Many tales are told of infamous characters such as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and John Wilkes Booth faking their own deaths and fleeing to Texas and assuming new identities. The late outlaw historian and author Phillip Steele once told me that of all of the claims he had heard, the one he considered most intriguing was that of John St. Helen, believed by many to have been John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. St. Helen, a barkeep, ended up in the small town of Granbury in the 1870s. About thirty miles away, near Stephenville, lived a woman identified only as “Mrs. Booth,” who claimed that Lincoln’s assassin was her husband’s cousin. “It is generally believed that Booth is dead, reported the Stephenville Empire (Aug. 8, 1885), “but this lady says that it a mistake; that he is still alive, and that the family knows where he is.”
Russell Cummings at
the premiere of The
Granbury would not only become home to John St. Helen, but also to J. Frank Dalton, who made headlines in 1948 when he claimed to be Jesse James. Dalton was not alone; Phillip Steele found at least a half-dozen other men who claimed to be that Wild West bandit.
I recently attended the premiere of The Legend of Hell's Gate,a Western that depicts John St. Helen, J. Frank Dalton, and John Davis Howard (an alias of Jesse James) in Texas. St. Helen is portrayed by Henry Thomas, with Lukas Behnken as Dalton and Russell Quinn Cummings as Howard. Perhaps one of the lines in the movie best explains why John Wilkes Booth and Jesse James would supposedly end up in the same small town: “Granbury can be a great place to become someone else.”
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