Second in a series of the turbulent history of Dallas
“As the flowers are all made sweet by the sunshine and the dew, so this old world is made brighter by the lives of folks like you” – Bonnie Elizabeth Parker 1910 – 1934
As a small curious kid growing up in the 50’s and early 60’s in Dallas, little did I know that one of Dallas’ infamous characters was buried right down the street from me. As the old saying goes, life was pretty simple back then on 3212 Community Drive. Most of my childhood days were spent outside playing assorted games like baseball, football, hide and seek, war, dirt clod fights, etc. with other kids in the neighborhood. We wandered off all over the place and finally came home near dark (all mothers made their kids go out and play). At the end of our block, across an asphalt two lane road (Webbs Chapel) stood the Crown Hill Cemetery. I never wandered into that place. Frankly as a kid, cemeteries just never interested me. Some years later my father took us down there and he gave us a tour of the cemetery. He wanted us to see a famous resident there, Bonnie Parker. We saw the headstone and he explained who Bonnie and Clyde were for the first time in my life. Years later I discovered this was not the original resting place of Bonnie Parker. After her ambushed death in Gibsland, Louisiana, Bonnie was buried at the old Fish Trap cemetery (now the Reunion Cemetery) near the intersection of Singleton and Hampton roads in west Dallas. Her casket and headstone were moved to the Crown Hill Cemetery in 1945.
Much has been written about these two outlaws who got their start in Dallas. Clyde Chestnut Barrow came from Telico, a small town just southeast of Dallas. Impoverish and broke, the Barrow family moved off the farm to west Dallas. For some time they lived under a wagon near the Trinity River. Things got better for the Barrow family when father Henry Basil Barrow was able to buy a tent to live in.(1) Bonnie moved with her mother (father had died) from Rowena to Cement City (named for two cement plants), just three miles west from downtown Dallas, across the Trinity river. While in high school, Bonnie met Roy Thornton and they married in 1926 when Bonnie was just shy of 16 years old. Thornton a criminal himself, was gone for long periods. She never divorced him however, and when she was killed with Clyde, Roy’s wedding ring was still on her finger. Bonnie went to work as a seamstress and later as a waitress at the Hargrave’s café in Dallas on Swiss avenue.
One of her regular customers was a postal worker named Ted Hinton. Hinton later would join the Dallas County Sheriff’s department as a deputy and in the ambush posse organized by legendary former Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer. (2) After Hinton’s retirement, he went into the motel business opening Hinton’s Motor Lodge in Irving which closed in 1970. (5)
Small and diminutive (4’11, 87 lbs), Bonnie met Clyde in west Dallas at a mutual friend of a friend’s home in 1930. Clyde had already run afoul of the law, first being arrested for not returning a rental car in 1926, then in possession of stolen goods (turkeys) with his brother Buck. Finally Clyde was sent to State prison at the Eastham Farm near Huntsville, Texas. (1) There he committed his first murder, killing a fellow inmate who sexually assaulted him repeatedly over sometime. Clyde was still young, 5’7 and 140 lbs and had enough of this. He lured the older inmate into a shower, and beat him to death with a pipe. Finally Clyde was paroled in 1932. He left the Texas prison system already hardened and disillusioned with his treatment there. He vowed to take revenge upon the Texas prison system at Eastham. Clyde, Bonnie and Ralph Fults began a string of robberies at small businesses, grocery stores and gas stations to gather money so Clyde could purchase an arsenal of guns to launch his attack on Eastham prison. Clyde’s favorite gun was a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) which greatly out powered local lawmen around the country. (3)
Although I am leaving a lot of the story out here, the Barrow gang began their long string of robberies and murders all through Texas and the Midwest states. They quickly began famous and constantly on the run from 1932 to 1934. During the height of the Great Depression of the 30’s, many gangsters such as the Barrow gang, Dillinger and others were somewhat glamourized in their roles as “Robin Hood” types by many people at the time. There was great mistrust in the banking system, big businesses and the corporate world by genuine Americans who had to scrape by day to day just to eat. Nonetheless, the Barrow gang were killers and the Dallas Law Enforcement was out to get them.
