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The Old Knox County Courthouse and Jail

Knoxville County Courthouse and Jail

Knoxville is home to its very own Frankenstein experiment when a body was pulled right off of Gallows Hill and brought right to the operating table. It is a terrifying story, oddly peculiar and straight out of a science fiction novel.


You’ve entered a world where dozens lost their lives on the gallows near the site of the Old Knox County Courthouse and Jail. Because of the nearby area known as Gallows Hill, this location has a spiritual activity that has violently been amassed throughout the centuries. 


Many fear to step into the building after nightfall. Shadow figures dance along the walls, and the sounds of footsteps follow those brave enough to walk through the old hallways. 


These are just some of the stories you’ll hear along the #1-rated ghost tour in Knoxville. See Civil War history come alive through the words and actions of our experienced tour guides. 


In the meantime, we have the Old Knox County Courthouse and Jail in front of us and what was once known as Gallows Hill. They both now hold the dark energy of the city’s past. 


Knox County and Knoxville History


Tennessee’s third-largest city has grown considerably since its modest beginnings as White’s Fort. In 1786, this small settlement, deep in America’s newly founded Southwestern Territory, was founded by Revolutionary War hero James White. 


By 1791, Governor Willam Blount renamed it Knoxville in honor of Secretary of War John Knox. This recognition was much to the dismay of James White. The newly named area became the capital of the developing Southwestern Territory and later an early capital of a new state, “Tennessee.” 


Knoxville Courthouses


With the creation of Knox County in 1792 came the need for a system of justice. As the city grew, a series of courthouses were built along with it, changing with the wants and needs of Knoxville.

The first was built in 1793 and did not last long, likely due to the Cherokee and Creek attacks occurring during this time. 


The second was a more sturdy brick and stone structure built in 1797. This was utilized by the bourgeoning capital until a third courthouse, a Greek Revival building, was built in 1839. 


The Old Knox County Courthouse and Jail was constructed in 1884 and is now the courthouse we see today. This Romanesque building proved extremely durable and has lasted throughout the decades. 


One of its more impressive features is the 2,500-pound bell within the white Cupola atop the structure. It served as the courthouse until 1979, when it was moved to its current location, the City-County building, right across the street. 


The high ceilings and wooden staircases of the “Palace of Justice” harken back to a time of prosperity and turmoil in American society. The spirits that reside in them tell these tales all too well.


The Spirits of the Old Knox County Courthouse


While the exterior of the Knox County Courthouse and Jail may have changed appearance over the centuries, its purpose has remained the same. 


The old courthouse now handles administrative matters, such as licenses, voting, notary work, and passports. But at one point, it brought some of Knoxville’s most vicious criminals to justice. 


County workers fear going into the building late at night. Shadow figures have been seen through the east and west wings, additions made later in the building’s history. The main section of the courthouse, the oldest portion, has had the most reported activity. 


Strange footsteps echo past the old administrative offices when no one else is around. Only the unlucky few who stay late hear them.


Gallows Hill and The Knoxville Frankenstein 


One of the most disturbing stories revolving around the courthouse occurred atop a small hill not too far from 300 Main Avenue. Gallows Hill, now the location of the Carpenter’s Union building, was considered far enough away from the main section of the city for executions. 

These were held in public for many years, as they were worldwide, and were deemed a form of entertainment. 


This public aspect went awry one evening in 1829 when Dr. Stephen Foster joined the throngs of anxious onlookers. Foster was a minister and language professor at East Tennessee University, now the University of Tennessee. 


He was a man of science, graduating from Dartmouth, and apparently a fan of the newly formed genre of literature, science fiction. Published eleven years earlier, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gave Foster some rather disturbing ideas. 


On August 17th, 1829, two men were hung from Gallows Hill, now referred to as Summit Hill, at noon. They had previously been convicted of murder at the second iteration of the courthouse and brought to the small hill outside of town. 


After the hanging, a raucous affair for all, their bodies were to be buried nearby. But something went wrong, and the corpse of James White, no relation to the Knoxville founder, disappeared. 


It is said that Dr. Stephen Foster took the body to his church on Market Street between Clinch and Union, hooked up the corpse to a homemade battery, and flipped the switch. White’s body heaved three times as electricity coursed through him again. 

Terrified and fearing god’s wrath, Foster immediately flipped the switch back off, and White’s corpse lay motionless yet again. 


Foster died six years later in 1835, and while there is no record of this experiment, the words on his tombstone suggestively read, “Mysterious are the ways, O’ Lord.”


Haunted Knoxville 


The spirits of the Old Knox County Courthouse and Jail and the tales of Dr. Stephen’s Fosters experiment are buried deep in a treasure trove of otherworldly activity. Knoxville’s history is fascinating, and the specters of its past are here to tell its tale terrifyingly. 


US Ghost Adventures is here to help you discover the dark history of America’s most haunted cities. With the aid of our tour guides and your very own EMF reader, you will uncover the truth behind Knoxville’s haunted past. 


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