Joseph D. (Joe) Ball
(January 6, 1896 – September 24, 1938) was an American serial killer,
sometimes referred to as "The Alligator Man", the "Butcher of Elmendorf"
and the "Bluebeard of South Texas". He is said to have killed at least
20 women in the 1930s. His existence was long believed to be apocryphal,
but he is a familiar figure in Texas folklore.
After serving on the front lines in Europe during
World War I, Ball started his career as a bootlegger, providing illegal
liquor to those who could pay. After the end of Prohibition, he opened a
saloon called the Sociable Inn in Elmendorf, Texas. He built a pond that
contained five alligators and charged people to view them, especially
during feeding time; the food consisted mostly of live cats and dogs.
After a while women in the area were reported missing,
including barmaids, former girlfriends and his wife. When two Bexar
county sheriff's deputies came to question him in 1938, Ball pulled a
handgun from his cash register and killed himself with a bullet through
the heart (some sources report that he shot himself in the head). If he
were tried and convicted of the murders, he would have surely been sent
to the electric chair.
A handyman that conspired with Ball, Clifford Wheeler,
admitted to helping Ball get rid of the bodies of two of the women he
had killed. Wheeler led them to the remains of Hazel Brown and Minnie
Gotthard. Wheeler told authorities that Ball murdered at least 20 other
women, but the alligators had disposed of any evidence. There has never
been any firm evidence that the alligators actually ate any of his
There were few written sources from the era which
could verify Ball's crimes. Newspaper editor Michael Hall investigated
the story in depth in 2002, and wrote up his findings for Texas
The film Eaten Alive by Tobe Hooper was
inspired by Joe Ball.
Joe Ball, born in the 1890's, was the
owner of a tavern in Elmendorf, Texas called the Sociable Inn. Some of
it's distinguishing features were pretty waitresses, and a pit of
alligators in the back, that the visitors would enjoy watching get fed.
Ball had a hard time keeping waitresses at his tavern, but none the less,
it was still a very busy place. Not everyone liked Joe. One neighbor
complained about the smell coming from the gator pit, and Joe threatened
him with a pistol for it.
In September 1937 relatives reported Minnie
Gotthardt missing. The 22 year old woman had been a waitress at Ball's
tavern. Ball claimed she left to go to another job. Then another
waitress, Julia Turner, was reported missing. Still, Ball claimed she
too had left for another job. The only thing was, Turner hadn't taken
her clothes with her. Balls' story: Turner got into an arguement with
her roommate, she was anxious to leave, he gave her $500.00 for the trip.
Soon, two more women were reported missing. One of the missing women had
opened a bank account a few days earlier, and disappeared without taking
the money with her. Rangers compiled a list of all of Ball's employees.
Many were found alive, and more than twelve were reported missing, so
was two of Joe's wives. Ball's handyman eventually cracked under
pressure and admitted to helping Ball dispose of many female bodies by
feeding them to the alligators.
On September 24, 1938, the Rangers had
enough evidence to convict Ball, so they stopped into the Sociable Inn.
Ball, stepped behind the counter, rang up a "No Sale" on the
register, removed a pistol from the drawer and shot himself dead. His
handyman was jailed for a few years for being an accessory, and the
alligators were donated to the San Antonio zoo.
When it comes to disposing of human remains, most
serial killers prefer to keep it simple: shallow graves, crawl spaces,
river bottoms, dumpsters, remote wooded areas -- you get the idea...Occasionally,
however, an *outstanding* maniac may resort to more exotic means. We
start our series with one of the best -- Mr. Joe Ball...
In the 1930's, this hard-drinking reprobate ran a
seedy roadhouse called the Sociable Inn on Highway 181 near Elmsdorf,
Texas. Behind his fine establishment, Ball installed a cement pond and
stocked it with a brood of five fully-grown alligators. To keep his
little darlings happy and healthy, Ball fed them a diet of horse meat,
live dogs -- and the butchered remains of the various female employees
he slaughtered and dismembered.
The exact number of his victims remains unknown, since
our hero went to his death without confessing. When two sheriffs (investigating
the disappearance of a young waitress named Hazel Brown) showed up to
question him, he pulled a pistol from beneath the cash register and blew
a fist-sized hole in his own chest.
