Go Ask Alice
What happened to the ballot box that saved Lyndon Johnson’s career?
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AT FIRST GLANCE, THE SOUTH TEXAS TOWN OF ALICE hardly looks like the sort of place that changed the course of history. Other than the decaying grandeur of the Rialto movie theater and the carved limestone facade of the Texas State Bank Building—now bearing a For Sale sign—there are few clues that Alice has a story to tell. But even if historical markers and the local museum make no mention of the town’s claim to infamy, the facts are undeniable: In September 1948 Alice saved Lyndon Johnson’s political career from near ruin, providing him—by hook or by crook—with an 87-vote victory in a U.S. Senate runoff against Texas governor Coke Stevenson. Without Alice, LBJ would have lost a Senate bid for the second time, making his eventual ascendancy to the vice presidency, and then the presidency, practically impossible.
Fifty years after the fact, interest in Texas’ most notoriously corrupt election shows no signs of waning, in part because Box 13—the tin ballot box that was stuffed with votes for Johnson—remains at large, although it’s widely believed to be in the hands of an unidentified local. Visitors periodically nose around Alice inquiring about the box, and there is good reason for wanting to find it: If it holds the original paper ballots and tally sheets, its reappearance could settle any lingering doubts about the integrity of the 1948 election results. But locating it has proved difficult; the scandal cast a shadow on the town for decades, and many Alice residents still greet inquiries about Box 13 with uncomfortable silence. But a few will talk, and each has a theory: It was stashed in a meat locker; it was thrown into the Rio Grande; it was auctioned off by the sheriff years ago. “I received an anonymous letter this summer saying that it was in the Texas State Bank vault,” says Jim Wells county judge L. Arnoldo Saenz, “but there wasn’t anything to it.”
The origins of the Box 13 scandal lie in a painful lesson Johnson learned in the 1941 Senate primary, which was stolen from him by Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. One day after the election, Johnson was proclaimed the unofficial winner; campaign workers hoisted the jubilant candidate onto their shoulders, and John Connally—then Johnson’s campaign manager—sent a telegram that read “Unless miracle happens . . . looks like we’re in.” But an overconfident Johnson made a crucial mistake: He had instructed his key districts to report back their results promptly on primary day, but that alerted O’Daniel’s men to precisely how many votes they needed to “discover” in unreported districts to guarantee a win. Indeed, three days after the election, O’Daniel was declared the victor by 1,311 votes. It was the only electoral defeat Johnson ever suffered, and he would call the following few years the “most miserable period” of his life.
Johnson did not contest the 1941 election results, most likely because he did not want to invite scrutiny: His campaign had engaged in questionable voting practices with the help of men like political boss George Parr. Known as “the Duke” of Duval County, Parr ruled much of South Texas through patronage and force, regularly fixing elections. He proved invaluable in 1948 when Johnson decided to run for the Senate again, this time against Stevenson. Three days after the election, Stevenson was the unofficial winner, but votes continued to trickle in from far-flung precincts. Three days after that, officials made a startling discovery in Alice: Precinct 13’s tally sheet, which had reported 765 votes for Johnson on primary day, now listed 965 in his favor. (One of Parr’s men, it was later revealed, had extended the lip of the “7” downward into a “9.”) The votes for Johnson were written in the same handwriting, signed in the same ink, and cast in alphabetical order. Nevertheless, Johnson was pronounced the victor, earning the tongue-in-cheek sobriquet Landslide Lyndon for winning by less than one hundredth of one percent of the total vote.
Ever since, Alice residents have heard their fair share of stories. “For years afterward, the whole country down here was rife with rumor,” recalls eighty-year-old Homer Dean, a former Jim Wells county attorney who observed the first of several unsuccessful investigations into the Box 13 scandal. Dean remembers the late September day in 1948 when Stevenson and Frank Hamer—the Texas Ranger who led the ambush against Bonnie and Clyde—came to Alice looking for answers. “They were hot to prove the election had been stolen, but they didn’t get very far,” he says. “Tom Donald at the Texas State Bank let them look at the tally sheet, but he took it away when they started copying down names.” Stevenson later contested the election, but Johnson’s attorneys successfully argued that the federal courts had no jurisdiction in a state election. Since Dean was one of the attorneys who helped present the investigation in 1948 to a local grand jury—which handed down no indictments—he has his own ideas about what happened to Box 13 and its contents. But he’s saying little, at least for now; an interview he gave to a researcher at the LBJ presidential library will be made public, as per his request, only after his death.
This summer, despite the obvious impediments of reluctant witnesses and a fifty-year-old case, Duval County sheriff Santiago Barrera, Jr.—whose own quarter horses are descended from one of Parr’s prize-winning mares—began an investigation into Box 13’s whereabouts. He successfully tracked down Juan M. Escobar, the great-nephew of the late Ignacio “Nachito” Escobar, the deputy sheriff said to have added Johnson votes to the tally sheet on orders from one of Parr’s followers; the younger Escobar confirmed the story. But what about the missing piece of evidence? Barrera has thus far found only a fake: a tall, rusted box emblazoned with “13” that is proudly displayed on the counter at the Branding Iron Bar-B-Que House in Alice. Duval County Historical Commission chair Lydia O. Canales is eager for Barrera to find the real ballot box since the Duval County Museum’s collection of George Parr memorabilia—including his Stetson, alligator-skin billfold, and last will and testament—seems sorely lacking without it. Visitors to the tiny museum, which is in the neighboring town of San Diego, often inquire about Box 13, but must settle for an archival photograph. “It would be such a draw,” Canales sighs.
She may never get her wish; according to one longtime observer of Alice politics, the search for Box 13 is certain to be fruitless. “The ballots were burned that night in the Ranch Motel, and the tally sheet was taken across the border by some of George Parr’s men,” the source claims. “Box 13 was probably burned along with everything else.” And how did the source come by this bit of information? “You can hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
Which horse? Whose mouth? The source won’t say, preferring—like just about everyone in Alice—to savor the secret of Box 13 just a little bit longer.