Saturday, June 10, 2017

Haunted Granbury Opera House

The opera house in Granbury, Texas was built in 1886. It was a grand structure which shared space with a saloon. In 1911, along with a number of other establishments, it was forced to close by the Women's Christian Temperance Union which wanted to abolish all drinking of alcohol. It remained closed and unoccupied for the next 63 years. It was about to be demolished when a group of citizens took it upon themselves to began restoration. It was almost too late - the roof had fallen in and the interior had been basically gutted.

When it re-opened in 1975, patrons were astounded at the quality of the restoration work. Such attention to detail left them feeling as if they had walked through a time portal back into the nineteenth century. Soon, rumors began circulating that the old building was haunted by perhaps the most notorious American actor of that century.

Employees and patrons often reported they had seen a translucent apparition of a man who was wearing a white shirt, black waistcoat, black pants, and high black boots. Several employees said they had been frightened while closing up at night by the apparition suddenly appearing on stage and reciting lines from some Shakespeare's plays. Numerous actors, theater workers and even the managing  director have reported hearing unexplained footsteps walking back and forth along the balcony when no one was up there.

The ghost seems to be rather mischievous as he often will flush a urinal at one end of the row in the men's room while it is occupied by only one person who is standing at the other end. Ladies sometimes walk into a cold spot outside the ladies room even when the air conditioning is not on, but evidently the spirit is a gentleman as nothing strange ever happens inside the room. Often, after the crew has cleaned up and are preparing to lock the doors and leave for the night, the last call light will turn off by itself. Tom, a long-time worker has sworn that one night as he was walking toward the last call light to turn it off, the switch flicked off by itself and he heard a man's voice whisper, "I got it, Tom."

Some say the ghost is the spirit of a man who went by the name of John St. Helen. St. Helen arrived in the nearby town of Glen Rose and landed a job as a school teacher. He also ran an acting school for the children of upper-class families. John fell in love and became engaged to the daughter of a well-known local politician. He wanted them to have a quiet ceremony, but the bride had other ideas and began the planning. Due to her parent's status and money, the wedding was to be a splendid affair with many high-powered politicians and elected officials in attendance. When John was shown the guest list, it included a number of soldiers and the U.S. Marshal  for the Eastern District of Texas. St. Helen immediately called off the marriage and left town. 

John St. Helen or John Wilkes Booth?
(Historical photo)
A full year later, St. Helen showed up in Granbury where he got a job as a bartender at the saloon adjoining the theater. He stood out because of a distinctive limp, a southern accent, and his strange habit of reciting lines from Shakespeare while having a conversation. Nobody ever saw him take a drink except on April 15, the anniversary of Lincoln's assassination, when he became roaring drunk and spent the night sleeping it off in a back room of the saloon. He would often attend plays at the opera house, sitting quietly and intensely watching throughout the performance. When the director decided to perform a Shakespearean play, John tried out and won the leading role. Everyone was extremely impressed with his acting ability and he was requested to be in other plays, but he always refused except for Shakespeare plays.

St. Helen had lived quietly in Granbury for several years when he became severely ill. The local doctor examined him and said he would soon die from the disease. The next day, John called for his friend and lawyer Finis L. Bates to come to his deathbed. In a weak, barely audible voice, St. Helen confessed to Finis that he was actually John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. He then gave Bates several of his possessions and instructions for his burial. 

A few days later St. Helen and the doctor were surprised when he woke up one morning feeling much better. After several more days it became evident he would survive his "terminal illness." Summoning his friend Finis again, John told him that the leader of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln was Vice-President Andrew Johnson and the identity of the man mortally wounded man in the Garrett tobacco barnwas a plantation overseer by the name of Ruddy St. Helen. Booth had asked Ruddy to fetch his papers, which had fallen out of his pocket while crossing the Rappathannock River. Ruddy was able to retrieve Booth's papers, and while still in possession of them, Ruddy was mortally wounded in the Garrett barn, thus leading his captors to believe that he was Booth. The next night, John abruptly left town without telling anyone where he was going. When Finis heard he had left, he opened the small chest that St. Helen had given him and found a Colt single-shot pocket pistol wrapped in the front page of a Washington, D.C. newspaper dated April 16, 1865, the day after Lincoln's assassination.

