Monday, November 28, 2016

HGB Ep. 166 - Granbury Opera House

Moment in Oddity - The Mortsafe
Suggested by: Anna Prado-Frias

There was a time in history when people had to worry about being buried alive. There was another real concern for those buried and that was body snatching. For example, in the United Kingdom, medical students had a need to study human anatomy out of something more than books. Traditionally, the corpses of executed criminals would be used, but in the nineteenth century there were not many executions as punishment had become more lenient. Demand for bodies far outweighed the supply and thus the thriving trade of bodysnatching took hold. Something needed to be done to ensure the safety of buried loved ones and out of this demand arose the mortsafe. The first mortsafe was made around 1816. Mortsafes came in a variety of designs, but they all were formed from iron rods and plates that surrounded the burial completely. The top was weighted down with more iron and stone. The security continued below the ground. After the grave was dug, the coffin was placed inside and an iron plate was placed on top that had holes along the side to receive the iron bars from the cage. This extra security was necessary because grave robbers had developed a practice of digging a hole and tunnel system that could be up to twenty feet away. It was impossible to tell that the grave had been disturbed as the coffin had been pulled out horizontally through the tunnel. Mortsafes had another plus. They were reusable. Obviously, after several weeks of decomposing, a body was no longer useful. Then a mortsafe could be unlocked and removed and placed on another burial. They could be expensive, so churches would rent them out. That sometimes didn't solve the problem of expense as some elders would levy heavier charges. Societies developed to buy the mortsafes and members could use them at a minimal charge. Use of the mortsafe ended when bodysnatching ended after the Anatomy Act of 1832. The act allowed for unclaimed bodies or donated bodies to be used for science. There are not many mortsafes still around today, but the ones still around serve as an odd reminder of bodysnatching.

This Day in History - Women Vote 1st Time in New Zealand

On this day, November 28th, in 1893, women vote for the first time in a general election in New Zealand. Women received the right to vote in New Zealand after the governor, Lord Glasgow, signed the Electoral Act 1893 into law. This law was the first of its kind in the entire world. New Zealand was the first country to give all adult women the vote. Voting day was only 10 weeks later and despite there not being much time to get registered, 84% of adult females registered and 82% of them turned out. More women voted in that election then men. And even though there were no electoral rolls for the Māori seats, women cast 4000 of the 11,269 Māori votes that year. Some people feared that women would be harrassed when they went to the voting booths, but their fears were unfounded and the day passed as a very festive affair. According to a Christchurch newspaper, the streets "resembled a gay garden party" and "the pretty dresses of the ladies and their smiling faces lighted up the polling booths most wonderfully."

Granbury Opera House (Suggested by Beth Lang)

Granbury, Texas is a place where some claim Texas history lives and never left. The Granbury Opera House is a beautiful restored building that has a history of entertainment that continues to our modern day. It is a physical example of the importance theater has had in America in general and Texas specifically. The building has housed a variety of businesses. One of the more famous characters to perform at the theater, reputedly, was John Wilkes Booth and he may not have left the theater. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of the Granbury Opera House.

The first building in the settlement that would become Granbury was a log cabin court house. The city is named for General Hiram B. Granbury. He moved to Waco in the 1850s and during the Civil War he recruited the Waco Guards. They moved into Kentucky and the Texas Volunteer regiment elected Granbury as Major. On February 15, 1862, he was captured with his command at the Battle of Fort Donelson. He became a prisoner of war and shipped north to Johnson Island Prison at Lake Erie under General Grant's terms of surrender. In 1864, he would lead the Granbury Brigade at the Battle of Franklin. He lost his life there.Granbury is the county seat of Hood County and it was this county where Davy Crockett's family received 640 acres in land grants in that county after the Texas Revolution. A center square is the heart of the city and many historic buildings are on that square, including the Granbury Opera House.

