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Dallas Vice

by Clay Coppedge

The first grand jury in Dallas County convened in 1846, five years after the town's founding. Fifty-one indictments were handed down for gambling, which ranged from card games to betting on badger and rat fights at the local saloon. The righteous ambition is commendable, but there was a problem. The volume of indictments didn't leave enough unindicted men (women were a long way from even being able to vote) to serve as jurors.

There were only enough jurors for one trial, so they held that trial and found the first defendant guilty. He went from the witness stand to the jury, where he helped convict another gambler. In the end, all the gamblers fined themselves $10 a piece and went back to what they were doing before being called upon to do their civic duty.

For the better part of the next 100 years, the city of Dallas handled vice in pretty much the same manner. That we might not think of Dallas as a den of iniquity is because the city went out of its way to portray itself as a conservative, law-abiding and God-fearing community. But amid the banks and mansions was a portion of town called Frogtown.

Here, by city ordinance, prostitution was legal. The cops made sure the brothels had window covers in order to protect people on the street from what was going on behind closed doors. And the prostitutes were protected from prosecution.

Dallas took a similar wink-and-nod approach to Prohibition in the 1920s. It was ridiculously easy to find a drink in Dallas during that time. A writer for Collier's magazine heard about this and decided to visit the city and see for himself if the stories were true.

"Regardless of its registered attitude in favor of strict enforcement of dry laws, I know of no town more bold in its violation of them," the magazine writer reported, though he may been a bit tipsy and prone to overstatement at the time.

The national publicity spurred sheriff Hal Hood, with much attendant publicity, to order a series of raids on the city's illegal drinking establishments. No undercover investigation was needed. Everybody knew where booze could be found. The lawmen confiscated as much of it as they could and hauled the barrels of hooch to the courthouse, where a great show of tapping the barrels and emptying their contents in the gutter had people cheering and praying and giving thanks to God and the sheriff's department.

The officers should have made that a whiskey and water instead of serving it straight up. When someone tossed a match into the gutter, the whiskey river caught fire and burned for several blocks until the fire department was able to extinguish it.

There was more whiskey where that came from, which was mostly from moonshine stills located in the Trinity River bottoms, and the drinking establishments were back in business within days, if nor hours, of the great whiskey fire.

The end of Prohibition was not an end to vice in Dallas. Men like Benny Binion set up shop in downtown Dallas, providing a market for anything the law said you were supposed to do without. By the 1930s, Binion had worked his way up the shaky ladder of the Dallas underworld, controlling the action with some degree of compassion, it's true, but also with an iron fist that might hold a gun that might be used to take care of somebody who broke the rules - Binion's rules.

"I never killed a man who didn't deserve it," Binion said, joining John Wesley Hardin and any number of other murderers who expressed that very sentiment.

Binion and others of his ilk operated more or less freely though the 30s and 40s. The powers that be still made great shows of shutting down the gambling joints, but it was all a ruse. The gangsters and the city had an understanding. The gambling joints could operate as long as they paid fines to the city on a semi-regular basis. The gangsters understood it as a cost of doing business, and the city filled its coffers with several hundred thousands of dollars' worth of fines every year.

This state of affairs lasted until just after World War II, when a new sheriff was elected. The old ways of doing business were gone. And so was Benny Binion, who took his act on the road, to Las Vegas, where he became a legend.

To get the complete lowdown on Dallas Vice along with an unflinching history of Las Vegas, check out the excellent new Binion biography by Doug J. Swanson, "Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker," which provided much of the information for this piece. You'll never look at a game of Texas Hold 'Em - or early 20th century Dallas politics - quite the same way again.
Clay Coppedge May 1, 2015 Column
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