Director of Museum of Gulf Coast Talks Betting, Booze, and Brothels in Southeast Texas
by Anne Payne, Staff Writer
Recently, a well-known citizen of Port Arthur journeyed to Orange to speak to the Orange Golden K Kiwanis weekly meeting at the Salvation Army Building. His topic was of great interest to those attending, “Betting, Booze, and Brothels,” a topic covering vice, corruption, and justice, especially in Jefferson, Orange, and Galveston counties, from the time of Spindletop to the 1960s. The following article is based on the 2006 book, “Betting, Booze, and Brothels,” written by Laura O’Toole and Wanda Landrey.
According to Thomas “Tom” Neal, current director of the Museum of the Gulf Coast and former administrator at Lamar State College-Port Arthur, a Baptist preacher by the name of Edgar Eskridge, who claimed to be a Texas Ranger, set his mission to clean-up the city and county of Orange, protesting the April 1935 killing of Weldon Teal, a teenager, by Sheriff Pete Brown, in which no charges were filed. Also, Neal says, the good preacher, wore a gun belt with loaded pistols while preaching. Orange Police Chief Ed O’Reilly told Eskridge to turn-in his guns, but the minister refused, still claiming he was a Texas Ranger. Eskridge was enraged that any Speak Easy, an illegal establishment favoring drinking of whiskey, was operating in Orange County, corrupting the citizens of Orange. On May 25, 1935, Eskridge pointed a shotgun out of a car window, firing into a crowd of men standing in front of a cafe. The blast hit and killed O’Reilly, with Eskridge running over the Louisiana border, where he was apprehended.
Neal commented, “Martial law went into operation, and Beaumont citizens had to be off the streets by 7 p.m. All the prostitutes in their area in Beaumont were making no money due to lack of customers.” Neal has served as a church music director for many area churches, and his wife, Linda, has joined him in music ministry since college days.
Neal, who earned his B.A. in Music Education and an M.S. in Educational Administration, both from Lamar University in Beaumont, also noted that the late musician Ella Fitzgerald and fellow jazz great Dizzy Gillespie were arrested for allegedly throwing dice in Fitzgerald’s dressing room at the Houston Music Hall in Beaumont in 1955.
Additionally, the late movie actor Steve McQueen served as, believe it or not, a Port Arthur brothel club Bouncer at Marcella Chadwell’s club called Marcella’s, later becoming the bag man for the various protected bars and brothels of the day in the 1950s, and was also arrested at some time in the 1950s, for drinking illegally. Soon, bail pay-offs began erupting into hundreds or thousands of dollars for bail payments for anyone of notoriety if arrested in a nightclub, bar, dancehall, or house of ill repute.
Neal also added, “Late and former FBI Acting Director J. Edgar Hoover even made notes on the illegal activities occurring in Beaumont, Texas. Miss Rita Ainsworthof a premier house of prostitution in Beaumont, the infamous Dixie Hotel, was recognized by the late and famous Al Jolson.” Jolson once asked Joe Perl of Beaumont, who was in New York City on business and went to see Jolson perform, “I’ve heard of Beaumont. Isn’t there a hotel there called the Dixie, a house of prostitution?” Yes, Jolson, apparently, had definitely heard of The Dixie all the way in New York City. The Dixie Hotel is still located on Crockett Street in downtown Beaumont, but most recently is known as the Dixie Dance Hall, a bar and dance hall for those 21 and above, currently under remodeling.
Supposedly, the closing of the Balinese Room in Galveston changed Southeast Texas forever. The famed Texas Rangers could not quite catch, for the longest time, the gamblers in the Balinese Room due to the long hallway that stretched from the beach to the gaming area. However, the law enforcement officers finally made their move in 1957, and the Texas Rangers closed the gambling areas of Galveston, Austin, and Dallas, it is said by Neal, forever.
It should be noted that Robert Kennedy became well-respected during the 1960s nationally as chief counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee investigating corruption.
