Remember Bill Mason

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AP Wire Copy Published in Walla Walla, Wash.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” – Martin Luther King

When Bill Mason and his family arrived in Alice, Texas in July of 1948, he was looking for a location that would remove them from the mad chase of big city journalism and dirty politics. Outsiders might have viewed the South Texas brush country of Jim Wells County and assumed the churches and cantinas and vast ranches were a manifestation of a simpler way of living.

Such an assessment was only partially correct.

In fact, there is an argument that any perception of that nature was insidiously wrong. Mason, unfortunately, had stepped into an historical riptide, and the consequences of his timing and principles became a tragedy that deserves further scrutiny, and great remembrance.

William (Bill) Haywood Mason had a reputation as a determined and diligent journalist that stretched from Detroit to San Francisco, back to Chicago and down to San Antonio. His career started in 1919 at the Minneapolis Journal when he returned from service overseas in World War I. After a few years as a reporter and editor in Minnesota, Mason left for California and spent the next decade at papers in the San Francisco Bay area, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Oakland Post-Enquirer, and the San Francisco Call-Bulletin.

Main Street, Alice, Texas
Main Street, Alice, Texas

Eventually, Mason landed at the Detroit Bureau of the New York Times before working in public relations. After agency work in Detroit and corporate PR jobs in Houston and Waco, Mason opened a public relations firm under his name in Mexico, which led to the responsibility of running the 1946 election campaign of future Mexican President Miguel Aleman. According to the Houston Press, Mason said he had disputes with powerful lieutenants of the president and had to quickly leave Mexico before he landed as a copy editor at the San Antonio Light. The job was considerably less glamorous than his previous reportorial escapades but Mason said he had been forced to leave most of his money behind in Mexico, and he needed work.

His peripatetic career and cumulative experiences had given Mason a catalogue of great stories, and he had in mind a book when he left San Antonio for Jim Wells County in South Texas. He planned to end his career as editor and columnist for the Alice Echo. Geographically remote, politically obscure, and economically deprived, Alice was an unlikely home for a journalist with Bill Mason’s resume. The San Francisco Chronicle later described his reportorial doggedness by calling him an investigator “who took up where police work left off.” Mason was credited with “effective sleuthing” in numerous murder cases in the Bay area, which led to the capture and conviction of many dangerous criminals.

In fact, these characteristics are precisely what led to Bill Mason’s murder by a man connected to LBJ’s theft of the 1948 U.S. Senate election in Texas.

A reporter with a sharp eye for irony and the fortitude to confront local power structures can often find a fulfilling career in a small town. Bill Mason, however, seemed destined for journalism’s grander stages. During the 1920s, when future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren was the district attorney in San Francisco’s Alameda County, Mason did much of the “spade work” on an investigation of a paving graft and corruption ring. Mason later wrote in the Alice Echo that his reporting had sent about twenty officials, including the sheriff and a city commissioner, to San Quentin Prison. Warren, however, was not generous to Mason in his memoirs and offered a negative assessment, though he did acknowledge the reporter’s assistance in facilitating the testimony of a critical witness.

Mason endorsed an opponent of Warren’s in a future election because he believed that the incumbent DA did not believe strongly enough in full disclosure of information to the public. In one of the greatest unwritten ironies in American history, Warren, ultimately, became the chairman of a commission that bore his name and was established by President Lyndon Baines Johnson to investigate the Kennedy assassination. A huge body of research by historians and governmental bodies over the past half-century have proved the Warren Commission was effective only at ignoring evidence and covering up disturbing facts about JFK’s murder. Bill Mason’s journalistic analysis of Earl Warren had been painfully astute, decades in advance of Warren’s ignominy.

By ignoring evidence the Warren Commission has prompted many investigators to suspect LBJ as being a complicit actor in JFK’s murder. Lyndon Baines Johnson began his long immoral climb to the White House with an election that was stolen in Alice, Texas just a few weeks before Bill Mason began his new job at the Echo. Mason did not know the complexity or power of the local political apparatus that had been set to work for LBJ by George Parr, a man whose administration was so corrupt and oppressive he was known as the “Duke of Duval.” Parr and his father, Archer, had reigned over six South Texas counties for decades, controlling businesses, election outcomes, courts, law enforcement, and the expenditure of taxes from all sources. They had built an empire that made them rich.

