Nueces County Courthouse, Corpus Christi, Texas

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Nueces County Courthouse Corpus Christi, Texas 1999-2000 With EVP

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Old Nueces County Courthouse, Corpus Christi, Texas.
Many thanks to Dusty Durill for giving STPS the opportunity to investigate the Old Nueces County Courthouse on 6 different occasions 1999-2000.

Photo's & Evp Below.

Nueces County Courthouse, Built: 1914, Closed: 1977, Corpus Christi, Texas

In 1853 lawlessness in Nueces County, which covered most of the area from Corpus Christi to the Mexican border, prompted the construction of the first county courthouse on this block. Three lots were purchased for $300 from Corpus Christi founder, Henry Lawrence Kinney (1814-1865). A second courthouse was built in the mid-1870's beside the first. Under the administration of county Judge Walter F. Timon (1872-1952), this neo-classical structure was completed in 1914 at a cost of $250,000. The architect, Harvey L. Page (1859-1934) of Washington, D.C., designed the International and Great Northern Railroad station in San Antonio and Laguna Gloria in Austin, home of former Corpus Christi resident Clara Driscoll. Additions were made to the buildings in the 1930's and 1960's. Courtrooms and offices were on the first four floors. The top two floors, separated from the rest of the building by an air space to eliminate noise, served as the jail. In addition to government offices, apartments were provided until the 1950's for the jailer and other county officials. During storms which almost leveled the city, hundreds of refugees sought shelter here. In 1977 county offices moved to a new courthouse building.

Old courthouse stories

Nueces County was six years old in 1853 when county commissioners decided to build a courthouse. They had been meeting in each other's homes.

The job of designing a building was given to Felix von Blucher, a surveyor. The courthouse was built of shellcrete, a cross between adobe and concrete, on three lots on Mesquite Street bought from H. L. Kinney.

The courthouse took three years to build and cost $4,000. But the plans that called for a jail were left out. The sheriff, with no jail for prisoners, put them up in a boarding house, at his own expense, or let them go.

The lack of a jail became an issue when Mat Nolan was sheriff and his brother Tom was deputy. On Aug. 4, 1860, a storekeeper got drunk, started a fight, and was arrested by Sheriff Nolan, who took the man to his home to sleep it off. But the drunk returned to the La Retama Saloon, where he knifed the owner, and in a shootout killed Tom Nolan. The drunk was chased down by townspeople and shot to death.

The Corpus Christi Ranchero wrote that "Nueces County stands in need of one of those institutions known as a jail." A jail bond issue was passed, by five votes, but the Civil War intervened.

Courthouse deserted

Meetings on whether Nueces should vote to secede were held in the courthouse. A leading spokesman against secession was the fiery red-whiskered judge, Edmund J. Davis, who would become the most hated governor in Texas history. The county voted 142 to 42 in favor of secession.

At the onset of war, a ceremony was held on the steps of the courthouse. A Confederate flag, made of silk and sewn by young ladies in town, was presented to the Corpus Christi Light Infantry by Mary Woessner, called the prettiest girl in town. She would later marry the officer who accepted the flag, William Wrather.

When Union gunboats shelled the city, the courthouse sat deserted. County officials had evacuated to Santa Margarita, a ferry crossing on the Nueces River near today's Calallen.

After the war, when a the yellow fever epidemic hit in 1867, the courthouse became the only center of local government for the county and the city. A majority of City Council members died of the fever, which led county commissioners to assume control of city affairs. Their first act was to try to improve the terrible condition of city streets. They divided the town into five districts and appointed a road overseer in charge of each district. Able-bodied men were forced to work as "road hands" under the overseers.

What was called a "jail" but was really an iron-lockup was added to the upper floor of the courthouse. It was needed in those violent days. In May, 1874, four men were killed in a raid on a one-store community called Penascal, on Baffin Bay.

Two of the men caught by a posse were brought to Corpus Christi for trial. They were convicted of the crime and hanged on Friday, August 7. The gallows were built extending out from the second-floor balcony of the courthouse. These were the first officially sanctioned hangings in Nueces County.

The county in the 1870s outgrew its first courthouse. A new courthouse was built of concrete blocks, with a wooden front, next to the old structure. It was called the "Hollub Courthouse," named after the engineer who designed it.

The Hollub Courthouse, finished in 1875, cost $15,000. The old and new courthouses stood side by side on the north end of courthouse block, facing east on Mesquite, with Belden Street to the north. The old courthouse was used as a jury room and offices for county officials.

In the middle of the Ropes Boom, in 1892, the county built a fancy new jail next to the first courthouse. A scaffold was erected behind the jail for hangings.

After more than three decades, the Hollub Courthouse was too small for the growing county. In 1913, voters approved a $250,000 bond issue for a new courthouse. County officials traveled the state looking at courthouses before they settled on a design.

Death cells

The county's third courthouse was built south of the three older structures, which were torn down.

The 1914 courthouse, six stories high and built of brick and stone, was meant to create a sense of awe. It became a showpiece of South Texas; people came from all over to look at it. It was an ultra-modern building in every way; the county even switched to typewriters to record official records.

