Who was Joe Ball? (and those snappy little alligators!) Most Texans do not recall how many people Joe Ball killed or when the crimes took place, virtually all know his name and have heard stories about him. Many were told the tale by their parents at bedtime, or while sitting around a campfire trading ghost stories. Joe Ball, was born on Jan. 7, 1896. Joe kept to himself preferring to spend time outdoors fishing and exploring. As he reached adolescence, Joe's passion turned to guns. He loved them, and spent hours practicing and perfecting his skills. Whether Joe had suspected it at the time or not, these skills would soon come in handy. Joe decided to open a saloon. After buying a piece of land Joe built a tavern which he named the Sociable Inn. 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. 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. Joe dug a hole behind the bar, which he then cemented and filled with water. He built a tall fence, filling the pool with five live alligators. Joe's idea worked and lots of customers came to look at his new pets. Saturdays were especially busy because Joe took 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. 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 called Minnie Gotthardt. Joe's friends disliked her and thought she was a loathsome person, but Joe apparently didn't mind and the two eventually began running the bar together. The relationship lasted for three years, until Joe fell for Dolores Goodwin, one of his waitresses. Dolores fell in love with Joe. Things became more complicated in 1937, when Hazel 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. Part of Joe's problem was solved in 1937 when Minnie disappeared. Joe told people she had left town after giving birth to a black baby. Joe married Dolores and told her that he had taken Minnie to a local beach, shot and buried her in the sand. Dolores did not believe Joe's story and the subject was never brought up again. Dolores was later involved in a near fatal car accident, which resulted in the amputation of her left arm. Rumours 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. After a while the list of people dying and disappearing around Joe started to grow: • Minnie Gotthardt • Hazel Brown • Dolores Goodwin • Julia Turner Sheriff's deputies brought Joe in and questioned him relentlessly for hours on end, but he continued to maintain his innocence, stating that they had simply left town and moved on. With no evidence or leads to follow, the girls were added to a growing list and Joe was again in the clear. In 1938, Joe's luck ran out. A neighbour of his told investigators that he saw Joe cut meat off a human body and feed the pieces to the alligators. When the police arrived at the bar, they told Joe that they were taking him in for questioning. Joe asked if he could close down the tavern. As the police sat at the bar waiting, Joe walked over to his register and when the drawer popped open, he reached inside and grabbed a revolver. He pointed it at his heart and pulled the trigger, it was a fatal shot. Police from all over the region were soon going over every square inch of Joe's bar. They discovered rotting meat all around the gator pond and an axe matted with blood and hair Joe had mutilated his victims and fed them to the alligators. Investigators recalled other disappearances, including missing barmaids and a teenage boy. The sheer horror of the situation was beginning to set in and Sheriff John Gray wanted answers. Clifton Wheeler, Joe’s handyman, was probably the only living person who knew what went on. Wheeler explained that Joe's girlfriend, Hazel Brown, had fallen in love with another man. This caused Joe to fly off the handle and kill her. Wheeler showed them where Joe had disposed of Hazel's body. He scanned the area and then began to dig in the loose soil. Blood began oozing up in the dirt and a horrendous smell began to emanate from the ground. The odour became intolerable for those present and most vomited. Wheeler pulled up two arms, two legs, and finally a torso. When asked where the head was, Wheeler pointed to the remains of a campfire. As it turns out, none of the rotting flesh in the alligator pond was found to be human. While it is possible that Joe never fed anyone to his alligators, it was speculated by the original investigators that he simply cleaned up any remaining flesh and bone. In 1939, Clifton Wheeler pled guilty for his part in disposing of the bodies, and was sentenced to two years in prison. Following his release, he opened up his own bar. However, his notoriety preceded him and he was unable to show his face in public without being hounded by the press or chastised by local residents. Wheeler eventually left the area and was never heard from again. Joe's alligators were eventually seized by the state of Texas and donated to the San Antonio Zoo, where they lived out the remainder of their lives as tourist attractions. While we may never know exactly how many people Joe Ball killed, or if any of them ever ended up as gator food, his cult-like popularity lives on to this day. Known throughout the crime world as the "Butcher of Elmendorf" and the "Bluebeard of South Texas," the story of the "Alligator Man" is sure to be one that will live on for generations to come.
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