Henry Wells' Lightning Portrait – Carrollton, Alabama - Atlas Obscura

Henry Wells' Lightning Portrait

Carrollton, Alabama

The terrified face of Henry Wells is etched on this garret window. 


The Pickens County Courthouse in Carrollton, Alabama, burned to the ground in 1876.

The citizens of the town were convinced that the man responsible was Henry Wells, a former slave. When Wells was apprehended two years later, he was locked inside of the garret of the new courthouse, kept there to prevent citizens from getting to and lynching Wells.

A mob formed outside of the courthouse and chanted through the days and nights. A terrified Wells watched from his room in the courthouse. How do we know he was terrified? Because when a bolt of lightning hit the window during a storm, his face was permanently imprinted on a pane of glass. Some of the ghost stories that continue to surround the courthouse say that the lightning bolt ended up killing Wells; others say that the man died from injuries he received while trying to escape.

In the lower right-hand pane of the courthouse’s garret window, there is clearly an imprint of some kind. We can never be sure that the story of Wells is an accurate one, but we will always be able to see the print. Amazingly, this is the only pane, it is said, in the entire courthouse that has never been destroyed, in its 100-plus years, by hail or storm.

A sign outside of the courthouse tells the story in its own way: “Pickens County, named for General Andrew Pickens of South Carolina, was established December 19, 1820. First County Site was Pickensville. On March 5, 1830, the government awarded 80 acres of land at Carrollton for the County Site. The first courthouse erected at Carrollton was burned on April 5, 1865, by troops of Union General John T. Croxton. A freedman, Henry Wells, was accursed of burning the second on November 16, 1876. He was arrested in January, 1878, and held in the garret of this building. Legend holds that as Wells peered out of the North window at a mob gathering below, lightning struck nearby, indelibly etching his image on the pane.”

Know Before You Go

The courthouse is located in the Carollton Court Square at the intersection of Rt. 86 and Rt. 17.

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July 5, 2011

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