By Linda Kor
When it comes to ghostly sightings and things that go bump in the night, few places in the county can compare to the historic Navajo County Courthouse in Holbrook. Built in 1898 and occupied until 1976 by Navajo County officials, the courthouse has a long history of unusual happenings.
Stories by those who work in the building and visitors to the museum within the building are common, and whether or not they may be of a paranormal variety, those who experience events at the courthouse all agree they have a disconcerting feel to them.
A former employee, Stephen Gray, wrote accounts of his experiences while working for the Navajo County Historical Society located inside the courthouse.
In his account of an occurrence in 1990, Gray notes that he was in an exhibit room plastering and painting a wall while listening to Native American flute music. Also in the room were several Native American artifacts, as well as two life-sized plywood cutouts painted as Native American people wearing ornate traditional dress.
Gray wrote that another staff member walked past the room and stated that she didn’t like the music, adding that it was “creepy.” He replied that it was only the spirits and as soon as the words were spoken, one of the plywood cutouts flew across the room, hit the opposite wall, then flew toward Gray, falling at his feet, a distance of perhaps 20 feet.
The other employee did not witness the incident, and the experience reportedly left Gray quite shaken.
Randy Stanley, who operates the visitors center, said that unusual noises and occurrences within the building are common and after working there for seven years, have become part of the experience of being at the courthouse.
He explained that he often hears footsteps directly above his head on the second floor where the courtroom is located and the stairs that are in plain view of his desk constantly creak as if someone is walking on them.
“I heard what sounded like someone dragging a metal cup along the bars of the jail cells downstairs and when I went to look, no one was down there and the sound had stopped. When I left it began again,” he recalled.
Stanley also recalled several incidents involving books in the courthouse. “I am the last person out and the first person in here each morning, and there were several mornings when the books that were kept on a bookshelf would be standing upright with books on top of the counter, like they were made into little houses,” he explained.
In his accounts, Gray reported a similar instance with books piled in a pyramid on the shelves.
“One morning I came to work and put the tape in the VCR, which was located across the hall from the bookshelf area. All of a sudden I heard what sounded like all of the books falling to the floor. When I turned around all of the books were still on the shelves, but were stacked pyramid style from the largest volume to the smallest book on each shelf of the three bookcases,” he wrote.
Visitors have also had their brush with the unusual. In July 2008, a family of eight visited the museum and were down inside one of the jails when an employee asked how they would like to be in there with the lights out. The lights immediately went out for a few moments before turning back on, terrifying the family.
During a nighttime tour of the jail cells at this time last year, Stanley said that several girls reported having their hair pulled, and a woman screamed and claimed that someone had grabbed her shoulder, although no one was standing there. The following day she returned to the courthouse to show Stanley the bruises on her shoulder that appeared to be caused by fingertips pushed into her skin.
So who are the ghostly tenants that people claim are the cause of such disturbances?
One of the more notorious ghostly residents is believed to be George Smiley, a railroader who was convicted of murdering his foreman following an argument over hours worked outside the rail master’s office in Winslow. Smiley was hung on the courthouse grounds in November 1899.
Another resident claimed to remain in the courthouse is Mary, a disturbed woman who had a drinking problem and was being held in the jail when she hung herself in the late 1960s. Believers say Mary now walks the halls of the courthouse and there are those who claim they have seen her standing in the upstairs windows of the courthouse after the building has been closed for the night.
Another suspected resident is Sheriff Frank Wattron, the very sheriff who was in office when Smiley was hung. Why Wattron would haunt the courthouse has been a subject of debate for many years among those who believe the building to be haunted.
There have also been several reports by people who say they have heard children laughing in the courtroom although no one is in the room.
The most recent recorded incidents occurred in 2012 when investigators for the television show My Ghost Story spent the night in the courthouse and claimed to experience contact with both Smiley and Mary. A 15-minute segment of the two-hour recording was shown on national television after two men filmed their overnight adventure in the courthouse 112 years to the day after Smiley was hung. The apparent results of their visit show continuous activity of objects moving, loud noises and what they claim was the voice of George Smiley calling out to one of the men.
Whether such incidents are real, the product of an active imagination or trickery by mischievous living visitors, opportunities are available tonight and Saturday night (Oct. 25 and 26) to see what transpires as the fourth annual Haunted Tours take place at the courthouse beginning at 6:30 p.m. The 20-minute tours will focus on the reported sightings of Smiley and Mary, and will be conducted by the Bucket of Blood Re-Enactors. Admission is free, but donations to the re-enactors’ ammo fund will be welcome.
By Linda Kor