North of New Orleans in the bayou country parish of Calcasieu is Lake Charles. It's your average run of the mill, small southern city in most ways. If you need a new funeral suit, they will set you up at the Penney's over at Prien Lake Mall. If you want to bitch about The Saint's head coach or maybe do a little karaoke, the Sports Pit is the perfect venue for it. If you find you are a bit peckish, you can travel to the Isle of Capri Casino, an architectural vision in peach and hot pink stucco, and take in the Calypso Lounge breakfast buffet for the low price of $6.99.
Like most places in the swampy and mysterious state of Louisiana, people tell a few ghost stories here. Teenagers like to scare each other with tales of a phantom pickup truck that will tailgate an unsuspecting victim, chasing them at high speeds until it vanishes into thin air. A little murdered girl is rumored to re-appear in the streets and alleyways, still wearing her Halloween ghost costume. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a house that people say has a resident ghost. And of course, there's the legend of Toni Jo Henry.
Toni Jo Henry had that look about her that would prove to scare away any "decent" guy: pretty, but in a way that often looked rode hard and put up wet. She looked like she would lift your wallet as she breathed bourbon-scented, erotic promises in your ear. She had a rough life. Her mother died of consumption when she was just a girl of six, and her dad must not have known what to do with her, because she was blowing guys for dope in a whorehouse in Shreveport by the time she should've been having her debut.
When a squinty eyed boxer and part time petty criminal from Texas called "Cowboy" swept Toni Jo off of her feet, it was true love. Cowboy helped her get off the blow. She didn't have to turn on the red light anymore, either. Cowboy and Toni Jo got married, and all was right in the world.
The honeymoon didn't last long. "Cowboy" Claude Henry was up on charges for killing a cop in a bar fight in San Antonio. Just weeks after her fairy tale wedding at the justice of the peace, Toni Jo was promising to break her new husband out of Huntsville Prison. She wasted no time teaming up with Finnian "Arkie" Burks (just released from Huntsville) and the two set off hitchhiking to break Cowboy out. It was a cold and rainy Valentine's Day evening. A businessman from Houston in a brand new Ford coupe liked the looks of Toni, and offered them a ride. They forced him to drive by gunpoint to a rice field and stripped him naked. (Toni Jo thought his outfit would look good on Cowboy.) They tortured him, and told him to say his prayers. Toni Jo pressed the barrel between his eyes as he prayed, and coldly blew his brains out.
They hadn't even made it to the Texas line when the two career criminals pulled over to party in the roadhouses along the way and brag loudly about the "successful" theft of the car and their upcoming jailbreak scheme. Toni showed up unannounced at her aunt's house in Shreveport and confessed that she had killed a man. They lingered in the area long enough for word to get out about their bragging, and for a manhunt to ensue. No one had any idea what had happened to the salesman until the two talked about it all over town. Cocaine is a hell of a drug.
Toni Jo was taken to the jail at Lake Charles to await trial, and Arkie was taken to a seperate facility. She would spend two years unsuccesfully trying to pin the crime on Arkie. During that time she charmed the jailers, who even allowed her a pet, and she made national press in her quest to be free. The papers called her "Tiger Girl".
After three trials, she ran out of appeals and was sentenced to death. The only regret she vocalized was that they were going to shave her head. She donned a brightly colored scarf as she made her way, in front of snapping cameras, to the back of an 18 wheeler that was heavily loaded with generators and a portable electric chair. They placed the hood on her and barbecued her right there in the parking lot. I'm sure they offered her a minute to say her prayers. Just days before, just across the state line, Cowboy had managed to escape prison. He planned to hold Toni Jo's sentencing judge hostage until they freed her. He made it as far as Beaumont, TX before he was caught in a fleabag hotel and thrown back in the slammer.
The courthouse at Lake Charles is haunted by the only woman to die in Louisiana's electric chair. Clerks who work there can smell burning hair once in awhile. A huge records room that mechanically shifts giant metal file holders has inexplicably turned itself on and rotated after it was shut off for the evening, on more than one occasion. Many have heard a woman shriek in the stairwells and in the parking lots. The doors, which lock with a key, will suddenly lock themselves in the middle of a regular work day. Men especially seem to hear talking in the empty building as they clean at night.
Toni Jo admitted the day of her execution that she was solely responsibile for the murder in the rice field. The state executed Arkie a year later anyway. On her last phone call to Cowboy she asked him to "Go straight and try to make something of your life" so that his mother would be proud of him. Two years later, he was paroled early (he was prematurely dying of heart failure). He was gunned down in the street in Dallas three months after his parole.
On her way to the chair, Toni Jo smiled coyly at reporters and said "Have you any idea how much talent is being wasted here today?"
White Trash Peg, Wynona.