October 3, 2018

Clocks, Curses, and Ghosts: The Desha County Courthouse

I adore a good ghost story or horror movie, although my preferred mode of watching is through an afghan pulled over my face, one eye closed, the other eye open and staring unblinkingly through the blanket. Some people bravely charge into haunted houses and watch scary movies in unflinching stoic respectability. I am not those people. I’m a runner, a yeller, and a watcher who stands with half of my face hidden behind the door facing, ready to run from the television if necessary.

I might not be the most dignified watcher of scary movies or reader of Stephen King, but I adore it, and I forge ahead even if it involves a little screaming and fast stepping.

Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

My love of the spooky and macabre began in Eureka Springs. I think that was the epicenter of my lifelong affair with the quirky and unexplainable (the Crescent Hotel will inspire even the grumpiest of skeptics). But now, as an adult, I keep discovering that Arkansas is a state filled with excellent spooky tales.

The Desha County Courthouse clock tower is one of them.

The courthouse was built in 1900. It’s a beautiful building, built in the Romanesque Revival architectural style. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. And as with all historic structures, its walls have seen a lot of history, drama, and in one particular case, a curse and a ghost.

According to historical lore a man named Willard (some attribute this nickname to a man named Jim Williams), lost a good deal of money gambling, and in a fit of anger burned down a hotel. Then he burned down a few other buildings just for good measure. He was tried in the Desha County Courthouse and convicted to hang. That’s when things got interesting.

Apparently, Willard made a proclamation of innocence that went something to the tune of, “I’ve been wrongly convicted and to prove it the clock on this courthouse will never keep the correct time again.” He seems like he might have been the kind of person who would add on a “so there” to the end of his verbal curse, but that’s just my two-cents.

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Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

In the years that followed, true to his word, Willard’s clock curse worked. The clock stopped working reliably after he died. 

In the 1970’s the clock was converted to electricity, hoping that would solve the problem. It did not. Sometimes the long hand would read the minutes, while the minute hand read the hour. Bells reportedly went off during the night, keeping citizens awake until someone could arrive at the courthouse and shut them off. As if that wasn’t bizarre enough, workers in the courthouse reported that the time and date on their desk phones malfunctioned on occasion.

In addition to the cursed clock, the courthouse is also rumored to be haunted. Slamming doors and the sound of footsteps in empty parts of the building lend some credibility to the ghost of Willard. It’s easy to believe he is still proclaiming his innocence, roaming the building, and wreaking clock-related havoc.

Of course, there are always reasonable explanations for these things. A repairman would likely site the age of the clock and the likely need to replace certain parts. Others would say that the aged courthouse is drafty and slammed doors are likely due to air currents. And the explanation for footsteps is always, “You probably just imagined it.”

But for those of us who love a good ghost story, and for those of us who like to watch a horror movie through the safety of our thrift store afghan pulled across our faces, we prefer to believe, even if only a little bit.

Liz Harrell

Arkansas Women Bloggers member Elizabeth Harrell is a native Arkansan, author, and freelance writer. Her book, My (not so) Storybook Life, was published in 2011. Her blog projects have been featured in At Home Arkansas, Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge, and Better Homes and Gardens. Visit her at https://elizabeth-harrell.com .