What a Croc! Murder takes a big bite out of a small town!
In a very small southeastern town, approximately 15 miles from downtown San Antonio, Texas, arose a legend. A huge legend still whispered about today. In fact, like most legends, these tall tales are mostly embellished, making things greater or more nefarious than they really are to ‘sell’ the tale. In this particular case, in the town of Elmendorf, the “Butcher of Elmendorf”, sometimes referred to as the “Alligator Man”, Joesph D. Ball (Jan. 7, 1896-Sept. 24, 1938) certainly dug his teeth into the town he grew up in.
A bootlegger, and a gambler, this WWI Army veteran, came back to his hometown of Elmendorf, that his father, Frank X. Ball, built from the ground up, and was established by Henry Elmendorf (who later became the mayor of San Antonio) in 1885. Built on local cotton processing, as well as tile, brick & pottery distribution, allowed the town to grow. Frank Ball’s wealth allowed his future eight children to become future pillars in the town community.
Joe, however, the second oldest of the eight, left for the Great War in 1917, serving honorably until his discharge in 1919. But according to family members, he came back changed. As Prohibition started in 1920, he became a well-known bootlegger, selling illegal whiskey to families door-to-door from out of the back of his truck, and a 50-gallon drum. At six foot, and about 160 pounds, this self-professed ladies man, was known as an excellent shot, with a murderous sneer, that made quite a few people afraid.
After the end of Prohibition, Joe decided to open his own bar. His on again, off again handyman, Clifton Wheeler, was an African-American man who was often mistreated, and bullied by Ball, but still helped around the business, and became an unfortunate accomplice and key witness to Ball’s deeds. The business boomed, with a player piano, card tables, and an occasional cock-fight, Joe decided to up the ante by bringing in 5 locally caught alligators, into the concrete pool behind the bar, and surrounding it with a ten-foot wire fence. That brought of a lot of attention, especially on Saturday nights, where customers would drunkenly watch live feedings of small animals to the hungry gators. Ball also hired dance-hall girls, and barmaids to wait tables, and entice the show. Most passed on through town, as quickly as they came in, some just disappeared.
Three women became special focus in the investigation of Joe Ball. Two of which, ended up dead. First, was Minnie Gotthardt, aka “Big Minnie”, hired in 1934, was known as a loud, obnoxious lady, but could run the bar without fear. She and Ball dated for a bit, until he started seeing Dolores “Buddy” Goodwin, 15 years younger than he, who fell hard with her boss, defended his accusers later, and despite being scarred from eye to neck, by a thrown glass bottle in the spring of 1937, which supposedly was aimed for another guy. The third woman, Hazel Brown, aka “Schatzie” also began to work for Joe. She and “Buddy” became good friends, but unintentionally ended up earning “Big Minnie’s” hatred.
That summer Minnie disappeared. The story went that Joe told everyone, she went to Corpus Christi because she was pregnant with a ‘colored’ baby, but must’ve left in a hurry, because she left all of her belongings. The following Sept, Joe married “Buddy”, and eventually revealed his secret that Minnie was really dead, and he took her out the beach and killed her. Though, there was no love lost between the two ladies, Buddy ended up telling Schatize, more than once. The townspeople already suspecting Joe of being up to something after Minnie’s sudden disappearance, really fueled stories of Buddy’s loss of her left arm in January of 1938. Though she lost it in a bad car wreck, rumors, and tales were spread in hush whispers that it was really fed to the gators like the unfortunate small animals. By that April, Buddy disappeared, sending the town abuzz, and Joe was seeing Schatzie.
In Sept. 1938, a man approached an off-duty Bexar County Sheriff, who was locally dove hunting, about a very strange and foul-smelling barrel left behind Joe’s sisters barn. It smelled like the dead; it was said. Enough strange stories of people disappearing around Joe Ball to leave the Deputy and his partner to talk to Joe about it the next day. Joe, at first, denied anything about it, but when taken to the site, Joe’s sister collaborated the initial man’s report. The deputies decided official questioning was needed, and informed Joe, they’d be bringing him to San Antonio for answers. Joe convinced the deputies to first stop by his bar, to close up shop for the day. As Joe was closing up, he opened the register, produced a .45 caliber gun, and shot himself in the heart. He died on the barroom floor.
Deputies and investigators scoured the bar and took Clifton Wheeler in for questioning. Wheeler told them all he knew, including the dismemberment of Schatzie, and where to find her. He also told them about the night Big Minnie was killed, and was told by Joe, “She was pregnant, and I had no choice”. The Sheriff’s Dept. tracked “Buddy” to San Diego, California, where she was hiding out away from her husband trying to start a new life and living with her sister. Other local disappearances were thought to be tied to this case, but nothing concrete stuck.
In the aftermath, Clifton Wheeler received two years in prison as an accessory, was released, and for a short time, started his own bar in town. He left not long after, never to be heard from again. The alligator was sent to the San Antonio zoo for keeping, and the urban legend grew, many of the “detective” pulp-story magazines sensationalizing the story of a murderous ladies man, who disposed of people to his man-hungry gators. Buddy tried to set people straight in a 1957 interview. “Joe never put no people in that alligator tank,” she said. “Joe wouldn’t do a thing like that. He wasn’t no horrible monster . . . Joe was a sweet, kind, good man, and he never hurt nobody unless he was driven to it.” When countered about the scar on her face, she said, “He didn’t even mean to cut me. He was throwing the bottle at another guy.” There were just two murders, she said.
Two murders known, but the true answer lies forever in the grave with Joe Ball, or in a gator’s belly, as the stories would have you believe. But the whispers still linger, just as mysterious as the other disappearances in Mr. Ball’s life. Strange coincidence, or somebody’s story a bit ‘long in the tooth’? Who knows, maybe it’s not just a “croc” of crap after all?