, our experienced guides encouraged the use of regular—perhaps even somewhat old-fashioned—cameras rather than cell phone cameras, as ghosts, spirits, orbs, and the like are more inclined to appear in photographs rather than seen by the naked eye. Consistent with pareidolia, which is defined as the perception of religious imagery in natural phenomena, orb backscatter in photography has often been interpreted as an extremely variable range of supernatural paranormal phenomena without verifiability—including secondhand paranormal sightings such as invisible spirits, unexpected lights, auras, angels, orbs, ghosts, etc.
Among Huntsville’s oldest, most haunted locations is Oakwood Cemetery, known among local college students for its unique bronze-turned-dark statue, “The Christus” or “The Comforting Christ,” also often referred to by locals as “Black Jesus,” located in a secluded, dark grove of the cemetery. The statue, dating back to the early 20th century, was commissioned based on a work found in Denmark in memory of the son of a local judge. The Honorable Benjamin Powell and Marian Lee Rather’s son died at a young age during a routine tonsillectomy in Austin. Huntsville locals claim the statue’s eyes are open at times and closed at others; some have even claimed to have seen the statue crying from time to time. As legend has it, the statue’s palms originally face downward and are now found to be turned upwards, as my tour group and I witnessed, sending shivers down the spines of anyone standing nearby. “Peace I leave with you” and “Let not your heart be troubled/Neither let it be afraid” are phrases inscribed on the grave marker, intentioned to bring the Powell family comfort so many years ago. It was at this grave where I captured an “orb” on camera. Evidently, representatives from Houston Ghost Town Paranormal, not affiliated with the Huntsville Ghost Tours, have used divining rods asking questions that could only be answered by someone on the other side. Such investigators claim to have made contact with the child buried in the grave, Rawley Powell, and other souls buried long ago deep within the graveyard. Surprisingly, we learned that the nearby secluded, unmarked graves belong to victims of a yellow fever plague that ravaged through East Texas in 1867, rather than slaves as most had previously presumed. Each night of the tour, a free app called “Ghost Radar” is used to detect spirits and other paranormal activity, offering up information such as the names of those buried in these unmarked graves and clues to unlock secrets of the past. Of the hundreds of graves, only two young boys were able to be identified, as legend has it, by the names pinned onto their shirts. More often than not, multiple bodies were laid to rest in a sole grave prior to modern cemetery planning, particularly in the heat of the plague. Notably, the cemetery is home to the plots of well-known members of Huntsville society, such as the Rather family, later made famous by news anchor and Sam Houston State University alumnus Dan Rather.
Several years ago, professors at Sam Houston State University published Haunted Huntsville, a collection of “Legends, Lore, and Historical Facts.” The collection is sold in local antique stores and contains sought-after information in regards to Huntsville haunts. Unknown even to many locals, the Huntsville Unit, nicknamed the “Walls” Unit, is not only the oldest prison in Texas, but the most haunted by far. It was within these walls that the electric chair, dubbed “Old Sparky” by the inmates, was constructed by Belton Harris, who was convicted in 1914 for the murder of his wife and given a death sentence. Though it has never been officially confirmed nor denied, many suspect that he was later pardoned because of his great contribution to the Texas Prison System. It stands to reason that the home of so-called “Old Sparky” would also be home to spirits who have yet to move on.
A few blocks from the Walls Unit stands old Austin Hall on the university campus. Built in 1851, the oldest building west of the Mississippi, Austin Hall’s long history has made it into a prime location for the origins of paranormal stories and myths. Between students and faculty, numerous claims of ghost sightings, such as a woman in a black Victorian dress looking out the window or a small boy playing nearby; some have even claimed that Sam Houston walks the halls when visitors are present. Once during a university ceremony, attendees were interrupted by the elevator doors unexpectedly opening and closing outside of the ceremony room, attributing it to a “friendly” elevator operator.
Not far from campus is the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery where the unclaimed bodies of TDCJ prisoners are laid to rest. It was here where Chief Satanta was originally buried after his death. After leading brutal attacks on Texas wagon trains, the Kiowa war hero was eventually arrested by General William Sherman and committed to the Huntsville State Penitentiary for a life sentence. He died in 1878 after falling out of a high window in the prison’s hospital. It has been suspected that he jumped, choosing to commit suicide rather than be confined behind bars for the duration of his life, but this has never been confirmed nor denied. Some have alleged that he was pushed by another inmate and are insistent that the Chief would not have ended his own life. His body remained in Huntsville until 1963, when his grandson received permission to transfer his remains to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. A tribal head and marker given by the Kiowa tribe have been left on the hill—but it comes with a curse and consequently has never been moved.
As for the rest of the tour and other local haunts, you’ll have to check it out for yourself. For more information on Huntsville Ghost Tours or ticket reservations call (936) 436-2222 or visit www.huntsvilleghosttours.com.