Two cells with gallows and a trap door for hangings were built in the 1914 courthouse, but they were never used; the state took over the responsibility of carrying out executions.

Five years after it was built, the most dramatic event in the history of this building occurred when the 1919 storm hit. The courthouse became a refuge for those caught between the safety of the high bluff and the raging storm surge crashing in from the Gulf.

As the tidal wave flooded downtown Corpus Christi, carrying away houses and stores, people tried to make it to the courthouse for refuge. As wind-driven rain stung their faces, men at the courthouse formed a human chain that stretched across Belden Street, where people were trying to swim to the courthouse for safety. Some 2,500 people rode out the storm on the upper floors of the building.

Morgue in basement

After the storm waters subsided, the basement of the courthouse became a morgue.

Lucy Caldwell, a teacher from Terrell, wrote an account of the storm in a letter to her mother. She visited the courthouse basement where bodies were lined up in rows. ". . . And, oh, the condition they were in. Arms and legs and heads almost severed, all the hair gone, swollen beyond description, and black from oil, hair entangled with seaweed, and bodies so mutilated that identification was impossible."

If spirits of the dead should hover around scenes of great tragedy, what a horde of restless spirits must wander the vacant corridors of the old courthouse.

Before the storm, the 1914 courthouse dominated the north end of town. After the storm, it stood virtually alone in a scene of desolation all around it. It was clearly built to last.

Like the people it sheltered during the city's worst storm in history, this massive old building is a survivor.

Story: Corpus Christi History by Murphy Givens


Below is an email S.T.P.S received from one of the Deputies that worked in the Old Nueces County Courthouse. Thank you John for sharing your story.

I worked as a deputy in the jail for several years before it was closed and we moved into the new one on Leopard. During the time I was there I had several experiences with oddities and heard lots of stories, interestingly they involved several of the places shown in your photos.

In the picture showing the entrance hallway from inside looking out to the East the sheriff's office is the set of offices to the left. The dispatch office was here and at nights this was the only person on that floor of the building except for the elevator operator. Many of the dispatchers hated working the graveyard shift because of sounds and shadows that they encountered down there. We would sometimes get a call to send a deputy down to the main lobby and mezzanine area to check because the dispatcher insisted they heard people talking and making noise in the area of the snack bar but could not see anyone.

The trap door you show on the forth floor is one of two that go to the fifth floor, it looks like the one in the kitchen area just above the old stove, if it is still there. If so it is the trap door to the hanging booth and gallows located on the fifth floor. I heard that the interior gallows was only used once in the very early days but our kitchen workers often complained about hearing knocking and footsteps from the other side of the trap door, a cold area near the entrance to the kitchen, foggy or cloudy area near the ceiling around the door and sudden drafts that would sometimes blow out the burners on the stove. The room containing the gallows had been secured years before I got there but I was told that the big crossbeam for the rope was the only remaining part of the old gallows setup.

From the back elevator if you stopped between the fourth and third floor and looked up and to the East you could see a window that looked into the inside of the building from the fifth floor somewhere close to the top of the elevator shaft. Supposedly this was a window into the gallows booth so that the condemned could have a last look at the outside world. When the West wing was added the window was left just the way it was except it was now on an interior wall looking into the building, all the other windows were either covered over or were on the wall knocked out to connect the new wing with the original structure. We used the elevator to take out the trash every morning and the trustee inmates contended that if you stopped the elevator and looked over your shoulder quickly that you could see a face looking out the window, I never saw it but sometimes had odd feelings looking up at that window that looked into nothing.

The picture showing 4th floor jail cells is of the old conference room used by attorneys and their clients, to the right is the state tank and to the left is the booking desk and watch sergeants office. The property storage area was just behind the conference room and while we never had anything specific most of us could never shake the feeling of being watched in that room, like someone was there even when we were alone, the feeling of someone looking over our shoulder.

The photo showing ectoplasm with a jail door in the background looks like the female section of the jail, if it is then that was the location of our confirmed resident "ghost." On nights that the moon shined into the cells on the South side you could see the figure of an older woman in old fashioned clothes sitting on one of the bunks in an unused cell unit.

The story goes that she passed away in the cell back in the early 40's before there was a jail crew at night to check on things and that she came back on these moonlit nights. We also had an intercom system strung through the cell units so we could hear anything going on and sometimes on the one for that area you could hear someone crying, nights this happened the female inmates would complain about the sobbing keeping them awake. When a jailer and matron would go check it would stop until they left again. This would happen even when the female section was empty with no "guests" in residence.

While on our rounds we could sometimes hear someone rattling keys, the sound that a ring of jail keys makes especially while working steel doors is unique and recognizable instantly, but there would be no other jailers in the tank areas. These and other feelings, cold areas even during the summer, fleeting glimpses of movement, shadows that we usually put down to bad lighting, items missing that would turn up later some distance from where we thought they had been, names being erased from the chalkboard showing what cells inmates were in, sometimes several times a night.

It all made it an interesting place to work for a young 21 year old just starting out. I would love to go back through there someday before they start their renovation projects, just to look around and take pictures of where I spent several years of my life and did a lot of growing up.
- - - John - - -

EVP recorded in the Nueces County Courthouse..."Mommy Do You Love Me" **********

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