This piece was originally published in August 2017.
Joanne Hulme’s mother sat her down for a serious conversation when she was 12 years old.
“I was told I came from a famous acting family,” recalled Hulme, speaking in her pitch perfect Philadelphia accent. “And I said, ‘Who?’ And my mother said, ‘Oh, Edwin Booth.’”
As a kid just starting the 6th grade, Hulme said “ [I] didn’t know anything about anything. But I was very well read as a child; I loved to read. So I said, ‘Oh. Is he related to John Wilkes Booth?’”
John Wilkes Booth: The famous Shakespearean actor from Maryland who, on April 14, 1865, crept into a private box in a Washington, D.C. theater, waited for the audience to laugh at the funniest line of the play and then shot the President of the United States in the back of his head.
“I just thought my mother would say, ‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous,’” Hulme continued. “But unfortunately my mother said, ‘Yes, that’s his brother.’”
Booth was only 26 when he shot the president, but he was already a well-known heartthrob who excelled in his field. Historians told me he was eminently recognizable; one compared his status to that of Brad Pitt, another to George Clooney.
Booth biographer Terry Alford described John Wilkes as a muscled gym rat with “the look that gets you a second look.”
He also had a dark side. When he was younger, he tortured neighborhood cats, said Alford— although, he reportedly rescued some stray kittens later in life.
It seems he never entirely rid himself of that darkness.
“He had that inner kind of crazy thing that a lot of actors have. They can kind of tap into that passion and emotion,” said Alford.
But Hulme’s coming-of-age conversation wasn’t about a genetic propensity for acting or even about finding out, gently, that she was related to a treasonous assassin. She’d be studying the Civil War in history class that year, and her mother wanted her to know: The textbooks, the history teachers, the government — they have it wrong.
Official sources will tell you that Booth ran after the shooting but was only on the lam for a week and a half before federal troops set fire to a tobacco barn near Bowling Green, Virginia, where they believed Booth was hiding out. An accomplice of his surrendered. Booth, however, refused and was fatally shot.
What Hulme’s mother wanted her daughter to know was that the man shot that day was not John Wilkes Booth. Booth, she said, wasn’t in the Garrett family’s barn at all but fled southward and continued to live under assumed names for many years.
Granbury Town Square was teeming with people on the night Brandy Herr moved to town.
That seemed odd for a late Monday in the small Texas city southwest of Dallas, where weekday nightlife is largely limited to “Two-Steppin’ Tuesdays” at the local golf club.
Then Herr saw the large, black tractor trailer for the Discovery Channel show “Ghost Lab” and got her first inkling of what all the fuss was about. The show’s stars, professional ghost hunters Brad and Barry Klinge, were visiting the Granbury Opera House, the lantern-lined theatre that is home to a suspected town haunting.
Herr and others believe the ghost of a strange and secretive man named John St. Helen haunts the building, sometimes taking a seat among unsuspecting audience members in the balcony.
“St. Helen was known as somebody who kept his own counsel; he didn’t talk about his past,” explained Melinda Ray, who owns the Historic Nutt House Hotel in Granbury. “But the West was full of people like that back then. And, you know, the polite thing to do was you didn’t ask.”
Listening to Melinda Ray speak in her soft Texas drawl, surrounded by Bibles and family photos, it was hard to resist being drawn in by the story of John St. Helen.
He was a drifter who showed up in the 1870s and tended bar at a saloon next door to what is now the Granbury Opera House, though at the time, plays were held in another part of town. Locals say the mysterious man could recite Shakespeare from memory—and that he drunkenly did so one April 14, climbing onto the theater’s stage during a production, even though he normally never touched the liquor he served.
St. Helen “acquired a reputation for being more cultured than the average saloon keeper,” according to a 1986 article in Granbury’s Hood County News. Ray said the bartender was also “known as a character in that he was not real friendly, and he also was known for having a hot temper.”
Many people in Granbury and elsewhere say they can explain why this taciturn, itinerant man, who flirted with several Southern towns but never could commit to a single place, was so worldly and seemingly well-educated. They believe “John St. Helen” was the pseudonym of a famous Shakespearean actor from Maryland.
They believe “John St. Helen” was John Wilkes Booth.
To understand how the Shakespearean actor-turned-assassin from Maryland supposedly came to haunt a theater in Texas, you have to turn to local folklore, modern conspiracy theories and the book that likely started it all: Finis L. Bates’ “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth,” published in 1907.
Bates, an attorney who befriend St. Helen, was born in Mississippi but moved to Texas early in his career. He was a young man “trying to make his way in the world, and (St. Helen) was an older, educated, single gentleman,” explained Melinda Ray, “and so they found something in common.”
Ray places John St. Helen in Granbury by 1872 or 1873, working as a bartender in a saloon owned by local businessman A.P. Gordon.
Local legend says the next few years passed quietly, without St. Helen arousing much suspicion, until he called Bates to his bedside at a boarding house in 1878 to bear witness to a shocking confession.
Bates wrote that the severely ill St. Helen told him, “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.”
In the version of the story Ray is familiar with, St. Helen “woke up a few mornings later and his fever had broken. And even though he was weak, he just insisted upon paying (the boarding house) for a horse and riding away. And he didn’t even take all his belongings with him.”
Bates’ telling is a bit different: He wrote that St. Helen confessed more details to him under the assurance of attorney-client privilege, then moved to Colorado once he was fully recovered.
Either way, Ray summed up St. Helen’s predicament nicely: “It’s like, ‘Hot damn, I didn’t die! Better get out of town now.’”
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, a guest staying at an Enid hotel began screaming on the morning of January 13, 1903.
