The 13th Floor

He Fed Victims to his Pet Alligators: The REAL Story Behind EATEN ALIVE

By 1977, Tobe Hooper had already terrified audiences with his 1974 film THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Loosely based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein, the film quickly became an iconic horror movie. Then in 1977, Hooper released his follow up film, EATEN ALIVE, based on another real-life serial killer, Joe Ball.


Bluebeard of South Texas…

Joe Ball was born in 1896 in San Antonio, Texas. Not much is known about Joe’s childhood. The story of his life seems to begin in Europe during World War I where Joe served as a soldier on the front lines. During prohibition, Joe became a bootlegger and owner of a tavern called The Sociable Inn in Elmendorf, Texas. Joe constructed a pond out back where he kept five alligators as pets. He would charge tourists to see them and to watch him feed live dogs and cats to them. Locals called him the “Bluebeard  of South Texas” or “The Alligator Man” but he soon earned the nickname “The Butcher of Elmendorf”.


Women in Elmendorf, Texas started disappearing…

For years the residents of Elmendorf reported disappearances of local women. Over time nearly twenty woman had been reported missing as well as a 16-year-old boy named Bud. All the victims seemed to have one link: they were all in one way or another associated with Joe’s tavern. Some were employed by Joe, while others were reported last seen somewhere near the Sociable Inn.

It wasn’t until Joe’s second wife disappeared and he promptly took a third that police started to respond to rumors that had been circulating for years. One day, Joe was being questioned by police about a barrel found on his property that was producing a putrid decaying odor. Police requested that Joe come down to the station. Joe asked to be allowed to close his bar first. While police waited outside, Joe pulled a pistol out of his cash register, and shot himself through the heart. It was then that witnesses began coming forward.

A witness comes forward…

Joe’s murders first came to light in 1932 when an unidentified witness claimed to have seen Joe feeding a woman’s dismembered body parts to his pet alligators. Although Joe claimed that the parts actually belonged to a cat, it was very apparent that he was lying. When confronted, Joe threatened the man’s life saying, “If you ever tell what you saw, I’ll kill you. If they arrest me, I’ll have someone else kill you”.  Considering Joe’s ties to the bootlegging and the criminal underworld, the threat seemed very real. The man moved away soon afterwards and only came forward in 1938, when he learned that Joe had committed suicide. However, he would still only speak to the police if they agreed to offer him protection from “Ball’s friends”.

Joe’s accomplice…

One of Joe’s employees, an African American named Clifford Wheeler, confessed to watching Joe murder and dismember Hazel Brown, a hostess Joe had been having an affair with. He also told police that he helped bury the body of Minnie May Gotthardt, another one of Joe’s lovers. Although these were the only two victims, the police figured there had to be more. Wheeler received a five-year sentence for his role in the crimes in exchange for showing investigators where Minnie was buried.


The alligator woman…

In 1957, a one-armed woman named Dolores Goodman, who claimed to be Joe’s widow, came forward to tell the story of Joe to the local paper. Delores met Joe in 1934 when Joe was 42 and she was 26.  The two quickly fell in love. Delores claimed that Minnie was jealous of her and continually trying to run her out of town. Despite everyone’s belief that Joe was having an affair with both women, Delores believed that Joe killed Minnie for her.  When Joe told Delores about the murder, Delores didn’t pay much attention to it since Joe had been drinking. A few months later, Delores found Minnie’s bloody clothing in Joe’s house. She told Hazel (the tavern’s hostess) about what Joe had said and about the clothing. In 1938, Delores’ sister was pregnant and requested that Delores come to California and help out. And Delores promptly left without telling Hazel. Believing that Joe had murdered Delores, Hazel confronted him and also told him that she knew he had killed Minnie too. Knowing she was half-right, Joe beat Hazel to death with his pistol right in front of Clifford Wheeler.

Delores also claimed that Joe never fed anyone to his alligators. She claimed that Joe had too much love for them. She stated that Joe always told her that alligators won’t eat human flesh because, “It’s sweet, and they don’t like sweet meet. Everybody knows that.” Delores painted the picture of a sweet and loving man who, even after cutting her face with a bottle during an argument, “took me right to the hospital when he saw I was cut, and he was real sorry.” She never believed that Joe killed as many people as everyone claimed, only the two. She also believed that Joe would never kill himself.

No one will ever know exactly how many people ended up as gator food because of Joe Ball. His crimes quickly became a South Texas legend before becoming a 1977 Tobe Hooper film.