Haunted history no longer locked up at famed DeRidder jail
A view through the door of the third floor of the former Beauregard Parish Jail in downtown DeRidder. The railing on the third floor is where the makeshift gallows were built that were used to hang Joe Genna and Molton Brasseaux in 1928. (Gazette photo by Raymond Partsch III)
By: RAYMOND PARTSCH III
DERIDDER – The building’s distinctive architectural design made it historic, the deaths of two inmates inside of it made it infamous, and the spirits that may still call it home today have made it legendary.
The old Beauregard Parish Jail in DeRidder, better known as “The Hangman’s Jail,” is renowned for its one-of-kind design and for being the site of a double hanging of two convicted murders, and now with the assistance of the Beauregard Tourist Commission and other groups, the jail has become a destination for those who love hauntings and history.
“You have an entire generation of residents here in DeRidder and the area that have never set foot inside this jail,” said Cleo Martin, Administrative Assistant with the Beauregard Tourist Commission. “This will get those people interested and then the people that are fascinated with history and haunted history will come as well.”
The booming timber industry, and the railroad making a stop in town, put DeRidder and Beauregard Parish on the map in the early part of the 20th Century. With sawmills popping up, and the town expanding, local leaders opted to have a grand structure constructed inside the town, as something the town could boast of having.
Colonel William Louis Stevens was hired to design and build not only the parish courthouse, but also the jail right next door, which would be connected by a secret underground tunnel.
The three-story structure of sand-blasted concrete with a small tower, terra-cotta roof, spiral staircase, toilets in each cell was completed in 1914-15 at a cost of roughly $168,000. The walls range from 13 to 21 inches thick and was designed to hold 13 prisoners comfortably but could house up to 50.
The first floor housed the jailer and his family, while the second floor were isolation cells (or death cells) and a woman’s cell and the third floor was designed for trustees or long timers.
The jail, even more so than the courthouse, appears to be out of place in western Louisiana, where small towns blend with the horizon of pine forests.
In many ways, the jail designed in the Gothic Collegiate Design seems to have been uprooted from a college campus somewhere in the Northeast of the United States and plopped down somehow in the small town of roughly 10,000 people.
That design though helped the jail earn the reputation as one of the most luxurious and progressive institutions of incarnation in all the United States.
An article titled “Parish Prison in Louisiana Built Like a Clubhouse” appeared in Popular Mechanics in the early part of the 20th Century. In the article the jail is described: “the Beauregard Parish jail, at DeRidder, La, was constructed several years ago to conform with the idea that a place of imprisonment should be a house of correction rather than a dungeon of punishment.”
The fact that every room had a window was also impressive at the time, as the article states about that luxury “so that no prisoner is deprived of fresh air and a view of the beautiful sky and landscape of a southern state.”
The jail though would become infamous after Joe Genna and Molton Brasseaux were hung from makeshift gallows across the third floor stairwell back in the late 1920’s.
Genna and Brasseaux brutally murdered 45-year-old cab driver J.J. Breville in 1926. The two men beat Breville with a car leaf spring, then stabbed him in the head before eventually slashing his throat.
The murderous duo dumped Breville’s body in a pond in nearby Pickering and disposed of Breville’s Ford cab by setting it on fire in Calcasieu Parish.
The duo were captured, convicted and then on March 28, 1928 met their maker. Genna tried to poison himself the night before but doctors pumped his stomach so he could be hung the next day.
The two were hanged within minutes of one another, in the parish’s first and last double hanging on record.
The double hanging inspired a song by Sam Pruitt named “Hangman’s Jail” back in the 1950’s.
The jail would be added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 but would be closed in 1982 due to lack of modern conveniences such as glass windows and air conditioning.
The building would sit empty for nearly three decades as its reputation as a haunted spot only grew over the years, including being featured on the Travel Channel show “Destination Fear.”
Fred Isles, who owns one of the oldest cabinet making shops in town, never experienced a haunting himself but he heard stories from others that had. Isles, who served a few months in the jail in mid-1970’s for some teenage hell raising, remembers a story the former jailer told him.
“Royce Williams told me that when he lived in the place that the old hanging rope would be moved at night,” Isles said. “He said he would put the rope up at night and the next morning it would be moved. It looked like someone dragged it around and dropped it.”
“I can remember giving a small private tour about four years ago,” Martin said. “We went into one of the lower rooms and I immediately got dizzy. One of the other ladies that was on the tour felt she had gotten dizzy too. Once we left that area it stopped.”
A few years ago, the Beauregard Parish Police Jury, the Beauregard Tourist Commission and Friends of the Gothic Jail worked together to raise enough money to begin reopening the facility for more than just a few tours. The groups came together to make the old building ADA compliment by removing plaster from all the walls for any asbestos or mold or lead -based paint, tearing up floors, and raising the railing on the stairwell.
The purpose was to showcase the building’s original magnificence and also highlight its historic past.
“What you see now is the best representation of what the jail was like in its original state,” Martin said.
The work was completed in time for the jail, which also appears on the state’s Myths and Legends Byway signs that are located in Vernon, Allen and Beauregard Parishes, to be reopened as a haunted house attraction called “Gothic Jail After Dark.”
The attraction will be open on Halloween from 5 to 10 p.m. and admission costs $10. All proceeds from the haunted house will benefit the Gothic Jail Restoration Project. The project will be designed to help bring some state-of-the-art technology to the building in helping better tell the tall tales and legends of the jail and the parish.
“It is cool man,” Isles said. “When I was in jail I would see people stop in front and take pictures of the jail. With them putting money into it now maybe more people will come here to the town, and learn about our history.”