‘The Cat’ runs out of lives

By Bartee Haile

Herbert Noble buried his wife on Dec. 4, 1949, four days after she was killed by a car bomb meant for the notorious gambler.

Mildred Noble was the latest casualty of an underworld feud involving her husband and Benny Binion, the “boss” of gambling in Dallas. It was clear to even casual observers that the private war would not stop until one of the two combatants was dead.

For a state where gambling of any kind was against the law, Texans could place a bet as easily as buying a loaf of bread. Every conceivable game of chance was readily available in the cities, and even small towns had a backroom poker parlor and a bookie.

Lester Ben Binion was born in 1904 in the North Texas community of Pilot Point, a short distance south of the Red River. He never set foot in a classroom and was totally illiterate until well into middle age. He finally learned to read and write in Leavenworth while serving a sentence for tax evasion in the 1950s.

Compared to his rival, Herbert Noble was a Phi Beta Kappa with several years of schooling in West Dallas, the same rough neighborhood that spawned Clyde Barrow and other Depression desperadoes. Tall, good-looking and personable, Noble was the polar opposite of dumpy Binion with his permanent scowl and menacing manner. The latter was a walking arsenal with two murder convictions and three other confirmed killings, while the former resorted to violence only in self-defense.

Gambling flourished in Dallas during the late Thirties and throughout World War II. As the unchallenged kingpin, Binion demanded 25 percent of everybody’s take as “protection” with most of the money going to the district attorney, police and politicians on his payroll. 

The lesser fry considered the kickback the cost of doing business until Binion suddenly upped his cut to 40 percent in January 1946. When Herbert Noble flatly refused to part with that big a piece of his action, the blood feud began.

Binion could not let such a brazen act of defiance go unpunished. Within 24 hours, the cops closed down Noble’s crap games and numbers racket. The next night, a carload of Binion’s boys intercepted Noble on his way to his ranch outside of town. A wild high-speed chase ended with Noble abandoning his bullet-riddled vehicle and running into the nearby woods. He took a slug in the back before vanishing from sight.

A more serious problem than Noble soon demanded Binion’s full attention. A reform ticket swept Dallas’ local elections in 1946 leading to the removal of the corrupt district attorney and politicians who had played ball with Binion for so many years.

He may have been illiterate, but Bennie could read the writing on the wall. He stuffed two suitcases full of cash and left for Las Vegas never to return.

His enemy’s departure did not mean Noble was home free. Binion still had his finger in a lot of Dallas pies and needed more than ever to make an example of the one troublemaker that would not do as he was told. 

He put a price on Herbert’s head that started out at $10,000 and eventually rose to $50,000 – a life-changing fortune 75 years ago. Besides Binion’s own henchmen, who stayed behind to oversee his Dallas operation, there was no shortage of trigger-happy characters eager to collect the tempting reward.

In May 1948, Noble drove through the front gate of his ranch house and right into a firing squad of hidden gunmen. He survived the ambush with a crippling wound to his right arm. The following Valentine’s Day, he found dynamite wired to the starter of his car parked outside his main hangout, the Airmen’s Club in downtown Dallas. That September his car overturned on a curve during another mad dash for the ranch, but he staggered home with nothing worse than a few bruises and a load of buckshot in a leg.

By this time, the Big D press had given Noble the much-deserved nickname of “The Cat.” After all, the gambler with the target on his back did seem to have nine lives!

On that fateful day in November 1949, Noble borrowed his wife’s car for a trip to Fort Worth to buy the latest addition to his fleet of private airplanes. That was why Mildred — and not her husband — was killed instantly by the powerful explosion that reduced his car to a smoldering mass of twisted metal.

Noble never recovered from his wife’s death. He turned the ranch house into a fortress with an alarm system, spotlights and high-strung guard dogs including a pack of chihuahuas. He lived alone rarely venturing out and then only for food and the beer he guzzled all night instead of sleeping.

The unsuccessful attempts on his life continued surpassing the nine that a cat is supposedly entitled to. The stress took a visible toll on Noble, who lost 50 pounds and watched his hair turn white almost overnight.

The closest Herbert Noble came to taking his own revenge was a scheme to bomb Binion’s home in Las Vegas. A Dallas cop managed to talk him out of that the year before a bomb planted near his mailbox took the last life of “The Cat.”

For Christmas, order Bartee’s books at the special price of $20.00 each. Mail your check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 for “Depression Desperadoes,” “Murder Most Texan,” “Texas Boomtowns,” “Unforgettable Texans” and “Texas Entertainers.”

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