“Officially” the Denton County Courthouse is not haunted. That’s what I told you in my book, Ghosts of Denton: The History of the Mysteries in a Small Texas Town (available on Amazon). If you ask people who work there if any ghosts reside in the building, they shake their heads … but they can’t look you in the eyes and say, “No.”
Visitors to the courthouse might tell you the other side to the story. A group who came on one of my ghost tours told me a rather hair-raising tale about an incident that happened to them in the basement. Hang on, and I’ll share it with you. First, let me give you some background on that creepy space below ground level, since I’ve already given you a virtual tour of the top floors.
My guide today told me that before about 1900, the basement of the courthouse was the only place on the square where ladies could go to the restroom. In the basement, there were attendants to give the women towels and “necessities.” Soon, the basement served other purposes, but it still has public restrooms down there, which gives you an excuse to explore.
The first thing you might notice in the basement are the thick limestone walls. They are about a foot thick (or more … I didn’t measure them) and that limestone came from a quarry in Denton County. It took thick walls to hold up this magnificent structure. I think it’s a pity that someone long ago decided the walls needed to be painted.
As you wander through the corridors, you will see several places where door openings have been boarded over. Those were once the entrances to the holding cells for prisoner waiting trial. It wasn’t the jail … just temporary “housing.”
But, look along the floor at the small rectangles that were also boarded. Those were the “bean slots.” They were a pass-through so that the prisoners could be fed, and so their … er … um … “thunder mugs” could be emptied. If you aren’t familiar with the term, a thunder mug was a bucket into which the prisoners relieved themselves.
The prisoners had roomy quarters while they waited on their turn to enter the court. They could pass the time in people-watching, as they could see out of their windows at ground level and watch folks walking around the square. The windows are covered by vegetation now, but who knows what the men down there could have observed back in the day.
Many people have told me that they have gotten a creepy feeling down in that basement. If you hear rumors that there was a hanging in the basement or that someone died down there, it isn’t true. You will also not find any tunnels down there (a popular myth in Denton is that there are tunnels under the streets leading from different business establishments to the courthouse).
Are you ready for the ghost story? Sure you are. Step over to the women’s restroom.
The group of ladies who came on my tour several months ago told me that they had been exploring the courthouse earlier in the day. They were surprised that there were even things to see in the basement. The museum has a display of some architectural pieces from the original courthouse and a wonderful safe from the Denton County Bank.
One of the women needed to step into the restroom, and she left her friends in the hallway. Inside the stall, she heard the heavy door creak open. Someone stepped to the sink and turned on the water. She called out, “Hey, are we going to find something to eat soon?”
She got no answer, but she heard someone splashing the water in the sink. “Who’s out there?” she asked. Still no answer. She heard the water turn off. Moments later she opened the stall door and no one was in the bathroom. The sink was wet and water was splashed around it. She realized she had not heard the door creak when the other restroom visitor left!
The woman joined her friends in the hall and said, “OK. Who is messing with my head? Which one of you came in the bathroom while I was in there?” Her friends all told her, “No one went into that room after you did.” She told them what she had just experienced and they ran out of that courthouse squealing.
Many people believe that there is a spirit lingering in that basement. It could possibly be the spirit of “Uncle Zach” Rawlings. He was a janitor at this courthouse and the one before it for many years. Here is his obituary from the Denton Record Chronicle in June of 1911:
Courthouse mourns longtime worker
“Uncle Zach” Rawlings, ex-slave, for many years janitor at the courthouse and perhaps the best known negro in Denton County among the white folks, died at his home in Quaker [note: Quakertown was the “black section” of Denton in those days], aged about 80 years.
“Uncle Zach” was born in Granada, Miss., and came to Denton County, a slave with his master, Dan Rawlings, before the war and lived near Lewisville until his election as courthouse janitor. Here he served since 1886 until the present year when he resigned, his health and age incapacitating him.
Services were conducted by the Rev. Sam Walker at 10 o’clock Wednesday in the African Baptist church. Interment followed at the city cemetery.
The Commissioners’ Court attended the services as a body, as did several other county officers and many white people.
On the day of his death, the Commissioners accepted a petition from county officials honoring the memory of “Uncle Zach” Rawlings and read it into the minutes of the court.
Could the woman in the story have encountered Uncle Zach in the courthouse basement? Probably not. I think he would have wiped the sink when he was finished.