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
"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.