The mystery of whether Abraham Lincoln’s assassin eluded capture during a massive 12-day manhunt and came to live in Glen Rose and Granbury in his later years remains unproved.
The story of John Wilkes Booth’s possible connection to the area under the assumed name John St. Helen took some bizarre paths. Those twists ranged from an alleged government conspiracy and cover-up to mistaken identity to an alleged deathbed confession.
The story took a gruesome turn when what was claimed to be Booth’s well-preserved mummy was used for profit in a widespread series of bizarre appearances in carnivals and fairs as recently as the 1970s.
Modern-day “evidence” of Booth’s presence as John St. Helen in Glen Rose includes a small log cabin downtown on Vernon Street that reportedly was St. Helen’s residence at one time.
In downtown Granbury, a modern-day boutique named St. Helen’s — side-by-side with the equally popular Nutshell Eatery and Bakery — occupies the former location of St. Helen’s one-time saloon across from the old Hood County Courthouse on Pearl Street.
THE MYTH, THE MUMMY
Cathey Hartmann, chairman of the Erath County Historical Commission since 2007, has a unique perspective on the topic. Her first husband, the late John Sims, co-wrote a play with Jo Ann Miller titled “John Wilkes Booth: The Myth and the Mummy.”
“Jo Ann Miller had the idea for the play,” Hartmann said. “Now I have the copyright on the play.”
Large rewards were offered for not only Booth, a well-known Shakespearean-trained stage actor of that day, but also multiple co-conspirators in the assassination plot.
On April 26, 1865, soldiers from the 16th New York Calvary surrounded a barn in Virginia in which Booth was believed to be hiding. The man thought to be 26-year-old Booth was shot dead, ending that part of the massive manhunt.
“He was killed in a barn in Virginia, and he was buried very quickly,” Hartmann said of the incident before revealing her suspicion. “I think it was a cover-up. I think they did not want people to know he got away. You could probably never prove it now. There’s loopholes in the story history tells us.”
The world premiere of the play was performed in the Granbury Opera House in 1986 as part of Granbury’s Sesquicentennial celebration, and was presented again in 1991. The cover of the play’s program states that it’s “A true account based on historical fact.”
The focus of the play was John St. Helen, a bartender in Granbury during the 1870s. According to reports, St. Helen was quick to quote from Shakespeare, and walked with the limp of someone who might have suffered a broken leg at some point in his past.
The large cast of characters portrayed by local actors ranged from Booth himself played by Ricky Leal to Sgt. Boston Corbett, the soldier credited with firing the fatal bullet into Booth’s head.
“It was a wonderful production. It was a big hit,” said Hartmann, who resides on her family farm near Bluff Dale. She was a 7th-grade Texas history teacher — at Happy Hill Farm in Somervell County, and at Acton School in Hood County — for 16 years before her retirement.
Hartmann provided some key lines from the play, which used actual quotes from people who knew John St. Helen during the time he supposedly lived in Granbury.
D.C. Cogdill, president of First National Bank of Granbury — “I knew him as well as most men did. But none ever knew him well, he never talked of his past and never told anyone where he came from. But it is my belief and the almost unanimous opinion in Granbury and in Glen Rose that John St. Helen was really John Wilkes Booth.”
Captain R.S. Whitehead — “Many years ago I knew a man in Granbury who was a saloon proprietor and who was commonly known by the name John St. Helen. St. Helen was a mysterious character and it was the general opinion that he had a past and that he was guarding it well… He made few intimate acquaintances and never talked about himself.”
Hartmann said the question of whether Booth actually lived in the North Texas area for several years after the infamous murder remains interesting to her.
“Any time you talk about the assassination of a president, especially Lincoln, it will be of interest,” Hartmann said.
Longtime Somervell County resident Walter Maynard, who was the county judge from 1999-2010, said the Booth/St. Helen narrative was “a common story around here.”
Although he has always been “neutral” on the issue of whether they were the same person, Maynord said that based on the information he has heard, “it sounds pretty believable.”
Accepted historical accounts tell us that John Wilkes Booth shot and killed Lincoln using a Derringer on April 14, 1865 during a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Booth fled on horseback to nearby Maryland, where a medical doctor named Samuel Mudd splintered the leg Booth broke in his leap from the presidential booth at the play when he was escaping.