And a Parr did not countenance any type of threat.

By 1948 as Bill Mason made his way to Alice, LBJ had learned the methodologies of corrupt Texas politics. He had been previously defeated in a 1941 special election for the U.S. Senate by W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, whose victory came from a series of late returns in districts where his political cronies controlled the ballot boxes. Johnson was chastened by his loss but he did not forget how it had transpired. When he faced former Governor Coke Stevenson in a runoff for the Democratic Senate nomination Johnson was determined to eliminate the risk of losing. And in an overwhelmingly Democratic Party state like Texas, a victory in the party primary ensured electoral success in November.

George Parr, The Duke of Duval
George Parr, The Duke of Duval

LBJ and his young sycophantic protégé John Connally went to San Diego, Texas, the seat of Duval County, to meet with George Parr and establish an insurance policy for Johnson’s win. The Duke of Duval, who oversaw several counties, did not need it explained to him how valuable it would be to have a U.S. Senator in his corner as he continued stealing tax revenues and rigging elections to sustain his power base. The Duval County seat in San Diego was only ten miles from Alice, which made it easy for Parr to exercise as much control in Jim Wells County as he did in Duval. Holding back boxes to deliver late returns was not complicated for a political machine that had been orchestrating election outcomes for decades.

Parr turned the job over to two of his pistoleros, Luis Salas, and, in a lesser role, Sam Smithwick. They were county sheriff’s deputies that delivered the muscled enforcement of the Duke’s decisions. Salas wrote about their deception years later in a document he turned over to LBJ’s biographer Robert Caro. Parr had chosen to make Precinct 13’s box disappear long enough to get a good fix on the number of votes LBJ needed to win the close senate election. On the day of the election, Box 13 had 765 votes for LBJ and 60 for former Governor Stevenson.

The election was still in dispute six days later when the same box suddenly showed Johnson with 965 votes; Stevenson’s total had risen to only 62. The last 202 names on the voter tally sheet were in alphabetical order, in the same penmanship, and written with the same color ink. Two hundred of them, many who claimed not to have voted that day, or were deceased, had unknowingly cast a ballot for LBJ. The future president won by 87 votes and took the title “Landslide Lyndon” with him into electoral eternity. Stevenson argued in state and federal courts that the totals had to be discarded, but the former governor lost the legal battle and Johnson won the July 1948 primary runoff, which led to the predictable November election victory to the U.S. Senate.

Bill Mason, the new editor of the Alice Echo, wrote about the controversy with the same objectivity as the national reporters that had trekked to the brush country. His front-page stories were balanced and revealed no predisposition toward the notion of a stolen election, though few believed the results were legitimate. Mason only mentioned the controversy in two of his columns, which tended to focus on community issues. His primary targets were corrupt police officers and county officials, though he did not ignore the election that had placed his new hometown in the national spotlight.

In the six months Mason wrote his “Street Scene” column for the Echo, he was increasingly frustrated. His journalistic years had been spent pressing for full disclosure but he was unable to get basic information from the sheriff’s deputies or the Alice police, which only prompted him to write more critically of institutional authorities. The paper’s publisher, V.D. Ringwald, a friend of power broker Parr, was angered by Mason’s confrontational approach to reporting. Ringwald was taking the heat for Mason’s work and had been confronted on the street by a couple of Parr’s deputies. His words indicated he was fearful.

“I have a wife and small children,” Ringwald said.

In the ensuing weeks, Mason’s columns lacked tension and controversy. On December 23, 1948, he wrote that he had been in the newspaper business for 29 years, and that he had learned to be, “…fair to all, do good if I can, and publish the truth, even if it hurt someone. If I can’t follow that creed, I leave. Last night, we learned we could not follow that creed here. We are all right as long as we do not tread on certain toes. We have. We can’t print anything that steps on those toes. We are leaving.” In that same piece, Mason indicated he was returning to San Antonio.

That was his last column, published on Christmas Eve, 1948.

