Once the Worst Jail in San Antonio - Now a Holiday Inn Express
Nearly a mile away from the Alamo compound stands a hotel just a block from the Spanish Governor’s Palace. The Holiday Inn Express Riverwalk—not to be confused with the Holiday Inn on San Antonio’s Riverwalk—is a building easily glossed over by the common passerby.
There’s not much of a surprise as to why—at five stories tall, its limestone facade isn’t necessarily a stunner. Not like the Gothic-Revival Emily Morgan Hotel, or the nineteenth-century Menger Hotel, which has been called The Prettiest Hotel West of the Mississippi River. The Holiday Inn Express is a stately building because of its imposing size, though not particularly because of its looks.
But as they say, never judge a book by its cover—because the Holiday Inn Express? Well, this building never worried about being ‘pretty.’ It was previously known as the Old Bexar County Jail, and just so happens to be the site of Texas’ last public death by hanging.
And thanks to its multitude of ghosts, guests of this haunted hotel arrive thinking they’re staying in just another ol’ Holiday Inn and more often than not leave having experienced some mighty weird paranormal activity.
Are you ready to enter the jail?
Life in early San Antonio, Texas, was a rough, rough place. There were raids from local tribes like the Comanche and Apaches—though these attacks mostly faded by the mid-nineteenth century—and outlaws like Bob Augustine; then there were just your run-of-the-mill criminals, like your shoplifters or your hand-to-hand abusers.
And where criminals abounded, you can bet there were local county jails just waiting with their iron bars clinked open, biding their time to toss another guy or gal into the clinker.
By the year 1878, San Antonio was in desperate need of a new jail. Those that were already in, shall we say, operation, were already filled to the brim. So, a new one went up: a two-stories tall property that allowed for twenty cells in which prisoners could call home.
For a while, this wasn’t an issue and the twenty cells designed by famed architect Alfred Giles did their job—that is, until San Antonio needed even more space.
There was a bit of a problem when it came to the construction of the new jail in 1911, and I’m not even talking about the prisoners themselves.
Zoning laws made it impossible for architect Henry T. Phelps to expand the jail outward, leaving him no other option but to build up by adding another level to the building. The two-stories jail had thereafter become three, and while this warranted a bit of news, the Old Bexar County Jail’s “newsworthy” status originated from another innovative facet that Phelps installed.
While the hanging gallows had always been staged outside of the jail, Phelps changed it all up when he installed them inside the prison itself. Up on the third floor, a trap door was outfitted.
With chains clanking between their feet to stop them from fleeing, the criminals were led up to the dreaded third floor. Dark hoods were slipped over their heads, and a thick, braided rope was tied like a noose around their fragile necks. The executioners would position the prisoners over the trap door, where they would—when the time came—yank on the lever.
Down, down, down the criminal would bob, feet dancing, as the crowd of onlookers watched in horror (and also in entertainment) as the hanged prisoner’s body dropped to the second floor for all to see. The crowds were composed of journalists, politicians—and the other prisoners? Locked in their cells, but with a wide open view of what could possibly happen to them if Lady Luck graced them with her back.
The Wild West of San Antonio may have been considered a lawless place, but it’s safe to say that the outlaws almost always met Karma by the end of their days.
It happened in 1921, the last public hanging at the Old Bexar County Jail. The gossip swarmed for days after and, if the gossip wasn’t enough, the notoriety of this particular prisoner’s death reached nationwide outlets.
His name was Clemente.
His charge was the brutal murder of one Theodore Bernhard.
On the afternoon of August 16, 1921, Clemente, a Mexican-American, was traveling all the way to San Antonio from a family member’s house in Floresville, Texas. The journey was arduous, taking nearly twelve hours on foot. A few hours in, the heat had already begun to scorch the back of Clemente’s neck; some hours later, blisters appeared on his feet.