Nothing more was heard of John St. Helen until 1906 when Finis heard about an alcoholic named David George who had committed suicide in Enid, Oklahoma. A house painter, George had an affinity for quoting Shakespeare. For reasons known only to himself, he purchased strychnine from several druggists and ingested the poison. When neighbors in the rooming house where he was living heard loud moans coming from his room, they broke in to find him writhing in pain on his bed. They summoned a doctor who arrived within 10 minutes. 
As he lay dying, he told the doctor that he didn't want to be buried under a false name. He claimed he was actually John Wilkes Booth and told the doctor numerous very specific details of the night President Lincoln had been killed.

Finis immediately traveled to Enid and was shown the unclaimed body in question. After a careful and thorough examination, Finis concluded that it was indeed the body of his former friend John St. Helen due to matching scars and features. He had the body embalmed and then invited government officials to examine it for authentication that it was indeed the body of the infamous John Wilkes Booth. The government officials declined and repeated the story that Booth had been shot and killed by Boston Corbett, a Union soldier, on April 26, 1865.

Mummified body
of John
Finis kept the mummified body in his garage for a while, but then began touring it in circus sideshows until after World War 1 ended. In 1920, he rented the body to the showman William Evans for $200 per month to be exhibited as a sideshow attraction. Evans still had the body when Finis died in 1923 so he purchased it from the widow Bates for $1,000. The body spent years traveling all around the country with various circuses until the 1950's when a man named R. K. Verbeck purchased "John" from a female landlord in Philadelphia who had held it as collateral from a man who had died owing her rent. By the time Verbeck was able to travel to Philadelphia, the entire neighborhood had been razed and the body had disappeared. "John" turned up for the last time in the mid-1970's once again touring in a small carnival. The carnival went out of business in the late 1970's and the body has never been found.

According to the many reports coming from Granbury, Texas though, the mysterious man's spirit has found its way there and is content to spend eternity in the Granbury Opera House. 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Buried Alive

A universal fear of all humans, a fear that crosses distance and different languages, is the fear of being buried alive. In the early 1800s, Samuel Jocelyn lived in Wilmington, North Carolina. As the son of a well respected local lawyer, Sam enjoyed a great amount of respect himself. The young man was best friends with another young man named Alexander Hostler. The two men shared many interests and were always seen together.

During a discussion one day with a group of friends, the idea arose of returning from death and making your presence known. While the rest of the group laughed at the idea, Sam and Alexander both defended it. While discussing the matter later, a deal was struck between the two men that the first one to die would come back and make his presence known to the other. They would not have to wait long.

Sam loved horses and had a stable of fine steeds. He found great pleasure in taking to the wooded trails on one of his fine horses and forget any troubles. One afternoon as Sam was out for a ride, tragedy struck. No one knows what happened, but Sam was found unresponsive in the middle of a trail near his home, his horse a few yards away grazing.

He was taken back home where everything medical science had to offer was tried in an attempt to wake the boy from his coma, but it proved to be no use. Two days later, Sam Jocelyn was declared dead and was buried in St. James Church cemetery. The funeral was a massive event with hundreds of people from the area in attendance.

Alexander was beside himself after his friend's death. Many thought he might die of grief. As Alexander lay in bed two nights after Sam's burial, a ghostly vision suddenly appeared. It was his friend Sam. "How could you let me be buried when I am not yet dead?" the ghost asked Alexander. Horrified both by what he saw and the prospect of burying his dearest friend alive, Alexander stuttered "Not dead?". "No, I was not. Open the coffin and you will see that I am not in the same position you buried me in." And with that, the ghost of Sam Jocelyn faded away.

The next morning Alexander doubted that what he saw was real. Through the day as he thought about it, he decided it was nothing more than grief that had caused him to imagine the ghost. That night saw the ghost of Sam Jocelyn come back though and once again ask of his friend "How could you let me be buried when I am not yet dead?" This time the spirit's tone was more urgent, begging even.

Alexander then realized that what he saw was real, but afraid of people thinking him insane, he decided to say nothing. Not until the third night anyway when the ghost of Sam appeared again. This time the ghost pleaded with the living Alexander "How could you let me be buried when I am not yet dead?" Alexander decided right then to investigate the claims of the spirit as the ghost slowly vanished into nothingness.

The next morning, Alexander found his other friend, Louis Toomer, and told him everything. Toomer agreed to help Alexander only because he thought it might save what was left of Alexander's sanity. They went to Sam's family and sought permission to dig up his casket. Seeing how upset Alexander was, they agreed, but with the stipulation it be done in private. 

