CNCounty News

Arkansas county’s ‘haunted’ clock tower makes for spooky courthouse

The Desha County, Ark. courthouse. Photo by John Gill via the Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Key Takeaways

Built in 1900, the Desha County Courthouse is one of the oldest still in operation in Arkansas, located in the 366-person town of Arkansas City. Once one of the most important ports on the Mississippi River, the county seat today doesn’t appear from the outside to have too much going on – it never fully recovered from the flood of 1927 – but it does have Willard.

“Willard” is the county courthouse ghost who, according to local lore, has haunted the courthouse clock tower since the early 20th century, when a man was allegedly hanged on the courthouse lawn for burning down hotels. The man pledged his innocence and is said to have declared that he would curse the courthouse for eternity.

There’s no official record of the hanging, but older Desha County residents would swear by it, according to state Rep. Mark McElroy (R), who was the county judge for 20 years. The clocktower hasn’t worked for as long as people in the town can remember, and McElroy made it his goal to fix it when he was elected. He hired a handyman, who was “positive he could fix it,” McElroy said.

“We took the clock out of the tower and he brought it down to Florida, totally refurbished it, brought it back up,” McElroy said. “The thing would ring 13 times, then would ring all night long, then it’d turn off, then it would jump an hour forward, I don’t know how, but it would jump an hour forward during the night. Well, long story short, the guy from Florida came back about 10 or 12 times until finally he said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t guarantee to fix this thing, because it’s haunted.’”

Despite McElroy’s efforts in the early 1990s, the clock tower still doesn’t work. McElroy said he’s experienced Willard himself and has heard other paranormal activity stories surrounding the courthouse, including multiple reports of a female ghost and what McElroy refers to as “spooky things” going on at the courthouse complex and grounds.

“We tried everything in the world,” McElroy said. “I went over there to work on budgets one night because the clock wasn’t ringing, and I thought I could concentrate. I locked myself in the courthouse and we had a tile floor there and all of a sudden, I hear the door open and I hear high heels walking across the floor.

“And I was thinking, ‘Who is this at this time of night?’ And I went to the door and there was a stairway going upstairs toward the clock tower and I heard the door slam, and I went upstairs and no one’s there. And I could feel the cold on the back of my neck – the hair was standing – and I just said, ‘You know, I’ve worked on the budget long enough, I’m going to get out of here.’”

In 2009, McElroy called “ghost hunters,” the Spirit Seekers Paranormal Investigation Research and Intervention Team, to investigate. The ghost hunters used heat sensors that would go off, with certain locations in the courthouse where paranormal activity had been reported being 20 to 30 degrees cooler than the rest. There were no air conditioning vents in the spots, so it had to have been something else, McElroy said.   

“We were sitting there in the dark and then all of a sudden, they were going around and they were getting orbs, those little spheres of some kind of spirits floating around and then little sparklers, just like the ones you get from fireworks, came down from the ceiling and floated across the ceiling and came from one side of the courtroom to the back and I was sitting there with my mouth wide open and one of the newspaper people said, ‘Did you see that?’ and I said ‘Did you see that?’”

When the ghost hunters got to the clock tower — the area with the most reported paranormal activity — none of their cameras or heat sensors, which had worked throughout the rest of the courthouse, functioned correctly.

“Nothing would work up there, everything would just go haywire,” McElroy said.

After the ghost hunters came and confirmed the presence of paranormal activity, the local newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, published an article on Willard and his haunting of the clock tower. The article caught the interest of readers who wanted to experience the paranormal activity for themselves. McElroy said people began requesting to stay in the courthouse, but no one ever made it past 10 p.m.

“One time, schoolteachers went over there and I gave them a key and I said, ‘Y’all just lock up and leave the key on the stone outside the courthouse,’” McElroy said. “When I went back the next morning, the key wasn’t there and the door wasn’t locked. They had left out of there so fast, they were there in that courtroom and all of a sudden they started to hear noises and they got spooked and everybody ran out.”

Happy Halloween!


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