Robert Kennedy ran a tough campaign to fight organized crime when he became Attorney General of the United States, serving under his brother, President John F. Kennedy. There was an 800 percent increase in convictions against those involved in organized crime. Is it no wonder that most so-called mafia types resented the Kennedy brothers?
One of the elusive fellows in Dallas was the renowned nightclub owner Jack Ruby, whose claim-to-fame was assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald on national television, after Oswald shot and killed the late President John F. Kennedy, as well as Dallas Police Officer J.B. Tibbetts, on November 22, 1963. Most Dallas area law enforcement officers allegedly knew Ruby was part of the so-called underground crime scene in Big D, but the “men in blue” allegedly saw fit to protect many gamblers, bar and club owners, and ladies of the evening. Reportedly, however, Ruby was very much liked and respected by law enforcement and is said to have truly worshipped President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie. Sources who knew Ruby personally say he was a good guy just trying to make a living with his clubs. These same sources say Ruby was-out-of-his mind with over-the-top anger upon the death of President Kennedy. Ruby’s intense anger soon turned to uncontrollable anger, and then to revenging Kennedy’s assassin, Oswald. History will likely never know what facts or falsehoods would have been gained if Oswald had lived. Likewise, the public may never know the suffering Ruby was forced to endure in prison from inmates, guards, and other prison employees.
Unprofessional practices remained in Jefferson and Orange Counties, with some local lawmen allegedly doing a little protection of their own of those betting, boozing, and selling sex. Then, lo and behold, the Texas House of Representatives General Investigating Committee, also known as the “James Commission,” made a trip to Beaumont to initiate what became known as the “Vice Probes,” exploring the vice existence beneath Jefferson County law enforcement which allegedly allowed deception and corruption. The hearings by the James Commission placed Beaumont on the map, especially since they were televised locally, which became international news. Welcome to the world of Jefferson County’s Beaumont in the 1960s.
“Most of the criminal cases from the James Commission,” Neal continued, “were overturned due to tax evasion, so a grand jury could not be formed since the system was so corrupt, becoming a detriment to the local economy. Mysteriously, the James Commission seemed to vanish.”
By the way, on December 3, 1960, the Plum Nearly Ranch, an Arabian horse ranch owned by Jean and Gus McFaddin on what is known as old Port Arthur Road, was targeted by the Texas Rangers and the James Commission. It was once the location of the Pen Yan Club, known as “the best little casino in Jefferson County.” The customers were rolling dice on December 3, 1960, and 33 persons were placed under arrest, and a paddy wagon was ordered by State police. When the Texas Rangers called theJefferson County Sheriff’s Office to request a wagon to transport the arrested gamblers to jail, they declined and said that they were too busy to send one. The folks traveled to downtown Beaumont Police Station in a caravan of personal vehicles. All persons were charged and entered a plea of guilty, and Pen Yan owner Jack Thompson managed to pay everyone’s cash fines on that day. The arrested folks were then released.
As a result, “vice” characters were told to keep out of Orange, Texas. Supposedly, Orange Police served notices to gamblers and prostitutes to be out of Orange in 24 hours after the James Commission slammed Beaumont’s vice operations. These activities of betting, boozing, and brothels have existed since biblical times, so they are likely to continue, just maybe not with such gusto as they did before the 1960s.
While at Lamar University-State College-Port Arthur System, Neal served as Vice President for Student Services for 37 years, watching the campus grow from 700 students to nearly 3,000.
Neal is also a former radio broadcaster, serving as an announcer, sales manager, and general manager for KPAC AM-FM Radio in Port Arthur, as well as an advertising representative for Liberty Cable TV. Additionally, he has been a member of the Port Arthur Historical Society since 1976. He was a Mardi Gras Krewe Float Captain for 18 years, and a vital part of the Port Arthur Day in Austin for about 20 years, chairing the Issues Committee for 10 sessions of the Texas Legislature.