(The A-Z Encyclopedia Of Serial Killers)
VICTIMS : ?? at the VERY least 5, but most probably
I think it would be fair to say that Joe Ball was one
of the U.S.'s greatest nutcases. You see, Joe ran a small bar outside of
Elmsdorf, Texas, on Highway 181. In fact the name of the place was quite
amusing - The Sociable Inn. Well our Joe had a few problems with women,
well it was a big problem actually, he couldn't get rid of them. Well,
not until he installed a big concrete pool out the back of the Inn. In
this pool he kept 5 alligators. And from this point on it gets
The Sociable Inn became well known around the area
once Joe began feeding his new pets to audiences. It was also popular
for it's many different barmaids and waitresses, it seemed Joe had an
endless supply of them coming and going. His wives also seemed to
disappear quite regularly too. But one thing that Joe always had was
fresh meat for the alligators.
Joe was very protective of these animals as well.
Once, when a neighbor complained about the stench of rotten meat, Joe
pulled out a gun and threateningly explained that it must have been the
'Gators food' and that the neighbor should mind his own business in
future. Another neighbor was so threatened by Joe that he moved to
another city to get away from 'that crazy guy.'
For Joe Ball things seemed to be going well, despite
the fact that his waitresses keep leaving in the middle of the night,
never telling anyone of there departure. This was until 1937, when one
such waitress, Minnie Gotthardt, 22, had worried family members speaking
to police. As Minnie was employed by Ball the police questioned him, but
unable to find any substantial evidence, he was cleared of any
A few months later another family went crying to
police about there missing daughter, Julia Turner, who also happened to
work for Ball. Well police went back around to the Inn, and Ball gave
them the same answer as last time. he said she had said she was having
troubles and wanted to leave the area. When police did a check of her
room it was quickly found she hadn't packed any clothes. So they went
back to Joe Ball for a second round of questioning, telling him she had
packed no clothes. On this occasion Ball suddenly remembered that he had
lent her $500 because she was desperate, and could not go back to her
home as she was having trouble with her roommate. Ball was again in the
Unfortunately Ball couldn't seem to stop himself and
in the next few months two more employees went missing. The local police
turned the case over to the Texas Rangers who did a check into Balls
previous employees and found a few dozen of them had vanished. More
damning for Ball was the fact that no one had seen either his second or
third wives since they 'ran out' on him. The jig was almost up for Joe
The Texas Rangers questioned Ball relentlessly, but he
wouldn't crack. He gave them nothing. Unfortunately for ball though he
had left a few too many string untied. His head handyman cracked and
told of times that he was forced at gunpoint to feed pieces of female
corpses to the alligators. And his old neighbor was back in town to tell
why he ran away. He had witnessed Ball hacking pieces of meat from a
human and feeding them to his alligators. The cops almost had enough to
On September 24, 1938, Police showed up at The
Sociable Inn to check Ball's meat barrel. Realizing the it was all over
poor old Joe Ball hit the "NO SALE" button on the cash
register. He then reached in and grabbed his pistol from the draw inside.
With only two possibilities to choose from Ball chose the easier of the
two. He shot himself. Some say it was a shot to the heart, some say a
shot to the head, either way it was only one shot, and it was fatal. Joe
Ball took his secrets to the grave and unfortunately we will never know
exactly how many women found themselves being used as "'Gator Food".
It was a well told joke for years before his discovery
that Ball fed his waitresses to his alligators.
Ball's handyman, William Sneed, despite admitting to
helping dispose of bodies, only spent two years in prison.
For a special treat Ball sometimes fed his 'Gators
live cats or Dogs.
The Alligators were sent off to the San Antonio zoo.
One would think that they had a change in diet while there.
Tobe Hopper, of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, made a
film that would seem to be based on Joe Ball.
It was called "Eaten Alive."
Ball's third wife eventually surfaced years later. It
seems that she knew about her predecessors fate and decided that she
didn't want to go the same way. She ran away, but knew about "4 or
She was never charged with any crime.
The Wacky World of Murder
This is a story you will not soon forget,
(especially if you work as a waitress:). This is the story of Joe Ball.
You see Joe was not your average businessman, (as you will soon find
out). Joe ran a small bar outside of Elmsdorf, Texas, located off of
The name of Joe's bar was: The Sociable Inn (quaint isn’t
it). Joe's Inn became well known and liked around the area once he began
raising alligators (to wit, he liked feeding live cat's and dogs) in a
concrete pool he built behind the bar. The tavern was also popular
because there were new barmaids and or waitresses coming and going all
the time. Joe's wives also seemed to disappear on a quite regularly
basis. However, one thing that Joe never fell short on was fresh meat
for the alligators (and possibly the customers).
