Jessie James, Carrie Nation, John Wilkes Booth, Bonnie and Clyde…
There are few places where you can as close to some of the most notorious names in Western history as you can in Granbury, a little burg of 9,000 souls in North Texas less than an hour’s drive from Dallas/Ft. Worth.
The little town’s motto is “where Texas history lives” and with good reason. For many years, the town was the end-of-the-line for the Fort Worth and Rio Grande Railway. It’s also where many of the West’s most infamous characters ended up. In fact, Granbury’s historic downtown boasts 16 Texas historical markers.
Old town’s most dominant feature is Courthouse Square, one of the best examples of an original Texas courthouse square in the country. The Hood County Courthouse, built in 1866, is a three-story Victorian gem constructed of locally quarried limestone and topped with a grey domed roof that looks like a wedding cake topper. It features a large Seth Thomas clock that must be hand wound every eight days, one of only two such clocks in the world (the other is on the Parliament building in London). During the Civil War, this was a Confederate town named after Confederate General Hiram B Granbury whose statue stands in front of the courthouse. It’s reputed that the building’s architect, W.C. Dobson, hated Northerners so much he refused to install a door on the North side of the building!
The courthouse is surrounded on four sides by buildings constructed in the 1800s and early 1900s. One of the best ways to get an introduction to the town’s colorful history is to take the “Ghosts and Legends” nightly walking tour (7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.). Our guide is “Boots,” a vibrant, white-haired gentleman in a straw cowboy hat and fancy cowboy boots that he wears outside his Wranglers. He leads groups of two to 30 or 40 around the square in an entertaining one-hour stroll through history and legend.
“This town is conservative, Christian, and Confederate,” begins Boots, grinning broadly, “and if you live north of Granbury, I’m sure to offend someone in this crowd before the night is over. I also guarantee if you don’t see at least two ghosts tonight, I’ll refund your money.”
Boots carries a portable microphone, its speaker slung over his shoulder. He tells those of us with smart phones about apps like ghostradarclassic.com for “ghost meters,” and several in our group of 20 or so dial up the target-like graphic on their mobile screens. The idea is when we get close to a supernatural energy, the ghost radar will detect it.
Our first stop is the Hood County Jail Museum that incarcerated both men and women from 1885 to 1978. Boots tells us the tower-like, three-story structure had a hanging gallows, but a man named Indian Joe was the only person ever hung there. Then he points to a white-sheeted silhouette hanging in one of the jail’s tall windows. “That’s Joe’s ghost,” he says chuckling. It’s also our ghost number one.
The following day, I visit the Jail Museum and find it was a penal purgatory. Prisoners were booked in a small, square room in the front of the native stone structure. Then they were led up a steep, pull-down metal ladder to the cells. Women were housed on the second floor in foreboding-looking iron cages. There were single beds with wire webbing and no toilet facilities. There’s a document on display listing the names of women who spent time in this awful place and their “crimes,” which included loitering, burglary, and “refusal to talk.”
The third floor, which housed the male prisoners, was even worse. The four-man iron cages were amazingly cramped. When the jail became over-crowded, they put men on the floor next to the cages and even on top of the cages. Conditions got even worse when an enlightened sheriff decided to brick up the only window and put in four small pipes for fresh air. Hornets camethrough the pipes in the summer time. Prisoners had to plug them up and endure soaring temperatures and disgusting smells or angry hornet stings.
I spot a square along the thick iron wall straps that’s been repaired. This is the site of the only escape from this hell hole. Prisoners cut a small piece out of the iron wall, soaped their naked bodies to shinny through, and escaped up onto the roof.
Downstairs, Richard, the museum’s host, shows me where the sheriff and his family lived. The space, which was added after the jail tower was built, consists of two small rooms, including one that was a kitchen that features a turn-of-the-century stove, tin bread boxes, and other implements that would have been used by the sheriff’s wife and family.
The other room houses an informative exhibit about Hood County history, including displays of different types of barbed wire, old sheriff’s badges, and other historic artifacts.
This evening during the Ghosts and Legends tour, the Jail Museum is closed so we head up the street where the town’s largest Century 21 real estate office is housed. “This building once held the longest bar in Hood County,” Boots tells us. “It was 67 feet long and had seven bartenders.”
He points to where a young visitor stands. “Right where you’re standing, young man, two gun fighters died,” he says. “They didn’t pay the five cents for their beers and the sheriff shot them both dead.”
The man leaps off the spot like he’s stepped on an electric current. He looks down at the ghost radar application on the screen of his smart phone. “Hey, look, I’ve got a hit,” he says, pointing to a strong red dot pulsating in the target.