Oddly, Mason was hired by Alice radio station KBKI-AM, which was owned partially by George Parr, and he stayed in town. Going on the air at the 1000-watt radio station may have exacerbated Mason’s status as an outside agitator, however. Illiteracy rates were high in the brush country and far fewer people were able to read his newspaper columns than the number who understood what he was saying on the radio during his “Bill Mason Speaks” program. His criticism was also probably considered more acute because he was not born in the brush country.

Ed Lloyd, an attorney who was a co-owner of KBKI and a Parr friend, said, “Anyone not bred and born in the brush country is a stranger for many years.” Lloyd said that after living there twenty years he was often treated as someone who had come from away.

Bill Mason could not have been oblivious to his situation. He had likely been given the job at the radio station so that Parr and his generals might keep him under closer scrutiny. Unfortunately, Mason’s fate was determined, in part, by the fact that a majority of people were beginning to get their information from radio in the forties, and the more he criticized, the greater his risk of harm. Mason certainly spoke of the Box 13 scandal on the air at a time when the Duke of Duval was worried there might be increased federal inquiries, but the gadfly broadcaster was more interested in local corruption, which he wrote about consistently when he was a columnist at the newspaper.

“I am agin ’em when they are wrong,” he wrote of the Alice police department. “I’m for ’em when they are right. I’m agin ’em when they won’t give me information. We should change the policemen or police chief or both.”

There was sufficient corruption in Alice, Texas in the late 1940s to keep busy a large staff of newspaper reporters. Bill Mason, however, was almost the only individual on the task, and sanity dictated a certain amount of trepidation. The Duke of Duval had been known to threaten tax increases for people who did business with his political opponents; he had customers of critics’ falsely arrested for public drunkenness, and even had deputies block the parking lots of some establishments. In one instance, Parr let it be known that county welfare checks would stop to recipients that shopped at a particular grocery store. These were the stories that often went unreported until Bill Mason arrived in Alice.

More onerously, though, were the murders. When the Corpus Christi Caller-Times sent reporter James Rowe to cover the brush country counties, he said that an Alice doctor had told him there had been at least 103 suspicious deaths that he had counted.

The Box 13 scandal brought out of town national news media to Duval County and Rowe’s presence along with Bill Mason’s radio show had suddenly created an environment of accountability that had never existed in the “Land of Parr.” No one had ever asked questions of the Duke and his compadres, much less forced them to answer.

And that was the climate that led to the death of Bill Mason.

Less than six months into his new broadcasting career Mason decided to step up his criticism of a system of rewards Parr and County Sheriff Hubert Sain seemed to have established to put money into the pockets of their deputies. Earlier that year in March of 1949, Sheriff Sain had already run out of patience with Mason for talking on the radio about a group of beer joints and dance halls that were fronts for prostitution and gambling. Sain and Deputy Charles Brand found Mason at a bowling alley and beat him after they got him to come outside into a parking lot. Mason described it on the radio as a “token beating,” during which his pants came off. Unbowed, the reporter hung his pants on a pole in the center of Alice’s town square and told anyone who wanted to fight him to meet him “under his pants.”

But he did not relent and resumed his attacks on the sheriff and corruption.

“The real answer is in the county,” Mason said in one of his final broadcasts. “The hot potato is strictly in Hubert Sain’s lap. Here is a chance for all of you church people to make your influence felt. Form a committee and send people out to these places to see for yourselves what is happening. You don’t have to take my word. I have tried to be accurate but this thing is so serious you all should be satisfied.”

One of the deputies profiting from the arrangement, according to Mason, was Sam Smithwick, who was aware, and apparently involved, in the changing of Box 13 results to give LBJ the senate election. Smithwick, whose father was an Anglo and his mother Hispanic, was unable to read or write English. He did, however, speak and understand the language and was livid when Mason began talking about him on KBKI. Mason took an entire week on the air to offer details about a tavern and dance hall, which had been built on Sam Smithwick’s land. He claimed it was actually a whorehouse and a gambling operation and that the deputy was getting a healthy cut of the considerable profits.

The transcript of Bill Mason’s last broadcast in Alice, Texas, which was apparently recorded, was published in the Houston Press the day after he died on July 29, 1949.

“I’m going to take the gloves off today in the prostitute situation, and start swinging. I have been told by my friends sometimes that I shouldn’t pick on hungry Hubert Sain. Maybe I shouldn’t but a situation exists in Alice, which he alone is in position to stamp out. Any of you can spend an hour on the south side and see the suffering and misery, which is being caused by operation of the dance hall girls. Dance hall girls who work, many of them on the property of Sam Smithwick, a deputy of Hubert Sain’s.