Joe was very protective of his beloved gators. At one particular point
in time, when a neighbor complained about the smell of rotted meat, Joe
pulled out a gun on the guy and in a not so nice way explained that it
must have been the "alligators food" and that the nosy
neighbor should mind his own business in the future if he did not want
to become part of that food. Another one of Joe's neighbors was so
afraid of Joe that he moved to another city just to get the hell away
Joe's business seemed to be doing well, despite the fact that his help
seemed to keep disappearing (hard to find good help ya know). That is...
until around the year 1937, when the family of one of Joe's former
waitresses, twenty-two-year-old Minnie Gotthardt, began to ask questions,
specifically of the police.
Since Joe had employed Ms. Gotthardt, the
police questioned him. Nonetheless, they were unable to find any
substantial evidence (and Joe seemed like such a nice guy). Hence, he
was cleared of all involvement, and dismissed as a possible suspect.
A short time after Ms. Gotthardt’s disappearance, another family went
to police about their missing daughter, Julia Turner. Ms. Turner had
also worked part time for Joe Ball. Police again visited the Inn, and
Joe gave them the same old song and dance as he had the previous time.
He claimed that she had told him she was having some problems and wanted
to move on and start again.
When the police searched Julia's room, she
shared with a friend they discovered she had not packed any of her
clothing or belongings. Upon discovering this tidbit of information,
they went back to Joe's for another round of questioning. This time, Joe
suddenly and conveniently remembered that he had lent her five hundred
dollars because she was in such a desperate state, and could not go back
to her home due to problems with her roommate. Joe Ball was again in the
Unfortunately, Joe could not seem to control himself. In the following
months, two more of his employees came up missing. This time the local
police turned the case over to the Texas Rangers. Upon receiving all of
the information from the local police, they checked into Joe's
background, including among other things, his previous employees.
then discovered that an alarming number of them (a few dozen) had
vanished. More incredible was the fact that no one had seen either his
second or third wives since they supposedly "ran out" on him.
The Texas Rangers questioned Joe relentlessly for hours on end.
Nonetheless, he would not crack. Hence, they had no choice but to
release him. Unfortunately, though for poor old Joe he left a few
strings untied. His handyman William Sneed came forward and revealed to
police the times he was forced by Joe at gunpoint to feed pieces of
female corpses to Joe's alligators.
In Addition, his old neighbor came
forward and told why he had run off. He said he had witnessed Joe cut
meat off of a human body and feed the pieces to the alligators. The
police just about had all of the evidence that they needed.
On Sept. 24, 1938, Police paid one last visit to The Sociable Inn to
take a gander into Joe's meat barrels. Realizing that this was it (oh
shit!), Joe pressed the "NO SALE" button on his cash register.
When the drawer popped open, he reached in and grabbed his revolver, and
shot himself. Some claim he shot himself in the chest, some say he shot
himself in the head. No matter, it was in fact a fatal shot.
In the aftermath, Joe's handyman William Sneed, despite admitting to
authorities that he had helped Joe dispose of the waitress’s bodies,
only spent two years in prison. Joe's Alligators were sent off to the
San Antonio zoo for the public to enjoy, and Joe's third wife re-surfaced.
She claimed to know about her predecessor’s fates and explained that
she did not want to end up the same way. Hence, she ran off and hid (she
was never charged with any crime).
Just how many women Joe ball turned into "alligator food" is
unknown, this is a secret he took with him to his grave and we will
never be certain of the exact number...
Born in 1892, Joe Ball was a one-time bootlegger and tavern owner at Elmendorf, Texas, near San Antonio. In the 1930s, Ball ran the Sociable Inn, distinguished by its lovely waitresses and alligator pit out back, where Joe would daily entertain his patrons with the ritual of feeding time. He seemed to have a problem keeping waitresses -- and wives -- but the variety was part of what made Ball's establishment so popular. There was a darker side to Joe, however, and according to reports from other residents of Elmendorf, Ball sounded anything but sociable.
One neighbor, a policeman by the name of Elton Crude, was threatened with a pistol after he complained about the stench emitted by Joe's alligator pool. (The smell, Ball normally explained, was due to rotting meat he used for 'gator food.) Another local was so terrified of Ball that he packed up his family one night and fled the state, without a word of explanation.
In September 1937, worried relatives reported Minnie Gotthardt's disappearance to authorities in Elmendorf. The missing 22-year-old had been employed with Ball before she dropped from sight, but under questioning the tavern keeper said that she had left to take another job. Police were satisfied, until another waitress -- Julia Turner -- was reported missing by her family.
