The town of Elmendorf, Texas is better-known for its US Air Force base than for its resident serial killer. It was only in 2002 that Texas Monthly writer Michael Hall confirmed that, far from being an apocryphal local legend, Joe Ball was in fact very real. Known as the ‘Butcher of Elmendorf, the ‘Alligator Man’ and the ‘Bluebeard of South Texas’ Ball is believed to have killed at least 14 ex-girlfriends, wives, and waitresses who worked at his roadhouse, the ironically-named Sociable Inn and were never seen again.
Ball, a First World War veteran, had long been an unsavory character. After returning from the war he’d started out as a bootlegger during Prohibition. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933 Ball took his ill-gotten gains and started the Sociable Inn. The chief entertainment was Ball’s five pet alligators who, for a price, he would allow patrons to watch being fed. Mostly with live cats and dogs and some horseflesh.
Pictured Above: The Socialable Inn
If his idea of fun was unsavory, his relations with his employees were doubtful as well. Waitresses seemed to come and go with unusual regularity while one neighbor, complaining about the smell of the alligator pit, was threatened with a pistol. During his time at Elmendorf Ball also had two wives and several girlfriends, until they began vanishing as well.
This, of course, aroused first attention and then outright suspicion. Sheriff’s deputies came by in September 1937 investigating the disappearance of waitress Minnie Gotthardt. Hazel Brown had vanished overnight. Julia Turner, according to Ball, had had a fight with another waitress (who also vanished). Turner had been so desperate to leave that, according to Ball, this was why she’d left all her clothes. Another had opened a new bank account only days before she too mysteriously vanished. Upon checking the account, police found it had been untouched since her disappearance.
Above: Victims Hazel Brown and Minnie Gotthardt
Ball’s many and varied excuses for the increasing number of vanished women were at best flimsy. So flimsy that police began an investigation. By September of 1938, they’d compiled a list of Ball’s missing former employees of whom far more were still missing than could be proved alive. Over a dozen former waitresses and two of Ball’s wives, along with a couple of girlfriends, had last been seen at the Sociable Inn. In addition to questioning Ball, they also grilled his handyman Clifford Wheeler.
Faced with the fact that Texas had a sure and certain cure for Ball and people helping him (namely the electric chair) Wheeler cracked. He led police to the remains of Hazel Brown and Minnie Gotthardt. He also explained how, according to him, Ball had forced him to help dismember the victims and feed them to the alligators. That, Wheeler explained, was why so many of the missing women had never turned up anywhere, dead or alive.
Wheeler openly admitted living in fear of Ball, knowing Ball might one day consign him to the alligator pit for knowing too much. He also related Ball’s nasty, cruel sense of humor. When Ball was drunk, which was quite often according to Wheeler, he’d pull his pistol and make Wheeler dance by firing live rounds at his feet.
With Wheeler’s evidence Bexar County deputies and the Texas Rangers decided it was time to act. Preferably before any more of the Sociable Inn’s employees or its proprietor’s paramours found themselves becoming either target practice or today’s special.
As they arrived at the Sociable Inn on September 24, 1938, Ball saw them coming. Perhaps aware that Wheeler had turned him into avoiding possible electrocution, Ball knew there was no way he himself would avoid becoming a midnight snack for the Texas Thunderbolt. For his crimes, Ball knew, Texas paid little heed to insanity pleas, plea-bargains, court-appointed psychiatrists or anything else likely to impede a defendant’s final walk. When murderers killed, they usually died, serenaded by a guard shouting not “Dead man walking” but the almost-cheery phrase “We’re going to see Old Sparky.”
As the deputies walked into the bar he went to the cash register. Ringing up ‘No Sale,’ Ball reached inside the register and pulled out a pistol. In front of the deputies, Joe Ball shot himself rather than be taken in.
The ‘Butcher of Elmendorf’ had served his last meal.
His alligators were removed from the pit and donated to the San Antonio Zoo for safe-keeping. There they enjoyed better facilities, regular care and meals not consisting of live animals or dead humans. Their notoriety, however, wasn’t made public.
That isn’t however, quite the end of the story. A Texan himself, director Tobe Hooper (of Texas Chainsaw Massacre notoriety) found Ball’s case inspiring enough to make ‘Eaten Alive.’ Released in 1977, it’s very loosely based on Ball and his crimes. Not the nicest film to watch, British film regulators listed it as one of the earliest ‘video nasties,’ films they wanted to be banned rather than inflicted on the viewing public.
One of the stars of ‘Eaten Alive’ is Robert England, himself better known for playing one of the all-time horror legends; Freddie Krueger.