Have you heard of the place in Texas that once called itself the toughest town on earth? Its love of violence and outlaw ways were its identifying mark but also its downfall. If you find yourself about 70 miles southeast of San Antonio, in Karnes County, look for the ruins and four historical markers of Helena. There is more than one reason this site is called a ghost town.
This town was the birthplace of the so-called “Helena Duel,” a brutal attempt to equalize weaponry for battles between men. In this type of duel, the left hands of two fighters were bound together, then each man was armed with a knife featuring a three-inch blade. This was to prevent one single fatal stab wound. The only way to come out as the victor in a Helena Duel was to not bleed to death after accumulating multiple cuts and stabs. Bloodthirsty crowds often watched these duels, betting on outcome amongst themselves.
This taste for fighting was the ultimate demise of the town of Helena. The story goes that the son of powerful rancher Colonel William G. Butler, Emmett Butler, was accidentally killed by a stray bullet during a saloon brawl on December 26, 1884. After Colonel Butler demanded the name of his son’s killer and not one townsperson spoke up, he reportedly shouted: “All right! For that I’ll kill the town that killed my son!”
Due to perfect timing and Helena’s previous reluctance to cover costs, Colonel Butler negotiated for the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway to bypass the town by seven miles. After this, businesses moved away, then the county seat moved to Karnes City and the toughest town on earth died away. Today, buildings such as the old post office, the jail and 1873 courthouse, and the Sickenius farmhouse are restored for visitors. Additionally, once a year, the post office operates to issues special cachets and postal cancellations for mail sent through Texas and the nation.