‘Betting, Booze, and Brothels’

Betting, Booze, and Brothels

In 1961, a young and ambitious Texas Representative named Tom James became the face of an investigation into crime, vice and government corruption in Jefferson County. What he found would shock and shame the community.

Since before Spindletop, both Beaumont and Port Arthur were “wide open” towns. Elected officials provided immunity for every kind of gambling, liquor violations and prostitution – for a price. The disregard for the law was so blatant that criminals deposited unmarked envelopes full of payoff money right on the seats of police cars. Port Arthur’s 14 well-known brothels earned the city the nickname “the Wickedest Town in Texas.”

As citizens watched the drama of the James Commission unfold on the news, serious questions began to arise. Was it really possible to eradicate vice? How did everyone become so corrupt?

What, if anything, should be done about it?

Inspired by the book “Betting, Booze, and Brothels: Vice, Corruption, and Justice in Jefferson County Texas from Spindletop to the James Commission” by Wanda Landrey and Laura O’Toole, a new exhibit at the Museum of the Gulf Coast chronicles the history of three of Southeast Texas’ and Louisiana’s favorite vices: betting, booze, and brothels.

See photographs and objects related to the history of vice in the region, from the Maceo gambling empire of Galveston to Port Arthur’s own Marcella Chadwell and Beaumont’s infamous Rita Ainsworth. Hear recordings of silly, salacious and scandalous stories of local bootleggers and benevolent madams from those who knew them well.

The exhibit will be open for viewing May 6.

A reception, free to the public, will be hosted by the museum on May 12, from 6-8 p.m. The authors will be available to sign their books. Books can be purchased at the Museum Store.

The exhibition runs from May 6 until Aug. 26. The museum is at 700 Procter St., Port Arthur. For more information, contact Museum Curator Sarah Bellian at (409) 999-6283 or email mogc [dot] curator [at] gmail [dot] com.