Lawlessness and quick retribution were common in Granbury. This was the Wild West and the town boasted more bars and brothels than any other business. Even people hired to uphold the laws were crooked. Boots tells us that Judge LaMarr, whose nameplate is on one of the square’s buildings, provided the money for a number of brothels in town.
In 1905, Carrie Nation, the famous anti-liquor crusader, came to Granbury to change all that. She rallied the town’s Christian women and marched around the courthouse, demanding closure of the saloons and brothels. Within five days, Granbury was a dry town.
On the corner, where Lake House Grille now sits, the famous outlaws Bonnie and Clyde bought sandwiches and coffee. The wanted criminals were so brazen, they picnicked under the trees on the courthouse’s lawn. When a judge came out and recognized them, he sent his secretary down to the jailhouse to summon the newly appointed sheriff to arrest them. However, the sheriff knew that Bonnie and Clyde had recently killed a lawman in another town and he refused to confront them. The duo finished their sandwiches and, two hours later, fed and fueled, they robbed a bank in nearby Hyco.
“So Granbury aided and abetted criminals,” says Boots.
We cross the street to the Nutshell Eatery and Bakery, formerly the A.P. Gordon Hotel, where John Wilkes Booth hid out after shooting President Abraham Lincoln. Booth came to town under the name John St. Helen. The name peaks my interest because I’m staying at the Inn on Granbury Lake and that’s the name of my room.
Booth, as St. Helen, worked in Granbury for 18 months pouring drinks and acting in plays in the local theatre. When someone finally recognized him, he reputedly returned to his room in the A.P. Gordon Hotel, wrapped up the gun he’d shot the president with in a newspaper with the story about the event and stashed the gun under his room’s floorboards. Later, on his deathbed, he confessed he’d shot Lincoln and told authorities where he’d hidden the gun. Sure enough, they found the gun under the floor in Room #2 of the A.P. Gordon Hotel, exactly where he said it was.
Next door is the Granbury Opera House, which is undergoing a complete renovation that will be completed sometime next year. Because Granbury was the rail terminus, it also became a center for theatre arts. In the early days, vaudeville performers played on the old opera house stage. Later, people like Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason’s Orchestra performed here.
We stroll along the street where two undertakers vied for customer’s business by displaying loved one’s bodies for 25 cents per day. Apparently, laying out a dead body in the window of the funeral parlor was a more effective way than running an expensive obituary in the local paper to get the word out that someone had died.
On the corner is a former brothel called the Granbury House. It’s allegedly where John Wilkes Booth ate his last meal in town before fleeing.
We cross the street, our heads filled with images of Lincoln’s assassin eating at a window table, and Boots tells us the red turreted brick building on the corner was the former Texas State Bank building. When it housed the bank, it was the second most significant building in town. Boots also says that the place is haunted because a woman fell to her death from the round turret window.
The building on the corner across from the former bank building is Pamela & Company, an eclectic boutique and gift shop, and the place where infamous Bonnie and Clyde used to come to have breakfast with their grandmother before they headed out to rob area banks.
Boots also tells us that this block, from Houston Street to Bridge Street, had six saloons and six brothels. It also is supposed to have 64 ghosts, including the spirit of a little girl who fell off a second story porch where she’d climbed to get a better look at the animals Barnum and Bailey Circus were parading through town.
We pass by Brazos Moon and its original mural painted in 1906 by an itinerant cowboy-artist. The man didn’t have enough money for beer so he traded his artistic skills for brew.
At the corner of Houston and Bridge Streets is where outlaw legend Jessie James reportedly had his heart broken. The story goes that he fell in love with an 18-year-old “solied dove,” a girl who worked in the saloon. Mysteriously, one night the girl hurtled down the building’s back stairs to her death. They found a bullet in her back. No one was arrested for her death, but rumors circulated that Jessie had done the deed in a fit of rage. It’s said the footsteps of this young girl’s restless spirit are often heard in the building.
Across the street is where Jessie James had accounts at the local bank. The infamous James loved Granbury so much he made his grandson promise to bring his body back to the town for burial. James is buried in the local cemetery.
Before we leave Boots and his Ghosts and Legends tour, we pass along the north side of the square where he tells us in 1907 a terrible fire burned #107 and 12 whores died here. Their ghosts still haunt the rebuilt building.
It’s the end of our tour and Boots hands out tiny pipe cleaner ghosts. “This is your second ghost,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m afraid nobody gets their money back tonight.” – Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor