Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Joe Ball: The Butcher of Elmendorf

A New Settlement

In the late 1800s, the state of Texas was a wide open frontier with thousands of acres of unsettled land. The Indian wars and feuds with Mexico were all but forgotten, as most were looking ahead to the future. One of those looking ahead was Joe Ball's father Frank. Around 1885, Frank Ball moved to Elemendorf, Texas, a small town 15 miles southeast of San Antonio, which had recently been founded by a man named Henry Elmendorf, who would later become the mayor of San Antonio.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Eaten Alive
The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre
& Eaten Alive

Shortly after his arrival, Frank borrowed some money from the bank and opened a factory to process cotton. Shortly thereafter, the railroad ran tracks through town and Frank's business boomed, making him a very wealthy man. He began dabbling in real estate, buying and selling properties throughout the area, and he eventually opened a general store in town. Frank and his wife, Elizabeth, raised eight children in one of the first stone homes to be built in the area. Every one of the children prospered and several became important figures in the community. Frank, Jr. worked for the school district and became a trustee in 1914. His brother Raymond opened his own grocery store, and in 1926 married a local teacher, Jane Terrell, who was later appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 as postmaster, and served the community for 27 years.

Frank and Elizabeth's second child, Joseph D. Ball, was born on Jan. 7, 1896. Throughout his childhood Joe kept to himself and rarely participated in activities with other children, preferring to spend his time outdoors fishing and exploring. As he reached adolescence, Joe's passion turned to guns. He loved them, and spent several hours every week practicing and perfecting his skills. "My uncle could shoot a bird off a telephone line with a pistol from the bumper of his Model A Ford," Joe's nephew, Bucky Ball, said in a July 2002 interview with Texas Monthly magazine. Whether Joe had suspected it at the time or not, these skills would soon come in handy.

Group of alligators (Craig S. Thom)
Group of alligators
(Craig S. Thom)

On April 6, 1917, the United States formally declared war against Germany and entered the conflict in Europe. Shortly after the start of the war, Joe Ball enlisted and was shipped off to the front lines in Europe. While there is no surviving record of his deeds or actions during the war, Joe survived and in 1919 received an honorable discharge from the Army and returned to his hometown of Elmendorf.

Joe worked for his father for a while, but then quit. Some surmised that after a couple of years in foxholes, Joe needed some time to adjust to civilian life. Joe may not have followed in his father's footsteps, but he obviously learned something from him about business, and quickly determined that with the advent of Prohibition that there was a huge demand for illegal whiskey and beer. Thus, he began a career as a bootlegger. The job may have been dangerous, but Joe apparently enjoyed it and would travel all around the area in his Model A Ford selling people whisky out of a 50-gallon barrel. During the mid-twenties, Joe hired a young African-American man named Clifton Wheeler to help with the business. A handyman by trade, Wheeler quickly found himself doing most of the labor and dirty work. It was later said that Wheeler lived in fear of Joe and that whenever Joe was drunk, he would blow off steam by shooting at Wheeler's feet, making him dance the jitterbug.

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