Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chicken Ranch report no. 57: Pattern recognition

There's a popular saying that no work of art is ever finished, only abandoned. Now, I don't have hubris enough to claim that Texas' Legendary Chicken Ranch: Truth, Lies and Legacy of a Lone Star Whorehouse is actual art, but regardless what anyone classifies it as, the saying is holding true.

How else to explain my efforts these past few days, frantically researching and rewriting a section focused on the Wagon Wheel--the second, lesser-known brothel in Sealy that was closed at the same time as the Chicken Ranch? Efforts that are kind of insane, given that my final deadline for turning in the completed manuscript to the History Press is little over a week away? In all honesty, I could work on this book for another 100 years and there'd still be information and detail missing, that I'd know I could uncover if I just had a little bit more time.

Human beings are very good at pattern recognition. Crazy good. It's an evolutionary development that's allowed our species to develop nifty tricks such as abstract thought, inferring from incomplete data, developing "hunches" that prove factual once all the evidence is gathered. That last one is often subconscious, our brains responding to patterns we're not even aware we're seeing. Good journalists often have this ability in spades. The downside is that people are also very good at seeing patterns where none exist, which explains a lot of the insane conspiracy theories to be found online. But that's neither here nor there.

Back when I started research for my book, I had an inkling that the Wagon Wheel was more significant in the story of how the Chicken Ranch was closed than had been widely reported. No great leap of insight on my part there--just observing the lack of information that came from a news media fixated on the more easily-packaged semi-amusing story of the Chicken Ranch. And to be honest, there's just not that much information on the Wagon Wheel available. Even the one photo of the Wagon Wheel from 1973--its "Closed on Account of Marvin Zindler" sign--that can be found online is mistakenly attributed to the Chicken Ranch.

Early on in my research, I came across a 2001 issue of the Texas Ranger Dispatch, which mentioned gamblers from Galveston trying to set up a casino in Sealy. Immediately, my Spidey-senses went off: pattern recognition at work. Could this motel be what became the Wagon Wheel? I dug and poked and prodded for years with this at the back of my mind. Other, circumstantial evidence seemed to support that idea, but my strongest piece of "evidence" was my inability to identify any other failed motels in the Sealy area from that era. I went to Bellville a few months ago and tracked down copies of the warranty deeds from that property in the Austin County Clerk's office, which proved much more challenging than I anticipated. Some of the deeds were missing, but one I did find from the 1990s included a list of previous transactions for that property. Unfortunately, none of the names matched any of those I had as being involved with the Wagon Wheel in any fashion. Dead end? Maybe. Did I have the wrong property? Unlikely. Plus, the transaction dates listed lined up nicely with the chronology I'd constructed through other sources.

Earlier this week, whilst doing some line edits on the manuscript, I came upon that section and decided to take another look at the deed. The pattern was there, I just needed to connect one more dot. So I started Google-stalking the individual names on the deed. Dead end. Dead end. Seventy thousand people in the U.S. with that name, dead end. But then, one little hit, inconsequential, really. But a person by one of those names--P.J. Salvato--lived in Galveston in the 1950s. Okay, that's interesting. Poke some more. Prod a little. I found out that name was referenced in the Nov. 20, 1957 issue of the Galveston Daily News. Those aren't terribly easy to come by, but I found one. And, lo and behold, that headline at the top of this blog greets me on the front page: "Gaming Charges Quashing Asked." Pattern much? The article talked about indictments brought by Attorney General Will Wilson against gambling interests on the island, and right there next to legendary gambling kingpin Sam Maceo was my man, P.J. Salvato. The man whose family was a major operator of vice in Galveston County, second only to the Maceo syndicate. The man who bought the Wagon Wheel while under indictment in Galveston. The man who, as soon as the Texas Rangers destroyed the erstwhile Sealy casino, sold it again to those who would turn it into a brothel.

Game. Set. Match.

I know it doesn't sound like much, but I am inordinately excited about making this connection. It's something that's eluded me for the past six years, yet furthers my argument that the story of the Chicken Ranch very much ties in closely with pretty much every other aspect of Texas history--and the so-called Free State of Galveston was a major aspect for more than 50 years. It's there. It's documented. It's real. I just hope readers enjoy learning about these interconnected revelations as much as I have enjoyed uncovering them.

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