He needed water most desperately and, used to the long walk from once place to another, Clemente decided to take a pitstop at Salado Creek, his favorite creek. He approached, his neck still burning and his feet burning even more, only to see that the usually pristine water was muddy with swirling dirt. Clemente stood, fury quickly mounting, as he went in search of the person responsible for disturbing his clean drinking water.
He found these persons just a little down the way. They were 14-year-old Theodore and his younger brother Kirby. The brothers had been playing around as they took a break from herding cattle, but upon the sight of the angry Clemente, Theodore and Kirby tried to make a run for it.
Theodore was the unlucky one. Clemente swooped down to grab a rock from the ground, and chased the boys down. He caught up with Theodore, swinging him around so that he could bash the rock down on the boy’s head. He repeated the aggressive motion, over and over again, until Theodore’s skull splintered and he died.
Clemente was not through with the child. He removed his knife from his pocket, and began to maim the boy, dragging the sharp edge of the blade from one side of Theodore’s head all the way to the other. The brains, Clemente scooped out; the eye, Clemente removed and stuck in his pocket as a souvenir.
By this point, Kirby had scrambled up the river bank and all the way to the closest village. Panting and out of breath, he begged anyone to listen to him about the madman down by the creek. One of the men, a man named Johnson, stepped up and quipped, “I’m brave enough to take the murderer on."
But when he descended down to the river, he watched in horrified awe as Clemente strolled along the waterfront whistling and singing as though nothing was wrong. Johnson quickly turned back around, with the claim that he needed more artillery. When he returned to Salado Creek, it was only to find that Clemente had vanished.
Clemente, you see, had already made it back home to San Antonio. To anyone who would listen, he removed poor Theodore’s eye from his pocket and bragged about his kill. It wasn’t long before the police in San Antonio heard about Clemente’s boisterous attitude for murder, and so they grabbed him (right off the street!) and stuck him in Old Bexar County Jail.
The police and law enforcement system were at a complete loss. Clemente’s murder of Theodore was not his first foray into the underworld of criminals, but up until this time, Clemente’s crimes generally only landed him at the South Western Insane Asylum.
At a young age, Clemente had been dealt a terrible blow on the head. Since then, he’d suffered everything from what the physicians claimed to be undiagnosed schizophrenia to seizures to all out paranoia. But each time he landed in the Insane Asylum, Clemente somehow managed to escape within days.
Society was drawn into two camps when it came down to Clemente’s repercussions. One side, which also encompassed people from all over the country, flew into a frenzy at the thought of the jail putting Clemente to death. He was sick, they cried in rallies across Texas, he had no idea what he was doing!
The other side of the argument was just as vocal. What will he do next, if he’s not placed in jail? they shouted in return.
It didn’t help that when Clemente was locked in handcuffs and stuffed into jail, he made the unsettling comment: “I would have killed the other boy too if he wouldn’t have gotten away."
Here is a letter to a San Antonio Narcotic Agent, dated to 1940, about Clemente and the murder of Theodore. Nearly 20 years after the murder, nothing had settled down, and suspicions rose up that perhaps Clemente's fueled rage was the result of smoking marijuana.
With those final words, Clemente sealed his fate. Riots erupted in his name, and hundreds of petitions were filed in the hope that the city government would change its mind. They didn’t, and in 1921, Clemente was walked up those dreaded stairs as many prisoners before him to the third floor of Old Bexar County Jail.
The dark hood was draped over his head; the braided noose tightened around his throat. His feet were positioned over the trap door that led to nothing but death.
Down on the second floor, hundreds of people had come to bear witness to Clemente’s hanging.
What no one expected was for the rope to snap Clemente’s larynx, effectively sending blood spurting eight feet into the crowd, as his head became almost decapitated from the rest of his body. (It’s safe to say that in a time when 3D movies had not been invented, this surely must have felt similarly to the onlookers).
