BY PAMELA SLEEZER
It is a building that needs almost no history lesson to explain itself.
The infamous Beauregard Parish Historic Hanging Jail — the “Gothic Jail,” as it is often referred to — stands out from its surroundings as if it has held its ghost-filled legends and terror-stricken past all of its architectural existence.
Situated between the parish courthouse, with its white dome shining proudly in the sunlight, and the original First Baptist Church of DeRidder with its tall, stained glass windows, the Gothic jail seems almost out of place, though it seems strangely acclimated and even suited to the shadows that adorn it.
It was designed and built at the same time as its courthouse neighbor, but its Gothic architecture matches nothing near it, or anything else in the city for that matter.
In fact, there are few jail structures more distinctive than that of DeRidder’s. Built in 1914, the jail was designed by architect Col. William Louis Stevens. It was the only jail to depict the “collegiate Gothic” design in the first years of the 20th century. It was added to the national registrar of historic places in 1981.
Since its closure in 1984, stories have abounded of ghostly apparitions and mysterious sightings on the grounds of the jail. Its history has only helped to give those stories a firm foundation.
On Aug. 28, 1926, Joe Genna and Milton Brasseaux brutally murdered DeRidder taxi driver J.J. Brevelle after a robbery attempt that went horribly wrong. The two men made off with only $14 before dumping their victim’s body in an old mill pond in Pickering. The burned remains of the car were later found in Calcasieu Parish.
Both men were sentenced to death on Dec. 11 of that year, and on March 9, 1928, they were hanged from the topmost level of the jail’s ornate spiral stone staircase. The men met their demise from a makeshift gallows. The noose was tied to the barred grate directly above the third level of the staircase before they were forced to step off from the top step.
While they were the only prisoners formally executed in the jail, stories tell of multiple assaults, suicide attempts and deaths by other means that occurred during its 70 years of operation.
Women Behind Bars
Not all of the jail’s history is demented, though. Its second level was used to house the less violent offenders. The second-level windows that are visible from the highway belong to a small section of cells used to house the few female inmates who were sentenced during the jail’s operation. Standing in the female’s quarters, visible marks can be seen in the stone flooring where a secondary set of bars had to be built to keep the women from being able to reach those very windows from their side of the jail and cause traffic accidents through scandalous shenanigans.
“Rumor has it that the women would remove their tops and flash cars as they went by or even try to hang out of the windows. So the sheriff came in and ordered new bars put in place to separate them from the windows,” Beauregard Parish Tourism director Lori Darbonne explained with a slight chuckle. “They weren’t very accustomed to having women in the jail in those days, so I guess there were some things that couldn’t have been planned for during the design phase.”
‘Let’s Go Get Leather Britches!’
It’s just one of the many interesting tales visitors will learn as they step through the historic building this November when it officially opens to the public. The opening is something the Police Jury and Tourism Commission have worked towards for nearly 30 years.
Darbonne is anxious to begin putting some of her most exciting plans into action. With an office space filled to the brim with antique props that will fill the empty spaces of the jail cells, she said she even hopes to add animatronics to the mix.
She gestures to an old horse saddle and talks of how she would love to have an animatronic rider engage visitors as they walk in, and at the same time fill them in on the outlaws who ran the parish in the early 1900s.
“I would love to have a rider gesture to visitors and shout, ‘Come on, let’s go get Leather Britches,’ and then we could step into that little period of time through storytelling,” she said.
Leather Britches Smith will most definitely be one of the most notorious outlaws depicted in the museum. With a colorful legend of brutality, the outlaw’s name raises eyebrows no matter whom it’s spoken to.
As the Louisiana territory lines were first being drawn, the area that’s now Beauregard Parish became known as “no man’s land” — a neutral strip with no governing body to take responsibility as the sawmill industry began to take hold.
The lack of a firm law enforcement presence in the area made it incredibly appealing to outlaws, and they crossed into the area creating scenarios similar to those in the wild west.
Many of those outlaws grew to become legendary figures, and, as a direct result, the true stories become mixed with folklore.
Some accounts depict Leather Britches as a union-fighting timber worker caught up in the Grabow Riot while others claim him as a fugitive from Texas. One thing that is never disputed, though, is that the man always carried with him a loaded Winchester rifle and a six-shooter on each hip.
Legends tell of the man some claim was actually named Charles Smith ambushing travelers from his hiding place in the woods, demanding food or goods from them. Many locals chose to pack up their belongings, leave their crops and move away rather than risk their chances with the frightening figure.
His nickname derived from the yellow buckskin pants he always wore, and his reputation was built from his notoriously quick temper.
As time went on and the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office began asserting power over the domain, Smith became a fugitive wanted for crimes of highway robbery and murder. Smith’s response was threats to shoot on sight deputies who attempted to apprehend him.
The tensions grew until the morning of Sept. 25, 1912, when he was killed during a shootout with deputies. Accounts differ on the exact cause of the shootout, but when the smoke cleared, Smith’s body was riddled with bullet holes.
His body was transported to Merryville. No one claimed the body and it was quietly buried in a crude grave at the edge of what is now Merryville Cemetery. The original grave marker has since been removed, and now a simple wooden plaque stands at the base of a tree; it reads “Leather Britches Smith slain 1912.”
Stories like Smith’s will not only make the traditional tours through the jail a highlight of any trip through Southwest Louisiana, but they will certainly add to the jail’s frightening atmosphere when it opens as a haunted house this month.
“It is something we just could not pass up,” Darbonne said with almost a childlike excitement. “Given the building’s history, the legends and all of the ghost stories that continue to surround it, we just had to do it.”
Along with others at the tourism commission, Darbonne has helped unearth a recent ghost story of the jail.
In 2009, an amateur photographer was snapping pictures of the building when she noticed a strange image that showed up as she focused on one of the side windows. She showed it to Darbonne, who said she instantly saw the face of a man with a mustache and beard in the window. Others agreed, and an artist rendered a drawing of what that man must have looked like in real life.
Years later, as Darbonne was searching through the records of the area and jail on a separate task, she came across a photograph of a man who looked exactly like the image captured in the photograph. Further digging through records produced a name for the man; a lawman known as Deputy Isles.
“We couldn’t believe it, it was such an incredible find,” Darbonne said.
The image of Deputy Isles can now be seen throughout the area as advertisements go on display before the jail’s opening. Darbonne teased that perhaps he will even make an appearance during the haunted house event.