Testifying in front of a legislative committee on June 25, 1951, the mayor of Texas’ “sin city” defended his much-maligned constituents with the curious logic, “The people of Galveston ought to be commended for not being hypocrites!”
The island was wide-open decades before Sam and Rose Maceo appeared on the scene just before World War I. Barbers by trade, the ambitious brothers soon discovered there was a killing to be made in bootlegging.
During the Great Depression, the Maceos branched out into big-time gambling and ruthlessly eliminated the competition. None of the slayings was ever traced back to the genial gangsters with one notable exception.
In that instance the victim with his last breath named Rose as the triggerman. But the jury disregarded the deathbed finger-pointing and acquitted the older Maceo of the homicide.
Although Galvestonians shrugged off the occasional underworld assassination, the Christmas Eve 1938 murder of a popular young groom-to-be outraged the law-abiding element. Nineteen year old Herbert Cartwright rose to prominence as a leader of the short-lived crusade that petered out after a Maceo employee was sentenced to death for the killing.
Nine years later, Cartwright unseated the incumbent mayor. No longer an outspoken idealist dedicated to driving the pimps and gamblers off the island, he had reemerged as the chief advocate of “a regulated open town.”
“I don’t believe in prostitution or kids gambling and drinking,” Cartwright insisted. “But when a man or woman gets to be 21 years of age, I don’t worry about them.”
One thing the young mayor did believe was that Galveston was a world unto itself, where mainland laws did not apply. “We don’t butt into the affairs of our sister cities,” he told a Dallas audience, “and we don’t want them to butt into ours.”
But change was in the salt air after the Second World War. The free-spirited days of booze, brothels and black jack on the outlaw island were clearly numbered.
The Maceo machine lost Sam, its guiding genius, in the spring of 1951 three weeks before the state legislature opened hearings on the scandalous goings-on in Galveston. Lacking the dearly departed’s gift for public relations, the gamblers and their cronies made a bad impression in Austin.
Citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, 14 members of the Maceo organization refused to answer any questions from the special committee. Three even declined to give their names.
Cartwright and other local officials were more talkative, however. Following the mayor’s impassioned argument in favor of the hands-off policy of the past, the recently retired police commissioner summed up a lifetime on the island with a candor that stunned lawmakers. “Galveston was wide-open before I was born. It was wide-open when I came into office and I left it wide-open.”
The most entertaining witness was Frank Biaggne, who was asked to explain why in nearly two decades as county sheriff he never busted the Balinese Room, the swank seaside casino.
“I go to the man at the desk, and I say, ‘How about getting in?’ And he says, ‘Nothing doing,’” Biaggne answered with a straight face. “You see, my name is not in the book. I’m not a member. And then I just walk away.”
Col. Homer Garrison, director of the Department of Public Safety and head of the Texas Rangers, testified that a raid on the Balinese Room in 1947 taught him the futility of trying to enforce the law in Galveston. He said that in spite of “a perfect case” put together by the Rangers, the district attorney refused to accept the complaint because he did not want “to set a precedent.”
“The people of Galveston seem to think because they live on an island they are immune from the laws of this state,” Garrison concluded with visible anger.
The gambling joints that closed for the hearings were soon back in business. But it was definitely not business as usual in Galveston and never would be again.
Attorney general and future governor Price Daniel obtained an injunction that cut the Maceo horseracing wire and crippled their bookmaking racket. The legislature made possession of a slot machine a felony, which resulted in the reluctant storage of a thousand one-armed bandits, and the IRS took many family members and associates to court for income tax evasion.
Mayor Cartwright lost his reelection bid in 1955 to a challenger, who promised worried voters “gambling and prostitution will keep Galveston an ‘isle of enchantment.’” But he was powerless to prevent the plug from being pulled two years later on the paradise of illicit pleasures.
Pre-orders now being taken for autographed copies of Bartee’s new book “Unforgettable Texans.” Mail your check for $28.80 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.