As strange as it may sound, theater began in Texas inside the Mexican war camps that were built during the battle for Texas independence. Organized theater would later arrive in Houston, Texas in 1837. Over time, nearly every city in West Texas had an opera house and typically it was the largest building in town. These opera houses would be filled to standing room only capacity and both amateur and professional companies would perform. This popularity was at its most intense during the latter part of the Victorian Era. The opera house faded as movies swept the country as a new form of entertainment. Some of these original structures still stand and one of those is situated on the southeast corner of the square in Granbury, Texas.

Henry Kerr was a former city official and he decided to build the structure that houses the opera house. The two-story structure featured a saloon and saddle shop on the ground level with the theater up on the second story. The doors opened for the first time in 1886, although acts were not officially booked until 1891. It was originally called Kerr's Opera House after the owner. Lighting was provided by gas lights and it revealed a stunning interior of red velvet. Men were asked to remove their spurs before entering. A newspaper reported on January 14, 1892 that Kerr had enlarged the stage from the one built earlier in 1886 and added painted scenery and four drop curtains. Dances were held on the second floor as well.

Entertainment came through a variety of means including acrobats, minstrel shows, magicians, vaudeville acts, sword-swallowing and, of course, plays. Keeping in mind that this opera house opened in the Victorian Era, it is not surprising that the community was torn between enjoying risque
acts and crying out against vulgarity heard in some plays. Young people were kept from even walking in front of the building and rumors floated about the reputations of performers who enjoyed the proximity of the many saloons in town. One of the more controversial shows was provided by the Billy Kersands troupe. This was a troupe of black minstrels and Billy Kersands was one of the most famous black minstrels of that day. Legend claims that Billy could put a whole billiard ball in his mouth and go on to deliver an eloquent monologue without any trouble. Occasionally, he shoved a saucer into his reputedly large mouth. He was an unconventional dancer and created jazz tunes. He had earlier toured Europe with another troupe before forming his own. The Granbury paper reported that the troupe played to a full house at Kerr's Hall on a Monday night and that it was the best show of its kind on the road, but that many of the townspeople "kicked against paying a dollar to see it."

There is a handwritten diary on display in the lobby of the Granbury Opera House that was written by a traveling actor named Arminedale. One of the interesting entries says, "We played Granbury on the 25th and 27th...We came back on the 26th and played a second night at Granbury but we had a very small house. We had a little disturbance here on the first night between the Marshal and one of the citizens, but it did not come to much. We put up at the Farr Hotel and I wish it had been a little farther as it was a very poor place to stop at."

Carrie A. Nation was a Temperance warrior who carried around a hatchet. She used that hatchet to chop up saloons and it is said that she chopped up seven of the saloons in the Granbury square. Reportedly, the loss of the saloons led to the downfall of theater in the town. Which makes us wonder how good the acting was if liquor was considered necessary to the theater's success. The final curtain fell in 1911. A grocery store moved into the space and was run by former schoolteacher J. B. Wilson. Other businesses would come and go, including the first bowling alley in town. Another grocery store moved into the west side of the building in 1940. There was an insurance company and an abstract company run by Margaret Carmichael. At this point, the building had fallen into such disrepair that she covered her desk in plastic every night before leaving just in case it rained.

Carmichael eventually was forced to borrow money from a family member named Karl Weiser. The property was deeded to Weiser on January 14, 1965 and seven years later, he deeded it to retired businessman Joe L. Nutt.  Nutt's ancestors helped establish Granbury as the county seat. Nutt deeded the building to the Granbury Opera Association on August 28, 1974. The opera house recently underwent a $3.5 million renovation that has made it a state-of-the-art performance hall. That renovation took the theater back to the Victorian era in decor. The original limestone walls house elegant twin curved staircases, imported chandeliers hanging from pressed-tin-inspired acoustic ceiling tiles, filigree iron balcony railings and plush seats.

