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. 

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