Ball's answer was the same, but this time there were problems, since the girl had failed to take her clothes along. Joe saved the day by suddenly remembering an argument with Julia's roommate; Turner had been anxious to get out, and Ball had given her $500 for the road.
Within a few short months, two other women joined the missing list; one of them, Hazel Brown, had opened up a bank account two days before she disappeared, then "left" without retrieving any of the cash. Texas Rangers entered the case, compiling a roster of Ball's known employees over the past few years.
Many were found alive, but at least a dozen were permanently missing, along with Joe's second and third wives. Ball stood up well under questioning, but his elderly handyman cracked, reporting that he had helped Ball dispose of several female corpses, acting under threat of death when he fed their dismembered remains to the alligators. From the safety of his new location, Joe's ex-neighbor joined the litany, describing an evening in 1936 when he had seen Ball chopping up a woman's body, tossing the fragments to his hungry pets.
The Rangers had enough to win indictments, but they needed solid evidence for a conviction. On September 24, 1938, they dropped by the Sociable Inn to examine Joe's meat barrel, and Ball realized the game was up. Stepping behind the bar, he rang up a "No Sale" on the cash register, drew a pistol from the drawer, and killed himself with one shot to the head. His handyman was later jailed for two years, as an accessory after the fact, while Joe's alligators were donated to the San Antonio zoo.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial
Killers - Hunting Humans
By David Lohr
More than 60 years after Joe Ball committed his
crimes, it is difficult to assemble a factual account. None of the
original investigators is alive and the local authorities have no files
or written accounts. Had it not been for the persistence of Michael
Hall, managing editor of the Austin Chronicle, there probably
would not have been a story to tell -- at least not a very detailed one.
During the summer of 2002, Hall ferreted out surviving witnesses,
relatives and other details about Joe Ball. This information was
published in the July 1, 2002, issue of Texas Monthly magazine.
His account, along with various pre-existing reports, has made it
possible to put together a reasonably complete story of Joe Ball's life
Although most Texans do not recall how many people
Joe 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. Whether it is the sheer brutality of his crimes or the unique
aspects of the case, the name Joe Ball is one not easily forgotten.
Most horror buffs have seen Tobe Hooper's popular
movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was Hooper's second movie,
Eaten Alive, which may have been more reality based. The film
told the tale of a crazed Texas hotel owner who fed his guests,
including a pretty hooker, to an alligator he kept behind the hotel.
Surely this is not sheer coincidence, and strongly suggests that Mr.
Hooper, like many Texans, remains fascinated by Joe Ball and what he did
to his victims.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 10-foot-tall
fence, filling the pool with five live alligators (one large and four
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
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.
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
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.
Despite the fact that Joe's help kept disappearing,
his business continued to thrive. Everything appeared to be going
smoothly. That is until mid-1938, when Minnie's family began to ask
questions again. They had been unable to locate her and sought help from
the Bexar County Sheriff's office. Since Joe was Minnie's last known
lover and employer, he was questioned on several occasions. Nonetheless,
absent any evidence of foul play, he was eventually dismissed as a
A few months later another family went to police
about their missing daughter, 23-year-old Julia Turner. The missing girl
had also worked part time for Joe. Sheriff's deputies again visited the
tavern, but Joe claimed she had told him that she was having some
personal problems and wanted to move on. With nothing more to go on,
investigators once again left empty handed.
Later, when they searched the home Julia shared with
a roommate, it was discovered that she had not packed any of her
clothing or belongings. Investigators decided to return to the bar for
another round of questioning. This time Joe apparently remembered that
she was in a desperate state and that he had lent her $500 because she
was having problems with her roommate and did not want to return home.
During the next few months, two more of Joe's
employees came up missing, the names and ages of which have since been
lost in time. 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.
On September 23, 1938, Joe's luck began to run out.
An old neighbor of his came forward and told investigators that he had
witnessed Joe cut meat off a human body and feed the pieces to the
alligators. And, as investigators decided what to do next, a Mexican-American
man approached Bexar County deputy sheriff John Gray and told him about
a foul-smelling barrel Joe had left behind his sister's barn.
It smelled, he said, "like something dead was inside."
The following morning, deputies John Gray and John Klevenhagen went to
the barn to investigate, but the barrel was gone. Nonetheless, Joe's
sister corroborated the man's story and the deputies decided to pay Joe
When Gray and Klevenhagen arrived at the bar, they
informed Joe that they were taking him to San Antonio for questioning.
