John Wilkes Booth and Jesse James refuse to leave this north Texas town.
Dallas residents love to escape the big city and head to Granbury, Texas, for its historic Hood County Courthouse, its varied theater offerings and the downtown square full of boutique shops and restaurants. Some visitors have refused to leave, including two notorious outlaws. There’s a legend in Granbury that John Wilkes Booth and Jesse James fled to north Texas after their criminal deeds and lived out their lives in the small Texas town, under different names of course.
For Booth, the story goes that a man resembling the actor who murdered Abraham Lincoln or a man who had Booth’s diary on him (I’ve read different versions) was killed back east at Garrett’s farm in Virginia while the real Booth took off for Texas. Authorities then claimed that Booth had been found and killed. Under the name of John St. Helen and sporting a limp — one assumed was acquired from his injuries at Ford Theater the night he shot Lincoln — the real Booth worked as a bartender and an actor at the Granbury Opera House, and taught theater to area children.
When St. Helen became gravely ill in 1877, he confessed that he was John Wilkes Booth to several people, including lawyer Finis L. Bates, the grandfather of actress Kathy Bates, according to Brandy Herr, co-founder of Granbury Ghosts and Legends Tour and the author of “Haunted Granbury.”
St. Helen didn’t die, but after Booth's confession, he took off for Enid, Okla., where he took the name of David George. Again, he became ill and admitted to being Booth and once a man named St. Helen. This time, however, he did die.
Finis Bates wrote a book about his experiences, titled “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth: Or the First True Account of Lincoln’s Assassination. Containing a Complete Confession by Booth Many Years After the Crime. Giving in Full Detail the Plans, Plot and Intrigue of the Conspirators, and the Treachery of Andrew Johnson, then Vice-President of the United States. Written for the Corrections of History.”
Talk about a long title for a book!
The story of the supposed real John Wilkes Booth has been featured on two TV series, “20/20” and “Unsolved Mysteries,” and paranormal investigators have asked the spirit haunting the Granbury Opera House if he was Booth. The answer they received on their recording was “Yes, I’m John Wilkes Booth,” followed by an expletive.
As for Jesse James, the theory is similar, that an associate of James was killed and believed by authorities to have been the outlaw. The real James moved to Granbury and lived his life there as J. Frank Dalton. He also admitted the lie on his deathbed in 1951, when he died at age 107. According to the Granbury website, after an autopsy Hood County Sheriff Oran Baker believed the dead man was the real Jesse James. According to Herr, Dalton’s body was riddled with bullet wounds and rope burns.
Dalton — or James — is buried in the Granbury City Cemetery on North Crockett and Moore streets, about a mile north of the heart of town. His tombstone reads: “Jesse Woodson James, Sept. 5, 1847-Aug. 15, 1951. Supposedly killed in 1882.”
There are lots of other spirits hanging around historic Granbury, according to the tour, including a faceless girl at the Market on the Square and Mr. Estes at Farina’s restaurant, among others.
The girl was believed to have been left by a visiting circus or she was a resident who fell from the upper windows watching the circus go by. Either way, she remains without facial features. The shop has a photo booth where visitors can dress up for pictures. One day, shop employees found the booth in disarray with a blue dress draped over the chair. In the waste basket were photos of a girl with no face and a blue dress stretched over her lap. As Herr said on a tour we took a few years ago, that photo was the first “ghost selfie.”
As for Mr. Estes, the circa-1893 building at the corner of W. Bridge and N. Houston was once a clothing shop and employees complained of footsteps, items falling off shelves and clothes being separated on racks. They heard children running upstairs. When Herr told the owners she was starting a ghost tour, cowboy boots flew off the wall shelf and landed on the floor.
Need more spirits? Granbury's inaugural Official Signature Drink is “Two Shots Fired," named for the famous men who refuse to leave town.
Cheré Dastugue Coen is the author of Weird, Wacky & Wild South but also "Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana" by The History Press. She adores ghost stories.