Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Joe Ball: The Butcher of Elmendorf

Gator Land

When Prohibition ended, Joe's bootlegging career was dealt a temporary setback. Since he already knew quite a bit about the liquor and beer business, Joe decided to open a saloon. After purchasing a small parcel of land outside town by what is now Highway 181, Joe built a tavern which he named the Sociable Inn. In the back were two bedrooms and up front there was a bar, a player piano and a room with tables where men would drink and occasionally enjoy cockfights. While most customers seemed to get along with Joe, he was known around town as a creepy guy, someone you did not want to cross.

Joe Ball's bar in Elmendorf
Joe Ball's bar in Elmendorf

Even though the business seemed to do well, Joe felt he needed a gimmick to draw in customers and soon settled on the idea of having live alligators on the property. He had a hole dug behind the bar, which he then cemented and filled with water. He erected a ten-foot tall fence, filling the pool with five live alligators (one large and four small). Joe's idea panned out and hordes of customers came to look at his new pets. Saturdays were especially busy, for Joe would put on a show by taking a live raccoon, cat, dog or any other animal he could get his hands on, and throw the animal to the alligators to the delight of his customers. According to Elton Cude, Jr., whose father, a Bexar County deputy sheriff, helped investigate Ball and later wrote about him in a book titled The Wild and Free Dukedom of Bexar, it was common knowledge that every Saturday night, "a drunken orgy occurred... any wild animal, possum, cat, dog, or any other animal without an owner helped make the show a little better. Get drunk, throw an animal in and watch the alligators," wrote Cude in his book. A similar account can also be found within the files at the San Antonio Public Library: "The squawling [sic] kitten flopped into the pool. A big alligator lifted its jaws, closed like a vice, and the screaming cat was bitten in half. 'There's more to come, my pets!' Big Joe Ball shouted, as the drink-crazed crowd roared in appreciation. And he next tossed a puppy into the bloody pool!"

Alligator feeding on a small mammal
Alligator feeding on a small mammal

In addition to his alligators, Joe's male customers enjoyed the fact that he would only hire the youngest and prettiest girls to waitress and tend bar. None of the girls ever seemed to stay for long, but Joe always explained that the girls were simply drifting through town looking for a quick buck.

In 1934, Joe met a woman from Seguin named Minnie Gotthardt, or 'Big Minnie' as most knew her. Joe's friends disliked her and considered her an officious and loathsome person, but Joe apparently didn't mind and the two eventually began running the bar together. The relationship lasted for almost three years, until Joe fell for Dolores 'Buddy' Goodwin, one of his younger waitresses. Dolores fell in love with Joe, even though he had once thrown a bottle at her, which left a nasty scar from her eye to her neck. Things became even more complicated in 1937, when 22-year-old Hazel 'Schatzie' Brown began working at the bar. Full of self-confidence and perilously beautiful, Joe, forever the player, fell in love once again. This created the problem for Joe of trying to balance three women, all of whom worked at his bar.

Minnie Gotthardt, known as 'Big Minnie'
Minnie Gotthardt, known as
'Big Minnie'

During the summer of 1937, part of Joe's problem was solved with the disappearance of Minnie. Upon inquiry by friends and relatives of Minnie's, he eagerly explained that she had left town after giving birth to a black baby. A few months later, Joe married Dolores and later revealed to her that Minnie had not run off, but rather that he had taken her to a local beach, shot her in the head, and buried her in the sand. Dolores did not seem to believe Joe's story and the subject was never brought up again. In January 1938, Dolores was involved in a near fatal car accident, which resulted in the amputation of her left arm. Nonetheless, rumors quickly began flying around that one of Joe's alligators had actually torn it off. Regardless of how she lost her arm, Dolores mysteriously disappeared in April and, not long after, so did Hazel.

While the women in Joe's life were anything but consistent, his alligators were always there for him. Joe was very protective of his beloved gators. It had been rumored that on one occasion, when a neighbor complained about the smell of rotting meat, Joe pulled out a gun, and in a not so polite manner explained that it must have been the "alligators' food" that smelled and that the nosy neighbor should mind his own business if he did not want to become that food. The neighbor then reportedly moved to another city.

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