IN THE PHOTOGRAPH JOE BALL pauses on a beach, wearing one of those old-fashioned bathing suits. His right hand grips an open whiskey bottle at his belly, as if between sips, and his left holds what appears to be a pair of binoculars. He's standing barefoot in white sand next to weedy brush, like the kind that grows in the dunes along the Texas coast. He's handsome in a roguish way and looks at the camera with either a squint or a sneer—it's hard to tell which. If you didn't know Joe Ball's history, you might think he was just another old-time party boy, a genteel William Faulkner look-alike whooping it up. If, however, you've heard the legend of Joe Ball, his close-cropped hair and cramped face make him appear sordid, murderous. He looks like, on this day or one like it, he could get his girlfriend drunk, entice her to look off into the distance, shoot her in the head, bury her in the sand, and then return home to his bar, his waitresses, and his alligators. And that is just what Joe Ball did.
He was a bootlegger and a gambler, a scion of the richest family in tiny Elmendorf, about fifteen miles southeast of downtown San Antonio. He was, they say, a ladies' man who had his way with the waitresses at his bar, and when they got pregnant, he got rid of them. Sometimes by alligator. When deputy sheriffs finally caught up with him, in September 1938, they dug up the dismembered corpse of one of his barmaids, dug up the girlfriend in the sand, and hauled away the gators. Ball became known as the Bluebeard of Texas, the Butcher of Elmendorf, and Alligator Man, and his story—told and retold in various newspapers, true-crime magazines, and books—caught the fancy of anyone who was ever fascinated by how low people could go, how much deeper the pit of human infamy could be dug. It was impossible to figure the final death count, so many women had come and gone through Ball's doors over the years, but the total was at least five. Seven or eight. Twelve. Twenty. Twenty-five. This, it would seem, makes Joe Ball one of the first modern serial killers.
The facts in Ball's story vary wildly with the source, from the number of victims to the names of the principals to what the witnesses saw. This is especially so online, where Web sites like the Wacky World of Murder and Homicidal Heroes treat Ball as if he were an early rock star, the Chuck Berry of serial killers. It's almost as if they are rooting him on. Indeed, Ball is often hailed as mythic kin to Ed Gein, the Wisconsin weirdo who, in the fifties, killed people and dug up and flailed corpses and wore their skin—the guy on whom Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre were based. (It should come as no surprise that Hooper's second movie, Eaten Alive, concerned a deranged Texas hotelier who fed his guests, including a pretty prostitute he hacked to death with a rake, to an alligator he kept in his yard.) Was Ball truly, as one site insisted, "one of the U.S.'s greatest nutcases"? Or was he, as other modern maniacs have defended themselves, merely misunderstood?
In San Antonio I found shades of the truth. Because the men from the Bexar County Sheriff's Office who cornered Ball are dead, I asked their successors in an e-mail if any kind of written history of the department had survived from the thirties. No, replied a corporal there, but his great-grandfather had been the sheriff of neighboring Wilson County. "I heard Joe Ball was a black man," he wrote, "and he would kill the waitresses and throw their bodies in a pond behind his place." I went to the San Antonio Public Library and asked a librarian in the Texana-genealogy department if she had any files on the Ball family. She drew a blank until I said that the best-known member was a reputed serial killer. "Oh," she said cheerfully, "this is the guy with the alligator farm?"
Well, not exactly, but close enough for a legend like Joe Ball's. His tale is proof, once again, that people see what they want to see. Especially when it involves flesh-eating alligators.
BLINK AND YOU'LL MISS ELMENDORF, especially if you're heading south on U.S. 181 and thinking about the beaches at Port Aransas or Corpus Christi. Most people speed right by the small town (population: 664) just outside the San Antonio city limits sign. If you turn west toward Elmendorf, you'll drive through a couple of miles of scrubby fields, wide-open pastures, mobile homes, and mobile-home subdivisions. Many of the double-wides are nice, with tailored yards and pretty gardens. Their mailboxes reveal the town's makeup: Garcia, Ramos, Guerrero. Elmendorf is about two thirds Hispanic, and it is pretty poor. Nobody ever photographed it for a tourist brochure. Many of the roads in town are gravel. The main intersection, at FM 327 and Third Avenue, has a stop sign and a hair salon. Just behind the intersection is a hand-drawn sign; on one side it advertises Tony's Bar and Grill and on the other it shows a caricature of an alligator in a baseball cap with a bat on his shoulder that reads "Gators." Nearby are Roy's Place and DeLeon's Grocery, which have been in business for seventy years. The Elmendorf Lounge used to be here, but now it's out on 181.
The town was incorporated in 1963, and its first mayor was Raymond Ball, Joe's brother. But it has had a troubled history of late. Elmendorf developed a reputation as a speed trap in the seventies, and in 1983 the mayor resigned, as did two successive police chiefs who were accused of submitting false documents to a state agency. In 1987 the mayor and a council member walked out of a meeting because of a disagreement; they resigned and