Every city has that place. It’s a place innocuous in appearance, but even the casual passer-by can feel the malignancy like icy fingers on the nape of his neck. Just standing in the shadow of the building gives a person an unreasonable feeling of dread. The windows are alive, staring down at whoever might be so brave or foolhardy to approach — daring, waiting for someone to step within its walls. And while such places go by many names, they are all the same. Haunted.
When I was asked to write this column, I agreed with some trepidation. Really, I’m a writer, and haunted houses are not difficult to find, but where to begin? Should I begin with the greatest of all haunted houses, the Winchester House of Mystery? Or perhaps I should start with someplace iconic like the French Quarter of Louisiana. Then it occurred to me, the best place to begin is always at the beginning. So, with that in mind, I’d like to take you to where I grew up, the swampland Texas town of Lake Jackson.
Lake Jackson started out in a cycle of pain as a sugar plantation owned by Abner Jackson (as photographed here) in the 1840’s. Like any other plantation of the time, it was a slave-run operation before the Civil War, and the perpetually wet lands and muggy air made their lives all that much more difficult. The business flourished for a time until the Civil War drove the once-rich Abner deep into debt. Though he left no will, on his death Abner’s oldest son, John, took over the family business, giving evidence that there were shady dealings afoot. He tried to hold the family business together and achieved a small modicum of success. There was, however, his brother George to contend with.
George Jackson, according to most reports, was a sickly man who had a hard time keeping hold of money. Some say it was because he had a deep love affair with the bottle and also enjoyed gambling just a bit too much. When he tried to take his share of the plantation from John, George was rewarded by being buggy-whipped in public for all to see. As one could imagine, George took exception to such public humiliation and retaliated in a manner most profound.
George shot John six times and then took up a machete and cut off his head. You read that right — cut off his head. Murder, even in 1871, was not a thing to be taken lightly, and to be murdered by one’s own brother gave immediate meaning to the word “dysfunctional.” The body was buried in a hasty ceremony, but because the head had somehow wound up in the murky depths of the lake and no one seemed anxious to look for it, John was buried without it.
The general opinion was that John had been a conniving man, obsessed with power and money, and he had ruled the plantation like a tyrant. When George murdered him, most folks felt he got what he deserved. But such a man will not take an indignation like death lightly. George was weak-willed and undeserving in John’s eyes. To make matters worse, he was never prosecuted for the crime and was allowed to take over control of the plantation. He stayed only a few nights before reportedly fleeing in terror, screaming about a large bird that tried to tear him apart in his bed. Less than four years later he died of tuberculosis, though some claim it was his conscience or nerves that killed him.
It only gets worse from there, for during that same time period convicts were “leased” to the plantation to replace the slave labor; and they were treated miserably. It seemed the legacy of the diseased land continued and was heaped on the prisoners. Many were beaten, malnourished, and lived in various conditions of squalor that only the old Texas prisons seemed to think acceptable. When the plantation finally ceased operations in 1900 due to damage sustained in a hurricane, it left behind countless dead and a history of bloodshed and suffering some say still endures to this day.
By far, the most famous of all the ghosts in Lake Jackson is that of John himself. After his beheading, George either threw the head into the lake or it rolled there. Either way, it was never found, and the body had to be buried without it. It’s also unclear as to where the beheading actually occurred. Some say George shot John first at the top of the steps of the plantation. Others say he shot him at the base of the stairs. It is an important point of dispute because of the nature of the haunting.
First, there is a spot of ground on the banks of the lake on which no grass will grow. For as long as I can remember, there was always a bare patch there with dirt the color of dried blood. It is on that spot that George reportedly did the grisly deed. An old superstition states that if a man bleeds on the ground and is moved before he dies, there will be no problems. But let him bleed to death on a single spot, and that land is cursed.
Then there is also the question of the second manifestation of John, the sound of his head rolling down the steps. Standing with one’s back to the base of what used to be the house, facing the lake, one can distinctly hear the sounds of something thudding down a flight of brick and plaster stairs. One can hear a total of fifteen bumps, one for each of the stairs that used to stand. After hearing him, or his head, fall, it is said that you can hear the sounds of blood dripping onto the final step.
The final manifestation of John, and this is the one most folks find hardest to believe, is that one can hear someone wading about in the water, calling out for his lost head. Now, without a head, one would think a person would have a hard time finding his voice, but reports have been made for more than sixty years of this phenomenon. If you really want to know how he does it, you ask him.
John Jackson is not alone however. The restless souls of slaves and convicts alike seem to roam the area. Many of the homes built on the site that was the grounds of Jackson Plantation have reported curious things, from noises in their houses to finding entire rooms rearranged.
One little girl awoke one night in December to find a woman staring in her window. Though disturbing, even more frightening was the fact that the little girl’s room was on the second story of her house.
The number of ghost slaves has never been documented, as it seems there are too many of them. They can be heard often in the dense woods of what is now a housing development, singing spirituals and hacking down the cane that no longer grows. There are three convicts, however, and they seem to stick pretty much together. One died trying to escape, another of natural causes. The third died while being punished in the stocks.
In one recorded incident, an old man, called only “Jim,” stayed the night inside the dilapidated mansion and was plagued by objects being tossed around the room for the duration of the night. Why he decided to stay is anyone’s guess.
Another reported phenomenon is the sighting of a large white bird resembling a hawk perched on the foundation of the old house. It’s said that the creature is larger than any normal bird and will swoop at anyone who tries to enter the mansion grounds.
Modern Lake Jackson is a thriving community, but one only has to look to the outskirts to see the primordial mess from which it came. Though the mall and restaurants and the billowing stacks of the chemical plant give the image of a town on the rise, the swamplands are only a few feet away, and within them lurks the darkness of the town’s past.
Today only a few cornerstones of the original plantation can be seen, but the house was reconstructed a little way down the road by the predominant industry of Lake Jackson and is used for entertaining corporate bigwigs. Although it is not the original house, some have said they still experience strange things within its wall such as flickering lights and disappearing objects. There have even been reports of old Abner standing on the balcony, surveying his lands. The lake and the man-made island that rests in its center are popular fishing spots, but only during the daytime. Much of what used to be Jackson Plantation land has been covered by the “Lake Jackson Farms” subdivision, an upper scale residential district. Plans for a new phase of development stopped when workers discovered old slave/prisoner quarters, and the site has been preserved as an archeological curiosity.
The best time of year to experience anything out of the ordinary in Lake Jackson is during the month of December. Aside from the cold killing off most of the hellish swarms of mosquitoes, it was in the month of December that John Jackson met his demise. To this day there are those who swear that they’ve heard the thumping of John’s head in the bitter cold night, followed by a splash. Then comes the awful sound of wading as he continues to look for his head so he can rest in peace, instead of in pieces.
Until next time . . .
Original concept art designs by Bill “Splat” Johnson