The newest building near the Glen Rose square is also its oldest - and one with an apocryphal link to a presidential assassination.
The cabin, which sets just off the western side of the square, was once inhabited - or so the story goes - by a man named John St. Helen.
And St. Helen, according to a 101-year-old account, confessed on what he thought was his deathbed that he was really John Wilkes Booth, the man who historians say fatally shot Lincoln during a play at Ford’s Theater in 1865.
“It wasn’t until after he (St Helen) died that people here became aware of who he was - or pretended to be,” Dorothy Leach, the archivist for the Somervell County Historical Commission said recently in her courthouse office a short walk from the cabin. “At one time, it (the legend) was fairly common knowledge around here.”
Over the years, however, the story became as faded as the decades-old newspaper clippings in Leach’s files. With each passing year, it became more and more difficult to assess whether it contained even a morsel of truth.
The story surfaced more than 40 years after Lincoln’s death in “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth,” a book written by a Granbury man named Finis L. Bates.
In the book, Bates recounts how a gravely ill St. Helen revealed his “true” identity and claimed responsibility for Lincoln’s assassination.
“I am dying,” St. Helen told Bates. “My name is John Wilkes Booth and I am the assassin of President Lincoln. He later said what he did “was done on my part with purely patriotic motives, believing…that the death of President Lincoln and the succession of Vice President Johnson, a Southern man, to the presidency, was the only hope for the protection of the South.”
St. Helen, according to published accounts, moved from Glen Rose to Granbury to Enid, Okla., where he took his own life in 1903 - four years before Bates’ book was published.
St. Helen’s story has surfaced periodically since it was first told. And the Texas State Historical Survey Committee once considered mentioning the tale on a historical marker - even though, an official wrote in the 1970s, the yarn “leans to folklore.”
Copies of photographs in the Somervell historical commission’s files reveal a passable resemblance between Booth and St. Helen. And St. Helen, like Booth, a professional actor, had a theatrical streak.
“There sure were a lot of coincidences,” Leach says. “I can’t make my mind up about it.”
Then she asks the question people have been asking for more than a century: “How do you prove any of it?”
Historians say proving the story is not possible for the simple reason that it is not true.
Joseph Fornieri, a Lincoln scholar at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., is familiar with the story, but says it is baseless.
“From what I know, it is a fraud - Booth was identified and executed,” Forniere said in an e-mail this week. “The leading scholar on the assassination is Edward Steer,” author of the book, “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. “I’m aware of the story, but don’t buy it. Neither does Steers.”
Almost 150 years after the assassination, St. Helen’s old log cabin is now owned by Catherine Vaughn. Her family moved to Glen Rose in the late 1960s and purchased the land on which the cabin sat. Vaughn moved to Austin in the early 1990s to pursue a real estate career, then returned to Glen Rose in 2005.
“When we first bought the place, I wanted to fix it (the cabin) up,” she explained one morning over coffee. “But it never got done. When we moved back, I thought it was a good time.”
“Nobody had done anything with it for years and years and years,” she added. The mortar between the rough hewn logs had long ago fallen away. The roof was gone. But the cabin’s chimney was still standing - and only one of the original logs had to be replaced when the cabin was moved to its new location, she said.
Today, St. Helen’s cabin has a new metal roof and new mortar in gaps between the logs. It also has a new room added onto the back - and a real estate sign in the front yard.
But even Vaughn hasn’t been able to decide whether the legend about the cabin is fact or fiction.
“Not really,” she says, when asked if she believe the cabin once was home to a presidential assassin. “There is so much unknown out there. It could be, but maybe it’s not.”
Dan Malone teaches journalism at Tarleton State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.