“There are nightly violations of the liquor control law. The officers of that state department have more to do than watch Jim Wells County all the time. But it is the sworn duty of the sheriff to see that the state laws are enforced. But there on Deputy Smithwick’s property, every night, the world’s oldest profession is plying its trade, heaping dollars into the pockets of the proprietor of the place.

“I charge here today that Sam Smithwick knows what is going on. He is out there all the time at night. I charge that the taxpayers in Jim Wells county are paying wages to a man who is permitting the spreading of vile diseases that are disrupting homes, endangering the lives of children yet unborn. I charge that hungry Hubert Sain knows about these things. I charge him with dereliction of duty, malfeasance in office, with permitting the ingress of 50 girls to take from the men of Alice, during the cotton picking, money, which should go to the families of these men.

“I charge him with permitting it and not lifting a hand to stop it, but looking back over his score, what thing has he done besides sending another deputy to tear my pants off and try to scare me out of town. There is only one course open to you people who want a decent town. Insist that this thing be stopped. You must move concertedly. You may file a recall for impeachment proceedings. I am not too familiar with the law, but there is some way of getting rid of him. Or we can ask a special session of the grand jury and let them go into it. Or we can ask the federal government to come in and look over those incomes.

“Those courses are open. I say these things knowing that I am stepping on the toes of men who are making fortunes while they foster this cancer, men who will not stop to keep their monetary gain. I have been threatened over the phone this morning. The word has been passed to me that I’d better shut up. This is my answer. This is my challenge. As long as a situation like this is permitted to continue, I shall blast every time a new fact comes to my attention. Every time I dig up another bit of dirty, filthy practice, which is permitted by the sheriff of this county.”

No one is certain whether Deputy Sam Smithwick heard that last broadcast but court testimony indicated that Mason had told friends he was going to mention the lawman’s daughter on the air the next day in connection with the brothel. Before Bill Mason was able to get to the radio station for his midday broadcast, Smithwick pulled him over on an Alice street and killed the broadcaster with his .45 caliber service revolver. He surrendered to arresting officers without resistance.

AP Wire Copy Published in Walla Walla, Wash.
AP Wire Copy Published in Walla Walla, Wash.

If Parr suggested to Smithwick that he shut up Mason, no one has ever discovered such evidence. Having the radio newsman talk about illegal activities had to be unnerving to the political kingpin, who had just lived through the federal hearings and media circus that had surrounded LBJ and Box 13. Parr might have feared more worrisome attention from outsiders if Mason did not stop his daily assaults on talk radio. In any case, a silenced Bill Mason was good news for the Duke of Duval. Nonetheless, Parr, as a part owner of the radio station, might have simply fired Mason, though having him on the payroll was also a technique for control, which was how he handled Mexican workers in the county. People with families whose jobs are threatened tend to be compliant.

But not Bill Mason.

Sam Smithwick may have thought he did not have to fear prison. Parr’s control was absolute in the brush country and the case would have been heard before one of his long-time supporters, Judge Lorenz Broeter. Unfortunately for Smithwick, Broeder was diagnosed with cancer and had to name a replacement. Judge Broeter defied Parr’s recommendation and appointed a man who had no allegiance or debt to Parr. The new judge moved the case to Belton in Central Texas, which, nonetheless, did little to mitigate the tension surrounding the proceedings. Shots were fired at the prosecutor James Evetts when he parked his car in a garage, and, eventually, transcripts disappeared from the trial and the state appeals court hearing.

Nothing Bill Mason had reported was untrue. During testimony, the state heard from a former deputy that he was paid $10 a week to deliver 70 percent of the profits of the brothel and gambling den to Smithwick. The deputy’s niece was among a number of young women who admitted in court that they had met and “dated” men at the Smithwick establishment. Records introduced also proved Smithwick owned the property, a claim that was central to Mason’s reporting.

The death of Bill Mason made national news when he was killed in July of 1949. His story was on front pages of papers across the country with headlines like the one in the Alice Echo, which read, “A Courageous Man Dies.” In a matter of months, though, Mason’s murder slipped into obscurity, possibly because he was a reminder of the uncontrolled corruption that sent LBJ to the U.S. Senate.