Ultimately, Clemente died from that hanging, and almost 8,000 people arrived for his funeral, in which he was buried in the San Fernando Cathedral Cemetery No. 1.
After the horrific show that was Clemente’s death in 1921, the city of San Antonio halted public executions in 1926, but the jail itself remained open all the way until 1962. As the story goes, the last inmate to escape the jail was a guy by the name of Jack Steese. After cutting the iron bars, he dropped a fire hose out the window and climbed down the wall of the prison . . . in broad daylight.
Now, you might go on to think that a guy this savvy must have an end plan that would lead him to a far, far away place where he wouldn’t risk being caught. Not the case. Jack Steese did as many men do in a time of need, by returning to his mother’s house that same exact night.
It didn’t take long for law enforcement to realize that Steese had disappeared—and even less time to gather information on where he had disappeared to—and they swarmed his mother’s house. They found the brave Jack Steese cowering under his bed, in which the deputies had to drag him out by the feet before bringing him back to the Old Bexar County Jail.
By 1962, it was time to move into a bigger establishment—which was situated at Nueva and Laredo Streets. It’s with a bit of pride that the then-sheriff Bill Hauck transported 328 murderers, robbers, thieves and other criminals to their new jail four blocks away.
It was not long after that that the old jail was converted into the Comfort Inn, Alamo, with 82 beds; in 2009, it was converted into the Holiday Inn Express Riverwalk, in which guests are “booked” into their rooms and ghostly figures are both seen and heard all throughout the property.
Over the years, ghost sightings have become the norm at the Holiday Inn Express. Both employees and guests have reported similar paranormal occurrences, from employees feeling as though they are being watched to guests complaining that their rooms are unnaturally cold, even in the dead of summer. According to Gene, the General Manager of the Holiday Inn Express, it’s not uncommon for fluctuations in temperature to change dramatically from spot to spot in the hotel, sometimes even nearly fifteen or twenty degrees at a time.
And if being cold isn’t chilling enough, one particular man was using his laptop in his guest room when it was abruptly seized out of his grip by some unforeseen force and thrown across the room. Utterly terrified, the guest gathered his belongings, sprinted down the stairs and “booked out” of The Jail, as its fondly known by employees of the hotel.
Like I said, “chilling”—and the pun was intended.
Before Gene had even accepted the position of General Manager at the Holiday Inn Express, he’d opted come and stay one night at the hotel just to see if he liked it.
He quickly fell asleep, but at some point during the course of the night, he woke to feel a heavy pressure clinging to his bicep. The pain was so acute that he was jarred awake—but he saw nothing in the room, and he certainly didn’t see a single soul. The very next morning, he was getting ready for the day when he stopped next to the mirror as he dressed.
There, on his bicep, a five-fingered bruise had formed, as though somebody had grabbed his arm and refused to let go.
If only that were the end to his paranormal accounts. On many occasions, Gene explained that he would often stay the night at the hotel, finishing up paperwork or taking on the night shift.
His desk is situated so that he has a clear view of the security monitors, monitors which are placed all throughout the hotel. In theory, the sensory equipment notifies anyone anytime a motion sensor is triggered, only . . . according to Gene, those sensors are triggered even in the dead of night, where there is not a single soul walking the hallways.
“Is it alarming?” I asked during my impromptu tour of the hotel. “A little scary to see the motion detectors going off as though somebody is there?"
Gene’s reply was immediate. “Maybe in the beginning,” he said bluntly. “But I like to think that me and the ghosts of the Holiday Inn Express have come to a bit of an understanding—I leave them alone, and they leave me alone, and we get on just fine."
“Getting on just fine” can’t be said for all of the Holiday Inn Express’ employees. I caught up with Mary, one of the hotel’s housekeepers, as she was doing laundry in the laundry room.
Unlike many other haunted hotels I’ve visited, Mary and the other employees of the Holiday Inn Express were quick to discuss the ghostly activity. According to Mary, the spirits of the hotel tend to feed of their emotions. When she is tired or frustrated, it is almost as though the spirits are recharging off that negative emotion and using it to their own advantage.