Late that night, Toomer and Alexander snuck into the St. James cemetery with shovels and began to remove the still fresh earth from the grave. Before long, their shovels met with the coffin. They opened the lid and lowered a lantern. There in the coffin was Sam, but as the ghost had said, he was not in the position they had placed him in. He was face down. Deep scratches were on the inside of the casket and the struggling, no doubt terrified young man had managed to loosen one side of the lid. Death had not come from the accident on the road, but suffocation from being buried alive.

Until the day he died just a year later, Alexander Hostler would sit in front of the grave of his friend all night muttering over and over "I'm sorry, I didn't know. I'm sorry, I didn't know".

Monday, May 8, 2017

Devil Horse Hoof Prints

The story of the Devil Horse Hoof Prints in Bath, North Carolina is much more than just a ghost story or tale of a haunted place. This is a warning about the evils of betting on the Sabbath, drinking to much and disrespecting your wife. Don't believe in ghosts, you say? This tale comes with proof.

Jesse Elliot was a free-spirited, hard living, hard drinking, profane man who loved to race horses. He was also an obnoxious drunk who, being a large man, was intimidating as well. It was known far and wide that he was willing to take on any challenger at any time and any place as he was positive he owned the fastest horse in the county. 

On a quiet Sunday morning in the early fall of 1813, a black-clad rider no one had ever seen rode up on a coal black stallion and challenged Jesse to a race that day. He confidently bet $100 that his horse would beat Jess's. Accepting the bet and agreeing to meet at the local racetrack in one hour, Jesse left to get his horse.

When Jess arrived home, his wife warned him of betting on the Sabbath, but rather than ignore her, he gave her a hard slap across the face and began preparing his horse. Before riding away, he downed two shots of whiskey. As he rode off to the race, he cursed his wife who then yelled at him "Jesse Elliot, I hope you go to Hell this very day!"

Jesse arrived at the track where a few of his obnoxious friends and the dark stranger was waiting. The man was calm, perhaps a little too calm for someone who was about to lose a large amount of money. Jesse was bothered by the man's demeanor, but he shook it off as the two riders agreed on the terms of the race.

The race began with a pistol shot and both riders shot out from the starting line. Jesse soon took the lead as the stranger began falling behind. With his self-confidence brimming, he uttered his last words. "Take me in a winner or take me to Hell". At that moment, as he went around a curve in the track, His horse twisted his head, reared up and dug it's hooves into the ground. The violent move sent Jesse flying from the saddle head first into a pine tree, instantly killing him. The mysterious dark rider rode past the dead man and disappeared over a rise with Jesse's horse following. No trace of them was ever seen again.

Some folks say it was the Devil who was atop the other horse and Jesse Elliott went to hell at that very moment, taken there by the stranger on the black stallion. For almost a year, hair from Jesse's head remained buried in the tree. Within a few days, the tree turned brown and decayed on the side where Jesse's head had hit. The hoof prints the horse left in the loamy soil are still visible over 200 years later. 

News of the incident spread and the local citizens took it as a warning from on high. Sabbath-breaking in the region diminished significantly. The preacher in the little country church declared the hoof prints were left by "a man on his way to hell." 

There are certain qualities to the depressions which have baffled experts and mystified people for generations. The holes are  not sheltered, but they remain free of grass, leaves, pine needles, or debris of any kind. If they are filled with dirt or anything else they are soon found to be empty. 

For many years, an old decayed stump of what was once a large pine tree was visible near the depressions, the rotting remains of the tree which took Jesse Elliott's life.

Historical photo from 1950's
In the 1950's, a newsreel crew came to investigate and get pictures of the strange indention's in the ground. Old-timers in the area told them that chickens would eat corn from all around the holes, but they would not touch kernels that were actually in the depressions. Curious, the crew filmed an experiment with a flock of chickens and corn. The result was as the locals stated. The birds ate all the corn from around the holes, but even after the surrounding ground had been picked clean, the kernels within the indention's were ignored. 

One of the reports the crew heard was from a 93-year-old man who had lived in the area his whole life. He told them about how he and his brothers would fill the pits with different items on their way to school, only to always find them empty on their way home. The crew decided to construct another experiment. They collected dirt, leaves, and small stones and proceeded to fill the depressions. They then laid multiple strings of black thread over the mounds. They watched and filmed for a few hours, but when nothing had happened and the late night hour made filming impractical, they retired for the night. A few hours later at daybreak, they returned to find the holes were clean of all the debris, yet the nets of string lay undisturbed. 