Mason’s memory may still be making people uncomfortable in Alice. Researcher Mary K. Sparks wrote that she was talking to a friend of Mason’s in October of 1991 and the conversation was conducted in “hushed tones” and that the subject changed when “a waitress or anyone else came to the table.” Sparks also said that the publisher of the Alice newspaper told her he was still being reminded to “Remember what happened to Bill Mason.”

What happened to Sam Smithwick is just as mysterious and disturbing. Parr’s pistolero was sentenced to life in prison and, after several months, apparently began to resent that he was the only one from Jim Wells and Duval Counties that was being punished for illegal activity. Smithwick wrote a letter to Coke Stevenson, the former governor who had been robbed of a senate seat by LBJ’s vote faking deal with George Parr. How an illiterate man drafted the letter has never been explained. He might have gotten assistance from a guard who later told someone about the message Smithwick had sent to Stevenson.

Former Texas Gov. Coke Stevenson
Former Texas Gov. Coke Stevenson

The convicted killer urged Stevenson to come visit him at the prison in Huntsville and Smithwick would provide information about the phony votes delivered in Box 13, which might depose LBJ as U.S. Senator and give the election to Stevenson. Smithwick had promised to name two Mexican Americans that had delivered to him the missing contents of Box 13 just five days before he had killed Bill Mason. He said he could provide a location of the ballot box and its contents.

Stevenson, who had returned to the practice of law in Junction, Texas, left his ranch on the Llano River immediately for Huntsville. En route, Stevenson called the prison to notify them he was coming to interview Smithwick. The former governor was told there was no reason to continue his trip. The 62 year-old Smithwick was found with a noose made of bed sheets around his neck and hanging from bars in his cell window.

The death of a convicted killer doing a life term in prison does not generate a lot of news. There were rumors and hints among guards that Smithwick had been ordered killed, and his letter to Stevenson was published in its entirety on the front pages of the state’s newspapers. In 1956, four years after Sam Smithwick had been found dead, the sitting Texas Governor Allen Shivers accused LBJ to his face of having Smithwick killed to prevent his public testimony about Box 13. Johnson, who certainly had a motive, was astonished to be called a murderer.

“Shivers charged me with murder,” LBJ told the Texas Observer’s Ronnie Dugger. “Shivers said I was a murderer.”

Although declared a suicide, Sam Smithwick’s death remains mysterious given the timing and circumstances related to his letter and the pending trip of the former governor. LBJ biographer Robert Caro wrote in his four-part series of books “no evidence was ever adduced” to connect LBJ to Smithwick’s killing. Perhaps not, but there also was no real investigation. Caro gave the Smithwick story a few short paragraphs in his second book and only one sentence mentioned Bill Mason. There was sufficient reason to suspect LBJ and his lieutenants in connection with the Smithwick death.

There will always be questions about the death of Sam Smithwick but a witness in court testimony during his murder trial left no doubt about what the deputy had done to Bill Mason. Mason is still the only broadcast journalist in Texas history to be killed for doing his job, yet he has largely been forgotten. The contemporary craft of reporting is beleaguered by distortions and inaccuracies that are often prompted by pressures from cable news deadlines and Internet rumormongers. Consequently, remembering the best of journalists can provide an important perspective to the newcomers in the business. Reporting has always been about service, which was what Mason offered to Alice, Texas under the most difficult of circumstances.

Journalism needs to honor to the memory of Bill Mason, who refused to be intimidated and provided his community with important information needed to make decisions. The simplest commemoration would be for the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters, Houston Press Club, the Texas Headliners Foundation, the Texas Emmys, or even the Radio Television News Digital Association to name their “Reporter of the Year” awards after Bill Mason. He deserves a legacy because he was performing to a standard envisioned by the idea of a free press, and it cost him his life.

On his tombstone, not far from the location of Sam Smithwick’s illegal business operation, are words spoken by the prosecutor of Mason’s killer. They reflect a purpose that has been fading from journalism but needs to be remembered, along with Bill Mason.

“He died because he had the nerve to tell the truth for a lot of little people.”

And that is worth remembering.