Sept. 10, 2009 - Did John Wilkes Booth live and die in Texas after his infamous night at the Ford Theater on April 14, 1865 when he shot to death President Abraham Lincoln? Maybe. Maybe not.
Traditional history tells us that Booth, a well-known actor of his day, burned up in a barn in Virginia 12 days after shooting Lincoln. Contrarians insist otherwise, and have since that day.
Booth's case is far from the only case of a supposedly dead legend or anti-hero living out his days quietly in Texas. The Twentieth Century saw two people who claimed, or had other people claim for them, that they were really Jesse James. Brushy Bill Roberts of Hico claimed until his dying day to be Billy the Kid. Notions that Old West psycho Bloody Bill Longley escaped the hangman's noose and carried on for years afterward persisted until DNA tests proved otherwise.
John Wilkes Booth has emerged as another whose "death has been greatly exaggerated" by history, as Mark Twain would have put it. One of the phantom Booths settled in Texas.
The evidence to support such a claim is mostly anecdotal and circumstantial, but not inconsequential. General Albert Pike is said to have lost his composure while drinking in a Fort Worth saloon with Temple Houston, Sam's son.
"My God," the general stammered. "That's John Wilkes Booth."
The man who so startled Pike was, or at least went by, the name of John Saint Helen. Saint Helen settled on the Paluxy River, near the town mill for Glen Rose, in the late 1860s or early 1870s and sold whiskey, tobacco and other necessities of life. He acted in local theatrical productions and was noted by locals for his "polished manner and cultivated bearing." Others hinted that the actor and merchant sometimes flashed a darker side.
Speculation escalated when Saint Helen left the Paluxy River Valley about the same time a federal marshal arrived in town to marry a local woman. Saint Helen then showed up in Granbury, where he worked as a bartender until he fell gravely ill.
Saint Helen called to his bedside his best friend and attorney Finis Bates for a deathbed confession. He told Bates that he was not John Saint Helen, that he was indeed John Wilkes Booth, the man who murdered Abraham Lincoln.
The situation turned awkward when Saint Helen, a.k.a. John Wilkes Booth, made a full recovery from his illness and remained among the living. As far as Granbury was concerned, he might as well have died because he vanished from that town and was never seen or heard from again.
Or was he?
According to Bates, who wrote the 1907 book "The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth," he found a Colt single-action pocket pistol in Saint Helen's room after he left Granbury in a hurry. The gun was supposedly wrapped in a Washington, D.C. newspaper dated April 15, 1865 that carried the story of Lincoln's assassination.
Flash forward to 1903, when a house painter known as David E. George poisoned himself and confessed that he was really John Wilkes Booth. Finis Bates went to Oklahoma to see if George was actually his old friend John Saint Helen, and decided that he was, though decades of alcohol abuse had clouded the man's features.
With the publication of his book, Bates took a mummified body that might have been John Saint Helen, David George or John Wilkes Booth (or it might have been any, none or all of those) on a tour to promote the book. The mummy went on tour again in 1920, this time under the direction of carnival director Bill Evans. The tour stopped in Granbury long enough for a few old timers to nod and say, "Yes, that looks like ol' John Saint Helen."
The mummy made a few more public appearances in sideshows, and with the Jay Gould Million Dollar Show in 1937. The Saturday Evening Post later reported that America's most famous mummy had been seized for debt.
Unless the mummy is found and verified to be Saint Helen, George, Booth or someone else, and DNA tests can prove or disprove the story, we'll never know if this was Booth or not, and that's part of the story's charm.
From Billy the Kid to Elvis, we have never allowed certain historical figures to rest in peace. With Booth, maybe we like to think that living with what he did was a greater punishment than burning to death in Virginia tobacco barn.