October 21

Galveston, Working Girls, and Gambling

Galveston has a long-held reputation as an “open” city. In fact, during the 1920’s, it was sometimes referred to as the ‘Free State of Galveston’ or the ‘Republic of Galveston Island’. Post Office Street was known as the ‘red light district’ and one report claims that there were 55 houses of prostitution, employing 900 prostitutes during this time.

A popular myth is that as one drives into Galveston on Broadway, the statute pointing toward Post Office Street is directing visitors to the famed brothel area. However, it was in reality, constructed to honor the heroes of the Texas Revolution. The statute points toward the San Jacinto Battle Ground, across the Bay, where Santa Ana was defeated.  

As prohibition was implemented, Galveston became a mecca for speak-easy operations which complimented its open gambling and prostitution.  The cities’ business and political leaders welcomed this “off the books” economy. Some reports indicate that prostitution operations might gross $15,000 to $20,000 a week. Embracing these illegal activities didn’t stop after prohibition. In 1947, newly elected mayor Herbie ‘Thanks a Million’ Cartwright was quoted as saying, “If God couldn’t stop prostitution, why should I?”

Ruth Kempner, described in her 2008 obituary as “the influential matriarch of one of the Island’s oldest and most distinguished families” ran for mayor in 1960. Kempner stood before reporters in the ‘red light district’ with one of the madams, ‘Big Tit Marie’, at her side and said, But for the grace of God, I would be in one of your houses. I believe people in your profession have a place, and have always had a place, in our civilization, and I’ll do everything in the world I can to protect you.” She won the election and became Galveston’s first female mayor.

As much an influence on Galveston’s history as any other was a pair of brothers who emigrated from Sicily in the 1890’s. Sam and Rose Macio became the undisputed leaders in providing vice activities to Galveston and the entire Galveston County area. Recognizing the opportunities that came with prohibition, they ran bootleg operations, gambling houses and prostitution enterprises. Even today, many Galvestonians possess a romanticized view of the two brothers, especially Sam, who was said to be a personable and persuasive character. In 1937 he was charged with narcotics trafficking but the charges didn’t stick.

Sam Macio was a friend to political and business leaders on the Island, many of whom were most likely also customers of his diverse enterprises. The Macios’ famed Balinese Room featured dancing and casino gambling, with entertainment from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and the Marx Brothers.

In addition to the statements by mayoral candidates, other political leaders have been just as open about their approach to the vice activity on the Island. One county sheriff is reported to have responded to a question while testifying before the Texas Legislature. When asked why the Balinese Room’s casino was allowed to remain open, he responded that he wasn’t a member of the club, so he couldn’t go in. Presumably he didn’t know what went on behind the membership only doors.

Not to be upstaged, even the Catholic Church has weighed in on Galveston’s prostitution operations. Christopher E. Byrne, the Bishop of Galveston from 1918 until 1950, was quoted as having once said about the red light district, “We segregate mental and physical diseases. Let us do the same for moral sickness, for soul sickness…As long as man has free will some of us will fall into impurity.”

Galveston society and its political structure, unlike that in most other parts of the ‘Bible Belt South,’ have always shown indifference, if not support, for the vices operating within its domain. Other Southern communities often publicly condemn, while privately indulging in the forbidden activities of prostitution, gambling and the fruit of the vine. No more available in Galveston  than in other communities, the difference is that while those other communities deny its existence with ‘a wink and a nod,’ Galveston has been more likely to say ‘so what?’

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October 7

Billie Sol Estes

He was pursued by Texas Ranger Clint Peoples during a murder investigation. After Estes was convicted of fraud and sent to prison, Peoples befriended him and convinced him to testify before a grand jury regarding the murder. The testimony was noteworthy because Billie Sol told the grand jury that Lyndon Johnson had ordered the murder of Henry Marshall, a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector.

It was a bizarre murder case in which the victim was shot five times with his own rifle and had a head injury caused by blunt trauma. In spite of that evidence, a Texas justice of the peace ruled the death a suicide and the county sheriff concurred. In 1985 a state district court judge finally ruled the case a homicide, although no one was ever charged with the murder.

Estes may not have committed the murder, but he was a con-man extraordinaire. His financial schemes were so complicated that it is difficult to follow the trail of deception. Before he was exposed, he was chosen by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of America’s 10 outstanding young men in 1953. After the scandal broke, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine and in a not so flattering article.  

He was involved in the anhydrous ammonia business, or at least in non-existent ammonia tanks which were fraudulently mortgaged. He was also engaged in the illegal transfer of cotton allotments from farmers whose land had been foreclosed. First convicted in 1963 and sentenced to 24 years in prison; that conviction was eventually overturned. He was then convicted for a second set of offenses and served four more years in prison.
Estes could have been a carnival barker or a used car salesman, but instead he became one of the most accomplished flimflam artists in American history. He made donations to politicians and was friends with a man who would become president. Billie Sol was a bible-thumping Church of Christ preacher who held barbeques for governors and senators.

But most of all, he was a self-absorbed egotist. After serving his prison terms, he never stopped inventing bizarre murder plots involving President Johnson. From the federal inspector to President Kennedy, Estes eventually accused Johnson of ordering eight murders.  Many believed he created these sensational stories to promote a book he wrote as well as one written by his daughter. I would like to recommend more reading for those who are interested, but even the titles of the two books written by Estes and his daughter suggest only more self-promotion.
He never attended college, but amassed a fortune, conning politicians, bankers, and the government, with his smooth talk and enthusiastic personality. Billie Sol Estes died in May this year at home in Granbury, Texas. There will be others like him; but there’ll never be another Billie Sol Estes.

September 9


Sometimes there is a character whose actions surpass such descriptive terms as criminal, thug or desperado. The subject of this story is one of those. He turned war into profit by stealing and selling American military supplies on the black market, fraudulently marketed products as something they were not, and, finally colluded with the Germans to bomb and kill American soldiers.

He ran a crime syndicate called M & M Enterprises and was renowned in some countries, even being named the mayor of Palermo, Italy. He saw World War II as simply a way to make money and showed no conscience in the manner in which he set up “deals” to do so.

Regarding his profiteering, he was quoted on the matter, “In a democracy, the government is the people. We’re the people aren’t we? So we might just as well keep the money and eliminate the middleman. Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry.”

He was eventually prosecuted, but used the illegal profits from his criminal enterprise to hire the best lawyers and obtain an acquittal. In fact, it was written about the trial that decent people everywhere were affronted by his actions, until he opened his books publicly and revealed the massive profit he’d made, after which his stock had never been higher.

Who was this amoral representation of humanity? Why his name was Milo Mindbender. He was a figment of the imagination of writer Joseph Heller in his black comedy novel Catch 22. Some believe, however, that the character was modeled after Henry Ford or Prescott Bush, both of whom dealt with Hitler’s Germany from the 1930’s until well after the war was in full swing.

It’s an interesting work of fiction, or for those who prefer a movie, the 1970 adaptation by the same title is worth watching. Jon Voight played the villainous Mindbender in the movie and he was cast with other recognizable names such as Alan Arkin, Art Garfunkel, Bob Newhart, Martin Sheen, Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles, and Paula Prentiss.

I enjoy writing about the real crimes, criminals, and cops who chase them, and I enjoyed this little diversion from reality. Leave a comment (anonymous comments will not be posted) and tell us at what point in the story you recognized the villain as a fictional character in Catch 22.