One of the grizzliest Halloween tales told each October for the last eight decades in south Texas involves the account of “The Alligator Man.” Sometimes referred to as “The Butcher of Elmendorf,” the frightening saga is actually based on actual events and joins the list of Alamo City legends such as “The Donkey Lady,” “The Blood Torso Murder at the Gunter Hotel,” and “The Beheaded Angel of the Caped Doctor.”
John Gray, an off duty deputy sheriff in Bexar County, left San Antonio on the early morning of Sept. 23, 1938 to go dove hunting in nearby Elmendorf, a small community just southeast of the Alamo City. Not long after he arrived, Gray saw an older man walking toward him with concern on his face.
The man told the deputy about a large barrel sitting behind the house of Joe Ball’s sister. He said there were flies all over it and it smelled bad, like something dead was inside it. It was the same type of barrel Ball used for his liquor business. That evening Gray contacted another deputy, John Klevenhagen and they decided they would visit with Ball the following day. Both men knew Ball fairly well. In fact, Klevenhagen would occasionally go hunting with Ball, the owner of the Sociable Inn, the local tavern.
The Sociable Inn was the community place for residents and hunters to drink, dance, play cards and enjoy Ball’s “special entertainment” out back. When the World War I veteran returned home from duty in Europe in 1919, he wandered away from the family cotton business and drifted into bootlegging during the Prohibition of the 1920s. In 1933, Ball took advantage of the lucrative business of selling alcohol by opening the Sociable Inn.
During the five years leading up to the officers’ visit, Ball grew his customer count by hiring pretty young waitresses and installing a cement pond behind the tavern. Klevenhagen knew that Ball had one large and four smaller alligators in his pit, surrounded by a 10-foot high fence. Usually at night, to keep paying customers around and anticipating the amusement he planned for them, Ball would bring out a stray puppy, cat, rodent, chicken, raccoon, or some other animal to throw to the gators.
The two law enforcement officers were concerned because of the growing suspicions of Ball’s disappearing wives, girlfriends and barmaids. Jokes and gossip had turned into whispers and rumors, especially after the sudden disappearance of 22-year-old Big Minnie Gotthardt the previous year.
Big Minnie was a tough and bossy waitress who fell in love with Ball while working at the Sociable Inn for several years. In June of 1937, Big Minnie was suddenly not around. Customers were hearing different accounts of why she had vanished. Various rumors evolved: she was pregnant by a black man and had moved to Corpus Christi, she found a job in San Antonio, or had moved back to her hometown of Seguin. When police were called by her family members the following September, they noted all of her clothes remained in her room at the tavern.
Not long before Big Minnie’s disappearance, Ball two more barmaids: Dolores Goodwin, 26, and Hazel Brown, 22. Ball married Goodwin in September, the same month Big Minnie’s family reported her missing. In January 1938, Ball’s new bride lost her arm in a car accident and, by April, she too had vanished. Some bar patrons had noticed that Ball had been giving Brown his affectionate courtesies even while his wife was still around. It didn’t take long before Brown was gone too.
When deputies Gray and Klevenhagen arrived in Elmendorf shortly before noon, they went to barn to inspect the foul-smelling barrel first. It was gone. They drove to the Sociable Inn and saw Ball behind the bar. They began to question him, but Ball said he was unaware of any such barrel. The deputies took him over to his sister’s barn and she confirmed there had been such a stinking barrel there. Klevenhagen told Ball, he was sorry, but they needed to take him in to San Antonio for more questioning. He asked if it would be okay to close the tavern first and they agreed.
On the way back Ball asked them if they would like a beer before he closed the bar. When they told him no, Ball asked his old hunting buddy, “Do you mind if I have one then, before we go?”
“Sure,” Klevenhagen reacted. “Go ahead. Do what you need to do.”
Ball grabbed a cold beer, took a few sips, and went to his cash register. He opened it, hit the “no sale” key and grasped a .45 pistol that he had concealed under the counter. Ball pointed the gun to his heart, pulled the trigger, and fell dead on the floor.
Soon law enforcement officials from Bexar and nearby Wilson County arrived at the scene. They found an axe matted with blood and hair, with rotting meat around the alligator pond. With all the lawmen together, they were able to piece together pieces of a puzzle that included their separate recollections of other missing people, including a missing teenage boy who often hung out at the Sociable Inn.
Gray and Klevenhagen found Ball’s African-American handyman, Clifton Wheeler, took him in for questioning. Wheeler eventually admitted that when Ball found out his girlfriend, Hazel Brown, was about to leave and move away for another man, he approached her. During the argument she accused him of killing Big Minnie. The next day Wheeler took them and other investigators to a desolate spot along the nearby San Antonio River. When they began digging in the spot Wheeler pointed out, blood began oozing up and an unbearable smell began to emerge from the ground. It stunk so bad some of started vomiting. They retrieved two arms, two legs, and then the torso. Investigators discovered parts of a skull, including the jawbone, and some teeth at a nearby camp fire.
Wheeler admitted that he and Ball had picked up the barrel from behind the sister’s barn and took it to the river. He said at gunpoint, Ball made him dig the grave and they pulled Brown’s body out and sawed the limbs and body into pieces. They buried the body parts except for the head. They threw it in their campfire.
Wheeler also confessed that they took Big Minnie to the beach at Ingleside, near Corpus Christi. After much drinking he finally shot her in the head and they buried her in the sand. He said Minnie was pregnant and Ball needed her out of the way because of his relationships with the other barmaids. On Oct. 14, 1938, uncovered Minnie’s partially decomposed remains in the sand. The event became a spectacle with people dressing up to watch the tractors and digging equipment recover the body.
As time went on the developing news of the murders and alligator feeds spread through fear in San Antonio, nearby communities and eventually across Texas. School children began devising games, especially in the summer and Halloween, which included names like “Alligator Pond” and “Run from the Alligator Man.” More names of the missing, such as 23-year-old Julia Turner turned up.
Handyman Clifton Wheeler plead guilty in 1939 and was sentenced to two years in prison for his part in disposing of the bodies. For generations, high school students make a stop through Elmendorf in search for ghosts of the “Alligator Man’s” victims during their Halloween treks that include the Donkey Lady, Chinese Graveyard, and other haunted spots. A frequent campfire and ghost story version claim the alligators were released in the nearby San Antonio and Medina Rivers. However, little do the school children know that they could visit the deadly gators anytime they wanted—especially during their field trips–as they had been donated to the San Antonio Zoo.