It’s at that point alternate stories start to cloud traditional historical accounts. By far the most significant is the claim that the man killed on that farm in Virginia was not Booth.
Information found on the city of Granbury’s website on the John Wilkes Booth topic notes, “Some historians believe there was a conspiracy among members of Lincoln’s cabinet to murder the president.”
That same website also explains that “Booth found his way through the sympathetic South to Glen Rose and then to Granbury where he used the name John St. Helen. St. Helen disappeared from Glen Rose late one night because a local girl was marrying a U.S. marshal. Although he owned a store on the grounds of a mill in Glen Rose, St. Helen left for Granbury the same night the betrothed marshal arrived in town.”
Likely the first person to write a book about Booth’s escape to Texas — and life as John St. Helen and later as David E. George in Oklahoma where he reportedly committed suicide by ingesting arsenic — was a lawyer and one-time Granbury resident named Finis Bates. His book, “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth,” was published in 1907.
In his book, Bates wrote that while he was in Granbury in 1873 he met a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. Bates noted that their friendship spanned about five years.
When St. Helen became ill in 1878, he reportedly believed he was dying and gave what he believed was a deathbed confession, as quoted by Bates in the book: “I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth, and I am the assassin of President Lincoln. Get the picture of myself from under the pillow. I leave it with you for my future identification. Notify my brother Edwin Booth, of New York City.”
St. Helen recovered, however, and Bates later said he learned that the leader of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln was Vice President Andrew Johnson.
According to a 2008 Glen Rose Reporter article written by Tarleton State University journalism professor Dan Malone, St. Helen also told Bates that the assassination “was done on my part with purely patriotic motives, believing … that the death of President Lincoln and the succession of Vice President Johnson, a Southern man, to the presidency, was the only hope for the protection of the South.”
Bates said St. Helen also told him that the man who was fatally shot in Virginia and thought to have been Booth was a plantation owner who was in possession of some of Booth’s personal papers — fooling the soldiers into believing that they had killed the assassin.
For years, efforts to have the remains in question exhumed from Booth’s presumed grave in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, for DNA testing have been thwarted.
One statement released by Green Mount Cemetery in 1994 states that it was rejecting one particular exhumation request because it “was trusted by Mary Ann Booth in 1869 with the remains of her son, John Wilkes Booth, and with the remains of other members in a family plat at the cemetery. Green Mount Cemetery holds a position of trust with respect to the remains of John Wilkes Booth and to the remains of all the Booth family to insure that these deceased rest in peace.”
An online article published by Modern Healthcare states that the National Museum of Health and Medicine has in its possession three of Booth’s cervical vertebrae, taken into possession of the Army after an autopsy. Those bone samples could be used for DNA matching with Booth’s brother, Edwin Booth, whose burial site is known.
But various court rulings have struck down exhumation efforts, even though some of Booth’s distant descendants have been in favor of such testing. Booth reportedly had no children and there were no direct descendants.
The latest news on the effort to confirm St. Helen’s identity was published online by The Philadelphia Enquirer in an April 15, 2019 article titled, “Did John Wilkes Booth get away with murdering President Abraham Lincoln?”
That article states that three photos — of John St. Helen from 1877, the embalmed corpse of David E. George from 1903, and of John Wilkes Booth from 1865 — were being analyzed using facial-recognition software comparing things such as jaw lines, noses, cheek bones and spaces between the eyes.
The results showed “a strong possibility that all three photographs were of the same man,” according to the article. It also noted that was the same belief “long-held by a small number of historians, but always dismissed by scholars and assassination experts as conspiracy nonsense.”
Ramy Romany, an Egyptologist who helped oversee a Booth investigation as part of a new Discovery Channel television series, “Mummies Unwrapped” admitted to that newspaper that facial recognition testing is “not as definitive as DNA results,” — but added that it at least raises the prospect that Booth’s move to Texas could have occurred.
“I was absolutely shocked,” Romany was quoted as telling The Philadelphia Enquirer. “It changed my perspective on American history. For the first time, I thought this could be true. John Wilkes Booth could have gotten away.”