One of the legends of Granbury is about Jesse James. He is buried there. The headstone that marks his grave used to have the name J. Frank Dalton on it, but now features a Confederate flag and reads:  "CSA - Jesse Woodson James. Sept. 5, 1847-Aug. 15, 1951. Supposedly killed in 1882." Historians claim that Jesse James was shot and killed by a member of his own gang in 1882. Legend claims the man that was shot and buried was another member of his gang. Jesse moved to Granbury where he met a young lady and fell in love. When he was a very old man, he returned to Granbury to live out the rest of his days and died of natural causes at the age of 103 in 1951. James family descendants dedicated the headstone found at the Granbury Cemetery.

There is a bit of conspiracy theory and legend surrounding John Wilkes Booth, the city of Granbury and the Granbury Opera House. Many of you listeners are probably aware that there are some that claim that the 16th New York Calvary that was chasing down John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln, did not, in fact, get their man. They had tracked him down to the Garrett Farm in Virginia and ordered him to come out of the barn. When he did not, they set the barn on fire. He limped to the entrance and was shot and paralyzed and carried to the porch of the farmhouse. He succumbed to his injuries the following morning. His body was carried up the Potomac and buried, although some accounts have the Calvary tossing his body into the Potomac River. Other accounts claim his body was turned over to his family. *Rabbit Hole: Sergeant Boston Corbett who shot Booth was a mentally unstable man. He castrated himself in the 1850s to help him "resist sin." He later served as Sergeant-of-Arms to the Kansas legislature and fired off two pistols on a legislative session. He was confined to a mental institution after that, but later escaped and vanished.*

But what if Booth actually escaped or if the federal agents let him go? There is a legend that he changed his name to John St. Helen and ended up in Granbury, Texas. He tended bar there in the late 1870s and was described as scholarly and a man who had a penchant for quoting Shakespeare. Some say he performed at the Granbury Opera House. Even though he was a bartender, St. Helen never drank except on one day of the year and that was April 14th. The day President Lincoln was assassinated. On that day, he would drink himself into oblivion. Later, St. Helen took ill and people thought he was on his death bed. He did too and he took that opportunity to confess to a priest that he was Booth and that he had shot President Lincoln. He told the man that he could find the murder weapon wrapped in newspaper and hidden behind a certain board in a house where he had lived. He recovered, changed his name again and fled to Enid, Oklahoma. He again confessed to shooting the President before he committed suicide in 1913. In an odd twist, a Memphis lawyer and promoter named Finis Bates, mummified the body and took it on a tour around the country. He did end up in Granbury one day and the residents declared that the body was not that of St. Helen. The house that St. Helen had lived in at Granbury was razed in 1938 and the gun was found where St. Helen said it would be and it was wrapped in a yellowing newspaper that had a headline about Lincoln's assassination.

Logan Hawkes wrote on the Texas Less Traveled website:
"Years ago, before ever hearing about John St. Helens and the Granbury connection, when I was a young reporter working for the San Antonio Light newspaper out of the Hill Country bureau, I stumbled in the Bander public library for a little research on local history. I stumbled across a local newspaper clipping from the late 1800s that told the story of a young man who very much met the description of Booth and St, Helens, who had come to Bandera under suspicious circumstances. He was a school teacher and thespian, and opened a school of acting for the children of elite families in Bandera. It wasn't long before this educated foreigner, who walked with a limp and talked with a southern accent, worked his way into the mainstream of local society and fell in love with the daughter of a local cattle baron."
Because of this connection to Granbury, many claim that Boothe haunts the opera house. Those that have witnessed the apparition, claim he wears large black boots and has a waist coat that matches those boots and that he quotes Shakespeare on occasion. Sometimes he is seen wearing a white puffy shirt. People claim that he looks very much like pictures of Booth they have seen. Discovery Channel's Ghost Lab investigated the theater and they picked up some strange anomalies.

The city has many legends. Is the story of John Wilkes Booth surviving true? Does his ghost hang around the opera house? Is the Granbury Opera House haunted? That is for you to decide!

Show Notes:
Granbury Ghost and Legends Tour: Granbury Tours


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