Wednesday, July 15, 2020

RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES!: Guest Post by Harold Schechter


In recent years, beginning a movie with a “Based on True Events” title card has become standard procedure. Things were different in the old days. Though many films from the past were inspired by true crimes, screenwriters generally didn’t advertise that fact. My book Ripped From the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes explores the real-life cases behind more than three dozen fictional films, from classics like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope to cult films like and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive.

The latter movie--a gleefully sadistic follow-up to Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre--involves the demented proprietor of a sleazy swampland hotel who enjoys feeding his guests and other hapless victims to his pet crocodile. Though the premise of this Grade-Z gorefest might seem to have sprung entirely from warped imagination of its creator, it was actually based on the on legendary crimes of a real-life serial killer named was Joe Ball.

A skirt-chasing reprobate, Ball made his early money as a bootlegger in the 1920s. With the repeal of Prohibition, he opened a rowdy, roadside joint called the Sociable Inn outside San Antonio, Texas. It’s main draw, besides the cheap booze, was a large cement pond out back that he stocked with full-grown alligators, whose frenzied nightly feedings became a local attraction, particularly when he tossed in a live kitten or pup.

Besides the reptile shows, Ball’s place was known for its unusually high turnover of waitresses. Investigating stories about two of these disappearances, lawmen learned that the women had come to violent ends at Joe’s hands. When they showed up at his tavern to arrest him, Joe pulled a pistol from his cash register and put a fatal bullet in his chest.

Within days, newspapers were referring to him as “the Bluebeard of South Texas,” responsible for the murders of “at least half-dozen women.” What earned Ball his lasting notoriety, however, wasn’t the number of his presumed victims but the horrifying method by which he had ostensibly disposed of some of them. According to one witness cited by authorities, Ball had “chopped up the bodies of his victims and fed them to his pet alligators.”

The story became a newspaper sensation throughout the Southwest. “FED VICTIMS TO ALLIGATORS,” the headlines screamed. “ALLIGATORS FED ON HUMAN FLESH ON MURDER FARM,” “SLAIN WOMEN FED TO ‘GATORS!” Those who bothered to read the accompanying articles learned that “there was no way to ascertain the truth of this story,” which was universally dismissed by Ball’s acquaintances. Joe may have killed a few women, his ex-wife told reporters, but “he wasn’t no horrible monster.” Still, the legend of “Alligator Joe” lived on in pulp magazines, true crime books, and horror films: further confirmation of the famous line in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Harold Schechter is an American true-crime writer who specializes in serial killers. Twice nominated for the Edgar Award, he is the author of the nonfiction books Fatal, Fiend, Bestial, Deviant, Deranged, Depraved, The Serial Killer Files, The Mad Sculptor, Man-Eater, Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men, and Bloodlands: The Dark Heart of Our History. A professor emeritus at Queens College of the City University of New York, Schechter is married to poet Kimiko Hahn.

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