Exterior of a four-paned widow in a brick building. An arrow sign attached to the brick points to the lower-right windowpane.
The face is right here.

Lightning Portrait of Henry Wells

Field review by the editors.

Carrollton, Alabama

Towns will sometimes go to great expense to immortalize their municipal buildings, adding sculpture and monuments. Those buildings only wish they could be as unforgettable as the Pickens County Courthouse, famous for its mysterious face in a window, also known as, "The Lightning Portrait of Henry Wells."

According to local lore, Wells, formerly enslaved, was accused of burning the original Pickens County Courthouse. He was arrested two years later. The town had no jail, so Wells was locked in the garret of the new courthouse. And then a mob of locals gathered outside to lynch him.

Exterior of an old brick courthouse with many windows.
Pickens County Courthouse. That tiny window and arrow up top is what makes the building famous.

As Wells peered out the garret window on January 29, 1878, a bolt of lightning struck nearby and permanently etched his terrified expression into the windowpane. The lightning also apparently scattered the mob, but Wells' good luck was short-lived. He died less than two months later, according to local accounts, "of wounds received while attempting to escape."

The lightning photo is still visible today, but only from the outside. An arrow bolted to the exterior wall, three floors up, directs you to the miraculous face.

According to one RA tipster: "Through all the years, in spite of hail and storm, which has destroyed all the windows in the courthouse, this one pane has remained intact. It has been scrubbed with soap and rubbed with gasoline by those who doubt its permanence, but it has met every test and the face remains unchanged. At close range the pane looks clear and flawless, but viewed from the ground where once gathered an angry mob, the fear-distorted face of Henry Wells can be clearly seen!"

Another lightning portrait has been reported in Clay's Ferry, Kentucky, of an enslaved person's face burned into the upper window of a three story house. Also in Kentucky, the lightning portrait of an angry bather supposedly haunts the turret window of an old house on Hwy. 79 in Russelville.

We were told by the Carrollton town clerk that despite reports from nervous tourists, the Pickens County Courthouse had never been threatened with demolition; it had simply been off-limits for a time as it was being renovated. "We know it's there," she said of the lightning portrait, but added that Carrollton would never tear down its most famous building, even though it perpetuates the I-am-never-leaving-you curse of Henry Wells.

Lightning Portrait of Henry Wells

Pickens County Courthouse

Rt. 86, Carrollton, AL
Pickens County Courthouse. Downtown, on Courthouse Square, at the intersection of Hwys 86 and 17.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
Jim Bird's Hay Bale Art and Tin Man, Forkland, AL - 46 mi.

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