On multiple occasions when Mary has felt tired or down, the sensation of being watch feels amplified. Lights in the laundry room will flicker or shut off altogether, and even when she is dressing the guest rooms with fresh bed sheets or other items, there is the distinct feeling that she is being followed. Watched.
“They are always there,” she told me as she folded a set of linens. “We all know it."
Another housekeeper piped up from the lobby space, taking the time to turn off the vacuum and join in on the conversation. “Sometimes you’ll hear voices down here, even when the hotel is quiet at night. Sometimes,” she said, “I’ll even come downstairs to see someone approach the front desk. I immediately think the person needs to get checked in, but as soon as I get close . . . the person disappears right from sight."
Is it possible that the ghosts of the Old Bexar County Jail are still roaming their old jail? From the way the employees each came forward to share their own personal experiences with the spirits of the Holiday Inn Express, it certainly seems that way.
Though years have passed since the hotel operated as the Old Bexar County Jail, employees have continued to find little pieces of history around the hotel that are constant reminders of the tragedy and misery that the property once cultivated.
Up until some years ago, the braided rope that was used to hang Clemente was still displayed in the hotel’s lobby, which was once the booking room. However, there were too many protestations about how wrong it was to display the hanging rope publicly, and it has since been moved to the local sheriff’s office instead.
But though the hanging rope has been removed, there are other slices of life from The Jail which have yet to be erased—and employees are finding new ones all the time.
The caged bars on the windows are exactly the same as they once were. Despite the fact that some guests claim to find them opened, they are locked shut from the building’s early days as a prison . . . meaning that if you were to find the caged bars open when you return to your room, it’s certainly not the housekeepers messing with you.
The layout of the hotel itself has maintained the same design as it did over fifty years ago, thanks to the fact that the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are only certain wallpapers or colors that can be used, and after ten minutes of spending time at the Holiday Inn Express, it’s easy to note that many of the rooms are oddly shaped or set up . . .
Turns out that even the interior layout cannot be altered, so that though you may see a nice bed and other furniture, nothing can be done to the hotel that would would ultimately ruin the aesthetics of what was once The Old Jail.
But perhaps the eeriest factor of the entire hotel, aside from the countless paranormal accounts, are the secret places where the prisoners’ scrawls on the walls still exist. One section of this can be seen in what is now the laundry shoot, which Mary so politely showed me: “Duck fast and get a look-see, before more laundry comes tumbling down the shoot and lands on your head."
Here, you can see the faded words scrawled on the walls by the Old Bexar County Jail's prisoners. This photo was taken on a cellphone, looking up into the drop-down ceiling on the hotel's fourth floor.
The other section where the scribbles of prison mates can be found is on the fourth floor. Gene showed me the way, grabbing another employee to join us on our exploration. With a step stool in hand, we ascended to the fourth floor and down toward the middle of the hall. The step stool was planted down, and the drop-down ceiling panel was pushed to the side. With a flashlight providing much needed light, I grabbed my phone and snapped a picture of writing that was recently discovered by staff but which has been there for decades.
It seems that whether you’re discussing the ghosts of the hotel, or the building itself, the property’s former prisoners refuse to move on . . . Or, perhaps, it’s more of a matter that they can’t.
Are you visiting San Antonio, Texas, sometime soon and have decided (after reading this article) that you’ve got your heart set on staying at the Old Bexar County Jail? If so, be sure to follow this link to get more information about your stay at this very haunted and historic hotel.
And if you’re keen on learning more about Haunted San Antonio, be sure to take our Ghosts of Old San Antonio Tour, where The Jail is one of our regular stops!
If you're looking for the perfect way to explore San Antonio's most haunted locations, check out one of our San Antonio Ghost Tours. We look forward to showing you around our beautifully haunted city.