‘Monumental Mysteries’ and the story of John Wilkes Booth in Texas

Posted Thursday, May. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information Monumental Mysteries • 8 p.m. Thursday • Travel Channel

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Have you heard the alternative version of John Wilkes Booth’s life story?

In this one, the notorious assassin managed to escape capture after killing President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, made his way to North Texas and lived out the rest of his life in the Hood County towns of Granbury and Glen Rose under an assumed identity.

It’s a tall tale that most people dismiss as pure hokum.

But still, there are some conspiracy theorists who want to believe.

The story will be retold in the premiere episode of Monumental Mysteries, a new Travel Channel series premiering Thursday. Don Wildman, from the similarly themed Mysteries at the Museum, is the host.

The story goes that a man named John St. Helen — a secretive, Shakespeare-quoting bartender who lived in Granbury and Glen Rose in the early 1870s — reportedly made a deathbed confession that he was, in fact, Booth, and that he had been in hiding since the assassination.

This incident is the reason for the mural of Lincoln and Booth together on the wall of the Nutshell Eatery & Bakery in Granbury’s historic town square.

Surely, it’s all hooey. But if true, this would be one of the great conspiracies of American history.

“Whether it’s true or not, it’s an amazing story, the kind that really captures your imagination,” Wildman says. “I must say I had never heard of this story until we covered it for the show. And this one in particular really floored me.

“There are certainties to history in our country, things we know to be fact and that we do not question, like George Washington crossing the Delaware. Another of them is that John Wilkes Booth died after killing Abraham Lincoln.

“So to throw that story into the wind and say, ‘Well, maybe he didn’t die,’ whether it’s true or not, it makes you reconsider history and the implications of it.”

That’s basically the approach that Monumental Mysteries is taking. Wildman and team unearth outrageous and fantastical stories from American history that are probably too good to be true, but there’s just enough basis in fact to make a person wonder.

Somebody ought to call a show like this No Kidding? because that’s exactly what viewers will find themselves repeatedly saying during the first hour. “Wow! No kidding? Wait, for real? No kidding?”

The first episode also retells stories involving an escape attempt on the island prison of Alcatraz, the birth of the phrase “flying saucer” and a con man who made a career of selling New York landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Grant’s Tomb.

“The ‘No Kidding!’ aspect of it is exactly what we’re definitely going for,” Wildman says. “We look for great stories that all have a twist or a hook or ‘wow factor’ to them.”

Wildman is the son of a history teacher.

“I grew up with the Roman Empire being talked about at the dinner table,” he says. “It was something that you were expected to be interested in.

“I went to more battlefields than any child has ever been to. My dad was a Civil War nut. So I remember standing in the middle of Appomattox Courthouse and my father saying, ‘That’s the table where the treaty was signed.’ These are moments that run throughout my childhood.

“And to this day, what I get excited about is the visual quality of history, the stories and the human lives unfolding, not the facts and figures.”

To Wildman’s way of thinking, the study of history is never-ending.

Consider, again, the Booth-in-North-Texas story.

“It makes history alive again, because there’s suddenly a reason to question it,” he says. “John Wilkes Booth surviving would be the most amazing instance of, if we got it wrong, we got it so wrong.

“And it makes you wonder, it makes you question whether other certainties in history have been made certain by other people, maybe to close those chapters of history off.

“So our show takes an argument that has been settled as accepted fact and then questions it in an interesting and dynamic way. Of course, it’s probably fiction, but it’s fun to consider history from different angles. And whether you agree with the findings or not, it can still be a very enlightening experience.”

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