The guest, David E. George, was soon dead from what a doctor diagnosed as self-administered arsenic poisoning. The man wasn’t known locally but was said to be a house painter who loved alcohol and often quoted Shakespeare. He was quoted as saying, “I killed the best man that ever lived,” according to an entry in The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.
George was embalmed and placed in the window of the funeral home for public viewing, and local residents began to comment on his likeness to Booth. It’s not entirely clear why this was done. Aaron Preston, an archivist in Enid, said he’s not sure whether this was common practice but noted that this particular death generated a local community buzz that could have led to the decision to display the body.
Bates eventually arrived from Memphis, where he had been living, and identified George as his friend St. Helen. The body was released to Bates.
The story of David E. George drew a lot of attention, and Bates began leasing the body, which was embalmed well enough for long-term preservation, to people who expressed interest. It was displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and then in several other places, including carnival sideshows.
At some point, however, the location of the mummified remains disappeared from public memory. According to the Oklahoma History and Culture encyclopedia entry, Bates kept the body until his death, but his widow sold the mummy. It could now be tucked away in someone’s attic.
Bates’ authority was called into question when he published some incorrect information about St. Helen in his 1907 book on the subject. And whose body the buyer has is anyone’s guess. Although Bates identified the body as St. Helen’s and, by extension, Booth’s, others from Granbury -- including the family that employed St. Helen -- disagreed with Bates’ assessment.
Modern-day Booth relatives are also skeptical. “My family believes he escaped,” said Hulme. “My family believes he traveled for about four and a half years and then made it back to the United States. But I don’t know that my family believes he’s the Enid mummy.”
Hulme declined to pass judgment on whether St. Helen or George was actually John Wilkes
But she was adamant about one thing: That family word of mouth supports the idea that Booth escaped.
“Not only do generations of our family not believe (Booth was killed in Virginia), but, you know, (it’s) across the board. Cousins, and aunts and uncles, and all that stuff,” said Hulme.
Historians, however, throw cold water on the whole story.
Although he has no problem with the Booth escape theories being passed down as local folklore, Alford worries about treating that premise as serious history.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to think he wasn’t killed where and when history shows,” said Alford, noting that Booth’s mother, sister and brother saw the body of the man shot at Garrett’s barn and identified it as John Wilkes Booth. So did Booth’s colleagues at Ford’s Theater, including one man who told his fiancée that he knew Booth better than he knew her.
“Every now and then, the government does something right,” Alford said with a chuckle. “But I think the government is responsible itself for part of that problem, because they didn’t want Booth’s body to be paraded in public. They were afraid that people who hated Lincoln would make a hero out of him.”
The government held on to Booth’s body for about four years before turning it over to the family, at which point it was buried in the family plot at Green Mount cemetery in Baltimore.
The prevailing attitude was “don’t even mark the grave, don’t tell anybody where it is, keep the whole thing hush-hush,” said Alford. “And while I understand that from an intellectual point of view, they should have actually taken their time and shown a lot of people his body, because, you know, he was as recognizable as Brad Pitt. He was just a star of that stature; everybody would know him when they saw him.”
The events at Garrett’s barn and their aftermath provide plenty of fodder for people who want to question the established history. Different stories were floated about what happened to that body, including one that claimed it was weighted down and sunk in the Potomac River. And the doctor who had operated on Booth two years earlier wasn’t convinced, at first, that the body was his -- although he later identified it based on a unique scar from the surgery.
Several Booth descendants went to court in 1995, trying to get permission to exhume the body buried at Green Mount cemetery.
Hulme said her mother, who has since passed away, felt strongly about the issue.
“She’s like, I want to know if there’s a stranger in our family plot,” explained Hulme. “He doesn’t belong there.”
Unfortunately for the family, the lawsuit hit a few snags.
Number one: Booth’s grave was unmarked and no one is sure precisely where it is. Additionally, evidence suggests infant relatives maybe have been buried above his body, meaning their graves would be disturbed to get to Booth’s.
Number two: It’s unlikely that the body could be identified with any kind of certainty, because no dental records are available for comparison and there are no matrilineal descendants of Booth to test the DNA against.
The judge ruled that there was no compelling case for exhumation.
The ruling and the limitations of forensic testing leave few options for definitively settling the dispute. One potential path would be to exhume Edwin Booth’s body and compare his DNA with DNA from vertebrae that were removed during the autopsy of the man killed at Garrett’s farm. Those vertebrae are stored at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Springs, Maryland, which is run by the U.S. Army Medical Command.
That testing is unlikely to occur, however. The Army has previously denied a request to test the vertebrae and Hulme said the family member with the deed to Edwin’s plot doesn’t want to dig anything up.
Alford may be right when he says there’s no compelling reason to question the established history, but Hulme, Ray, and other Booth enthusiasts also have a point when they say the official narrative leaves many open questions. And those that believe Booth survived and lived out his days as John St. Helen might point to the 2009 episode of Ghost Lab as further proof.
The episode shows Brad Klinge and his brother stalking around the dark theater, urging the spirit of the bartender John St. Helen to confess to killing Abraham Lincoln. Eventually, they decide to bring a crowd to the opera house on the assumption that an actor can’t resist an audience— even in the afterlife.
Their efforts paid off. A recording of the event contains what they say is an EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomenon: a pattern of white noise containing what paranormal enthusiasts believe is communication from a ghost or spirit.
Brad Klinge rips off his headphones after hearing the EVP and shouts, “OH MY GOD. You are not going to believe this.”
The audio sounds faintly like someone saying, “Yes, I’m John Wilkes Booth.”
Herr said Klinge later told her that the audio on the show had to be altered.
“What they actually got was not appropriate to air on the Discovery Channel,” she said. “It was actually, ‘Yes, I’m John Wilkes Booth, you (bitch).’”
It might not be air-tight evidence, but it is enough to keep the most dedicated conspiracy theorists going.