By Logan Hawkes
There are a lot of strange places in Texas; just about as many as there are strange tales to go along with them. And Garnbury, Texas, nestled in the gentle Brazos River Valley in the north central region of the Lone Star State, has its share.
Some say Granbury was a central focal point for famous and infamous characters of the 19th century; people like Davy Crockett's wife, Elizabeth, who settled in Hood County following the Texas Revolution. Crockett, as well as other Alamo participants, received land grants, and the Crockett family received land in what is now Hood County. Elizabeth Crockett is buried in Acton State Historic Site, the smallest state park in Texas. A large statue of her marks her grave site. Several of Crockett's descendants still reside in Hood County.
Then there is the tale of Jesse James, who is reported to be buried in the City of Granbury Cemetery. Contrary to the popular legend about James, it is believed by many, including many of his adult grandchildren, that James changed his name and lived to old age in Granbury.
An argument can also be made that William Bonney, better known as Billie the Kid, moved to Granbury after reportedly being shot and killed in New Mexico by lawman Pat Garrett. As the story goes, friend and Sheriff Pat Garrett staged the Kid's death and ordered him out of the New Mexico territory in order to continue to live. Bonney may well have headed to Granbury before later moving and retiring in nearby Hico, Texas, who claims to be the home and final resting place of the kid.
But perhaps the strangest local take of them all is about a tall, scholarly getleman who moved to Granbury in the early 1870s to tend bar and teach school lessons by contract. His name, he said, was John St. Helen, and he loved to quote Shakespeare. But each each on April 14th, St. Helen, who attended bar at one point in his Granbury life, would drink himself into a stupor and would ocassionally mumble nonsensical utterances about government conspiracies and the death of an American hero.
In modern times, the popular television shows 20/20 and Unsolved Mysteries researched the claims that John St. Helens was the one and same John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Enough circumstantial evidence te4nds to support aht claim - at least leaves the question unanswered.
Thought to have perished in a bar fire in Virginia, federal authorities of the time first reported they had thrown Booth's body in the Potomac River. That story was later changed and investigators say they turned over his charred remains to family members. But - while on the subject of conspiracies - there are stories circulating around that has it the assassination of Lincoln was a planned consopiracy by some of Lincoln's own presidential Cabinet members. Remember the same night that Lincoln was assassinated, so were other key members of the government. Conspiracy theorist speculate the government has long covered up the real tale of Lincoln's assassination, and that Booth, the would-be-shooter at Ford Theatre, may have been ushered away by feceral agents immediately following the assassination and "reassigned" with a new identity - similar to what happens today in the witness protection program.
Years ago, before ever hearing about John St. Helens and the Granbury connection, when I was a young reporter working for the San Antonio Light newspaper out of the Hill Country bureau, I stumbled in the Bander public library for a little research on local history. I stumbled across a local newspaper clipping from the late 1800s that told the story of a young man who very much met the description of Booth and St, Helens, who had come to Bandera under suspicious circulstances. He was a school teacher and thespian, and opened a school of acting for the children of elite families in Bandera. It wasn't long before this educated foreigner, who walked with a limp and talked with a southern accent, worked his way into the mainstream of local society and fell in love with the daughter of a local cattle baron.
A mariage had been arranged and a wedding date set. But when a member of the brides family arrived to attend the upcoming ceremony, he reportedly recognized the teacher as the one and same John Wilkes Booth. The relative was part of a team of federal investigators who looked into the Lincoln assassination and were not satisfied that Booth was actually dead. As the story goes, the relative politely questioned the teacher, who became nervous and feigned an illness, saying he would answer all questions properly before the wedding. That night he disappeared never to be seen again in Bandera, leaving his bride-to-be standing empty at the altar.
Could this have been the same man that then traveled to Granbury in attempt to start over again with a different name and identity? Evidence seems to point that way.
Of course, St. Helen's limp and predilection for Shakespeare and liquor may have just been a coincidence, but it remains curious why St. Helen quitely left his home in Glen Rose when approached by a federal marshal. As the story goes, St. Helen actually lived in a small cabin in Glen Rose for two or three years before moving to Granbury. Without bothering to pack, Helen left Glen Rose for Granbury as soon as he learned a local woman was about to marry a U.S. marshal.
John St. Helen's later confessed to Lincoln's assassination, on his death bed in a Granbury's doctor's office. He reported confessed to a priest and several others that he was Abraham Lincoln's lone assassin. He then revealed where they could find the gun he used to kill the president. The gun was later found wrapped in a newspaper clipping detailing Lincoln's untimely death. The only problem is, St. Helens didn't die that day, and shortly left Granbury unannounced.
Years later, in 1903, an Enid, Oklahoma man named David George claimed to be John Wilkes Booth while on his death bed, apparently this time for real. George also claimed to have changed his name the first time around to John St. Helen.
Local stories around Granbury, depending on who you talk to, have it that St. Helens was a big fan of the Granbury Opera House and may have performed there on serveral ocassions. In fact, the restored Opera House, now open for productions by seasoned Broadway veterans and an in-house team of university interns, is said to be haunted by a stately figure in black wearing large black boots and a waist coat to match. The apparition is saif d to be well versed in Shakespeare and has been known to launch in a tyranical performance of passion and prose.
The few who have said to have seen the apparation later, after examining photos of Booth, say the ghost and the assassin appear to look very much the same. Is it the ghost of John Wilkes Booth who haunts the Granbury Opera House? Or are the tales and stories nothing more than legend and fable?
Perhaps the only way to know for certain would be to dress like Ol' Honest Abe and enter the thteatre one dark night and ask for yourself. Stranger things have happened in Texas.