One of those Dallas lawmen was deputy sheriff James Eric Decker, widely known as Dallas county Sheriff Bill Decker in later years. Decker was in the Barrow gang pursuit. He was in on the capture of Barrow gang member, Raymond Hamilton. They had Hamilton pinned down in a boxcar with two weapons, after his escape from death row in Huntsville. Decker calmly walked in front of the officers who had their guns drawn and told Hamilton “This is Bill Decker, Raymond, come on out”. Hamilton walked out. Also he is credited with inside information on where Bonnie and Clyde were going to be to set up the ambush on May 24, 1934 on Sailes Road, Bienville Parish, Louisiana. When asked how he knew they were going to be there, he said “Somebody told me”. (4)
Dallas had it fair share of gangster types and vice. Gambling was no exception in the 1930’s. If there was one man that was notorious for gambling in Dallas, it was Benny Binion.
Lester Ben “Benny” Binion was raised near Sherman-Denison, just north of Dallas. Born in 1904 and until his death in 1989, people are still whispering about him around town and for good reasons. Binion began his checkered career in El Paso, Texas in moonshining in the 1920’s. He was caught and convicted twice. While in El Paso, he learned to gamble. (6) He learned his craft from his horse trading days hanging around the campgrounds while waiting on the market to open. Many horse traders were card and dice players. Binion ran errands for these gamblers and help steer them to underground speak easy establishments in El Paso. (8) Not content there, Binion moved on to Dallas refining his gambling and bootlegging skills. This was dangerous business back in the early Depression years, and Binion was always prepared for the worst. He “packed heat”, and I mean “heat”. He was known to carry two .45 automatics and one small .38 revolver. Binion would eventually use one of those.
In 1931, he got into an argument with a fellow black bootlegger, Frank Bolding, suspecting him of stealing some of his liquor. Binion was sitting on a tree log in a backyard, Bolding quickly stood up in anger, and Binion rolled backwards off the log, shooting Bolding in the neck. Bolding was dead on the scene, and Binion got his famous nickname “Cowboy” from shooting him Cowboy style. A knife was found on Bolding’s body and Binion got off with a two-year suspended sentence. Dallas cops sympathized with Binion because Bolding had a bad reputation. Maybe something to do with being black didn’t help either during those days (see my first blog). Western justice at it’s finest. (8)
Even during the depression, money was flowing into Dallas by the train loads. The East Texas Oil boom was going full swing by the mid and late 1930’s. More people began to move away off the struggling farms and little towns into this mecca called Dallas. Business prospered and Dallas was expanding. Binion was moving up in the gambling world, trying to wrestle control over his rivals. In 1936 he stalked a fellow numbers rival named Ben Frieden. Binion and one of his henchmen caught up with Frieden and they unloaded their .45’s into him. However, it was noticed that Frieden was unarmed, so Binion shot himself in the shoulder and then turned himself into the police. Charges were brought against Binion but overturned because they ruled he acted in self defense. Clearly Binion had friends in high places. Another murder of Sam Murray, a Binion rackets rival, was executed by Binion henchmen, charges were dropped. Life was good for Benny “Cowboy” Binion. (6)