 Is there some strange natural explanation for the so-called hoof prints to remain visible for so many years? Why do they remain empty? Why do animals not eat food laying in them? 

Perhaps there is no natural explanation because the story handed down from generation to generation is true - the marks actually were left by a horse whose rider was on his way straight to hell.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Unsettled Souls of Fort Smith Cemetery

The Fort Smith National Cemetery in Sebastian County, Arkansas played an important role in the western expansion of the United States. By the early 1800’s, white settlers were moving into the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1805. As the settlers moved onto land inhabited by the Indians, tensions naturally began to rise. The U.S. Army began building military posts to protect the settlers. Fort Smith was the first and most western of these forts. As a wild and lawless town grew around the fort, it became the last “civilized” place for outlaws, bandits, and renegades to acquire supplies before entering Indian Territory.
In 1823, out of the 200 troops stationed there, 51 died and the first official cemetery was created and dedicated on the site just outside the stockade where there had already been 3 burials. In 1824, Fort Gibson was constructed and Fort Smith was closed. Between 1824 and 1838, when the army returned to re-open Fort Smith, a number of men, most of whom died due to the lawlessness of the town, were haphazardly buried there. The army rehabilitated the cemetery and began overseeing internments.
When the Civil War began, Confederate forces took over the fort. When the Union forces re-captured it in late 1863, over 475 Rebel soldiers, most of them men who had fallen in battle, had been buried in the expanded cemetery.
The war ended in 1865 and by 1867, the bodies of so many fallen Confederate soldiers had been removed from hasty graves dug on battlefields and reburied in the Fort Smith cemetery that it was increased in size to over 5 acres. It was officially made a National Cemetery in late 1867 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
Over the years, the cemetery has been expanded to cover over 33 acres and include almost 14,000 burials. Probably the most famous person buried here is Isaac Parker, the “Hanging Judge.” During his 21 years in Fort Smith, he sentenced 160 men and women to die with a noose around their necks. 79 of those 160 actually met their fate on the gallows.
During the 1860’s, as the bodies of more and more soldiers who had suffered horrible deaths during battles were being dug up from their resting places and reburied in the cemetery, stories began circulating of strange sounds emanating from the grave yard at night; cries of anguish, sometimes a painful scream, and a persistent rumor of hearing what sounded like a young man crying out for his momma. Sometimes strange, bobbing lights would appear, float around the headstones and then vanish. Soldiers who were assigned night duty of standing guard at the cemetery’s gate refused to do it alone and would not enter the grounds.
By the early 1900’s, it seems things in the cemetery began to settle down. Although still spooky after dark, stories of the unexplained sounds and lights virtually ceased. In the late 1990’s however, for some unknown reason, it seems the forever occupants of the Fort Smith cemetery became uneasy. Once again, strange lights began to be seen floating around in the dark. Cemetery caretakers began reporting tools left amongst the graves overnight would be moved when they reported back to work the next morning. Sometimes the tools would simply be moved from one side of a grave marker to the other side of the same marker and other times a rake or shovel would be moved several graves away from where it had been left.
In 1998, on a cold December night, one of the groundskeepers had been performing maintenance work around Isaac Parker’s grave. He had left a spade and clippers next to the grave when he had been called away to help on another task. It was dark when he returned alone to retrieve his tools and put them away in a shed. After gathering up the tools, he turned away heading toward the shed when he heard something behind him. Thinking it was just a leaf being blown along the grass, he didn’t think anything of it. A few steps later though, he realized the noise had not gone away; in fact, it seemed now like it was the footsteps of someone following him. He pulled a flashlight from his tool belt and turned it on as he quickly turned around. Illuminated by the flashlight stood an old man with white hair and a white beard, wearing an old-fashioned black suit. The man was just standing there looking at him. The groundskeeper asked him what he wanted and the man began moving his lips as if he was talking, but there was no sound. It was then the groundskeeper realized that in the beam of his flashlight, he could see right through the man to the headstones directly behind him! Dropping the flashlight and the tools he had retrieved, the groundskeeper ran directly to his car without looking back and sped home.
Having worked and been in the Fort Smith Museum and having seen the pictures of Isaac Parker numerous times, the groundskeeper had no doubt the eerie apparition had been the Hanging Judge himself. The story goes that when the groundskeeper came in the next day, his salt-and-pepper colored hair had turned completely white. He told his supervisor of his encounter and then, with trembling hands, gave him his letter of resignation and walked out.