Bartee Haile can tell you about Texas prostitution, cocaine, gambling, violence and murder. He's been a newspaper columnist specializing in Texas history for 33 years, and that research has yielded a vast treasure trove of great stories. His first two books, Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes and Murder Most Texan, covered the infamous gangs, smugglers and seedy underbelly of our state's murderous past, but his latest, Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil, is full of salacious tales of drugs, bootlegging, wildcatting, explosions and criminal machinations.
The stories are all true, too. When Beaumont's Spindletop well struck oil in 1901, it ushered in an era of ungoverned lawlessness. Haile will be in town in March for a book signing at Brazos Bookstore, and he says it helps to understand what Texas looked like before the oil boom. Texas was a “classic, rural Southern state of only four million people,” says Haile, with 83 percent of the population living on farms or ranches or in small towns. "The Texas economy was based on two things: cotton, for many years, and cattle. You can't pick that much cotton or punch that many cattle in town.”
His book covers oil finds in Spindletop, Mexia, Desdemona, Ranger and Eastland County, with real-life characters like Asa Philip “Ace” Borger and “Two-Gun Dick” Herwig. Borger's first foray into profitable illegality was when he “turned a sleepy town called Woodward, Oklahoma, into what The New York Times called the most wicked town in the world.” It didn't last, however, and when the misled locals rose up to rebel against his “wide open sin pits,” they burned down Borger's brothels and saloons and would have lynched him had he not made it out of town in time.
“He set his sights on a town outside of Amarillo” and decided to make his own boomtown and “not have to answer to pesky local inhabitants. He bought up cheap farmland and sold the property in a promotion,” leading buyers to believe the land was rich with oil. “In six months Borger, which hadn't existed before, became the sixth-largest city in Texas with at least 50,000 people. It was sort of like a smorgasbord of sin and vice; it had everything. It had narcotics, alcoholic beverages being openly sold over the counter – this was Prohibition, of course – gambling casinos, you name it.”
Borger's success as a criminal mastermind capitalized on all the connections he had made with “underworld characters who had worked for him in Woodward.” He hired a husband-and-wife team who had “1,600 prostitutes on their payroll” and helped set up their brothels and brought in convicted murderer “Two-Gun” Dick” Herwig as muscle. Every prostitute in town had to pay Herwig a fee of $18 per month to stay in business. “Herwig was a criminal genius who also set up his own whiskey stills and brewed his own beer. The saloons had to pay him a fee to stay in business, and they also had to serve his bootleg liquor and foul concoction that he called beer.” The town was rampant with drugs like cocaine, which was legal at the time, and opium derivatives.
Lawlessness can't last forever, but it took two attempts by the Texas Rangers and the National Guard to shut down the criminal activities. Miraculously, Borger's image as a “respectable town founder” kept him out of jail. “Borger never was arrested, never faced trial, never paid any legal penalty; he stayed in town as the beloved town founder.
“But about ten years later, the chickens came home to roost,” says Haile. “[County treasurer Arthur Huey] had been arrested and convicted and did time; he got out of jail, came back, and knew Ace Borger's routine, and confronted him in the post office and emptied his gun into him,” says Haile. The assailant then grabbed the fallen Borger's gun and emptied that into him as well. Borger had left behind a wave of injured town folk and, when the case went to trial, the jury found Huey not guilty. “It amazed even his defense attorney.”
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Haile says that he didn't realize until recently that his was “the longest-running column of its kind ever,” published in small-town suburban papers all over Texas. “I really wasn't all that interested, but I was contacted three years ago by the History Press, based out of Charleston, South Carolina,” and they talked him into writing some books for them. The partnership has turned up some interesting archival and vintage photographs. “We have about 60 photos in this book and many of them, probably at least a third, have never been seen publicly. We found some remarkable photos from the period.”
Haile will read from his book and sign copies on Tuesday, March 1 at 7 p.m. at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, 713-523-0701 or brazosbookstore.com. $21.99 for the book; free to attend.