Dallas in 1936 ignored gambling laws for the most part. Dallas county Sheriff Richard Allen “Smoot” Schmid would have his occasional raid, but for the most part, he continued business as usual. Sheriff Schmid was the county sheriff from 1933 to 1947, longer than FDR was in office. In 1937, the Southland Hotel on 1200 Main Street near Murphy was not the Adolphus, but a close runner up. It catered a business class type of clientele. Binion ran a high class gambling speakeasy from the Southland Hotel. Craps was especially popular there. Frequent visitors including H.L. Hunt whose offices were just down the street. According to Binion, if Hunt wasn’t tired, he would shoot craps all night long till daylight, then go home. Other occasional visitors included Howard Hughes who according to Binion never lost over $10,000. Other Dallas dignitaries and business were frequent patrons. Binion quickly expanded his gambling empire with close associates and partners. He was involved with gambling at the Maurice, Bluebonnet, Birdwell, Troxy and Jefferson hotels. A dozen other hotels across the city not controlled by Binion paid him a 25% rake just to keep the peace. You can forget about the Mafia, Benny Binion was the mob boss of Dallas up to the late 40’s. (7)
After WWII, things began to change in Dallas. Sheriff Smoot Schmid had served 7 terms and was succeeded by Steve Guthrie. Still a young deputy under Sheriff Schmid, Bill Decker resigned as well. Guthrie pledged to clean up the city of it’s gambling operations. He formed a 60 man posse task force to begin the crackdown in 1947.(9) Binion was feeling the heat. The tide was turning for ole “Cowboy” and Dallas clearly didn’t want his type anymore. He had enjoyed a good ride. So did the Hillcrest State Bank who welcomed his weekly deposits. Binion had insured that local politicians were kept in his hip pocket for many years. He used the old cut-out method by giving cash to bankers who in turned made “political” contributions as per Binion’s instructions. A law enforcement report back in that day reported “that nearly all the banks in the city lend them (Binion’s operatives) silent support”. Slowly Binion lost his political support after the 1946 elections, coupled with the increase pressure of the Chicago Mafia moving into Dallas after WWII. (6) Binion was getting the message, get out of town and now! (7)
By 1951, the “Cowboy” had established his self in Las Vegas. He left Dallas behind to start his new career “legally” this time. However, a long standing feud was still festering with Binion. A small time gambler out of Oak Cliff, Herb “The Cat” Noble gave the “Cowboy” problems. Binion with his tentacles still in Dallas, demanded that Noble increase his payoff money from 25 to 40%. Noble flatly refused. “The Cat” nickname for Noble came from all the failed attempts to kill him, from gun shots (he was wounded) to car bombs. One car bomb did explode in Oak Cliff in Oak Cliff, killing his wife in 1949. Noble suspecting Binion, concocted a wild retaliation plan. Already a seasoned pilot, Noble was caught by Dallas cops rigging two large bombs to his private plane. One bomb was an incendiary and the other high explosives. In addition, a map of Binion’s home in Las Vegas on Bonanza Road, clearly marked was found. However “The Cat” had finally outlived his 9 lives when a bomb exploded at his mailbox in 1951. (6)
Maybe you can out-run the law, but you can’t out-run the IRS. In 1953, Binion lost his Nevada gambling license and was facing Federal Prison at Leavenworth, Kansas for 5 years, federal tax evasion. (6)
Binion went onto building his famous Horseshoe Casino on Freemont Street in downtown Las Vegas. I stumbled into that old tired dive in the mid 80’s. By that time it was a worn out, low ceiling, smoke filled piece of worn out crap casino. Even the green felt was peeling off the black-jack tables. It made a resurgence with the World Series Of Poker and Texas Hold ’em resurgence in the last 15 years. The old “Cowboy” finally cashed in his chips in 1989 at the age of 84. In the end, the “Cowboy” had won living his life to a peaceful end. However Benny Binion will never bluff himself out of his murderous past.
- Go Down Together: The True Untold Story Of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn
- Bonnie and Clyde Hideout website by Frank Ballinger
- On The Trail Of Bonnie And Clyde by Winston Ramsey
- Washington Post Newspaper August 31, 1970 Bill Decker Dies
- Flashback Dallas Blog by Paula Bosse
- The Green Felt Jungle by Reid/Demaris
- Blood Aces: The Wild Ride Of Benny Binion by Doug Swanson
- Las Vegas Review-Journal article February 7, 1999 by A.D. Hopkins
- History Of Dallas County Sheriff’s Department by Dick Hitt