Joe asked if he could first close down the tavern and the deputies
agreed. As the two men sat at the bar waiting, Joe grabbed a beer and
quickly slammed it down. He then walked over to his register and pressed
the "NO SALE" button.
When the drawer popped open, he reached inside and
grabbed a .45 caliber revolver. He briefly waved it at Gray and
Klevenhagen, who yelled, "Don't!" just as Joe pointed it at his heart.
He then pulled the trigger and fell dead on the barroom floor. Some
later claimed that he had shot himself in the head, but no matter, it
was a fatal shot.
Deputies from all over the region were soon going
over every square inch of Joe's bar. Upon discovering rotting meat all
around the gator pond and an axe matted with blood and hair, their
initial theory was that Joe had mutilated his victims and fed them to
his alligators. Investigators also began to recall other disappearances,
including two missing barmaids and a teenage boy who hung out at Joe's.
The sheer horror of the situation was beginning to set in and Bexar
County deputy sheriff John Gray wanted answers.
Investigators knew that Joe's handyman, Clifton
Wheeler, was probably the only living person that could help them. After
securing the scene at the bar, Gray and Klevenhagen picked up Wheeler
and took him back to San Antonio for questioning. Wheeler initially
denied having any knowledge of what happened to the missing women, but
as the day wore on he finally admitted that he had not been totally
honest with them about his involvement.
He then explained that Joe's girlfriend, Hazel Brown,
had fallen in love with another man and was planning on moving away to
start a new life. This, according to Wheeler, in conjunction with
accusing Joe of Big Minnie's murder, caused Joe to fly off the handle
and kill her. In order to verify his story, investigators wanted to see
proof and asked Wheeler to show them where Joe had disposed of Hazel's
The following day, Wheeler took investigators to an
isolated spot, approximately three miles from town, near the San Antonio
River. He momentarily scanned the area and then began to dig in the
loose soil. After a few minutes, blood began oozing up in the dirt and a
horrendous smell began to emanate from the ground. The odor became
intolerable for those present and most began vomiting.
Wheeler eventually pulled up two arms, two legs, and
finally a torso. When asked where the head was, Wheeler pointed to the
remains of a campfire. Upon closer examination, investigators found a
jawbone, some teeth, and finally some pieces of a skull, which were all
that remained of Hazel Brown.
As investigators cordoned of the crime scene, Wheeler
said that after a long night of heavy drinking, Ball had asked him to
gather up some blankets and alcohol. Afterwards, the two took Joe's car
and picked up a 55-gallon barrel from Joe's sister's barn, and then
drove down to the river. Wheeler claimed that Ball forced him at
gunpoint to dig a grave, and then they opened the barrel.
Inside was Hazel Brown's body. Wheeler said that he
initially refused to help dismember the corpse and that Joe had started
it himself, but that in his drunken stupor Joe had a difficult time
sawing off the limbs and forced Wheeler to hold them down as he sawed.
Whenever the two started to get ill from the stench, they would take a
break and drink more beer. When the dismemberment was finally complete,
Wheeler said that they buried the corpse and threw her head on a
When questioned about Minnie Gotthardt's
disappearance, Wheeler said that Joe had taken Minnie to Ingleside, near
Corpus Christi. Joe found a secluded area, and after a lot of drinking,
he waited until Minnie was distracted and then shot her in the temple.
Wheeler stated that Joe killed her because she was pregnant and he did
not want that to interfere with the relationship he had with Dolores.
The two men then buried her in the sand and drove back to the bar.
Police went to the area and dug in the sand with hired hands and heavy
Finally, on October 14, 1938, they found Minnie's
partially decomposed remains buried in the sand. Police continued to
question Wheeler about the other missing women, but he steadfastly
claimed to have no knowledge of what had happened to them.
Back at Joe's bar, investigators found a scrapbook
containing photos of dozens of women. This, said chief deputy sheriff J.
W. Davis, "might lead to the discovery of one or a dozen more murders."
However, none of the photos ever proved to have any known connection to
Investigators eventually located Dolores in
California. She was far from dead and had apparently left the area for a
new start in San Diego. Two weeks later, in Phoenix, Arizona, they
located another one of the women that had previously been listed as "missing"
from the tavern.
As it turns out, none of the rotting flesh in the
alligator pond was found to be human. In a 1957 interview with the
San Antonio Light, Dolores "Buddy" Goodwin stated that Joe, "never
put no people in that alligator tank," she said. "Joe wouldn't do a
thing like that. He wasn't no horrible monster Joe was a sweet, kind,
good man, and he never hurt nobody unless he was driven to it There were
just two murders," she said. 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
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