This Week In Texas History

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006
By Bartee Haile

Rise And Fall Of Duke Of Duval

On Oct. 24, 1952, a leading Lone Star daily posed the election-eve question, "Can Parr tilt the vote for Adlai?"

If the infamous Duke of Duval could select a senator, it stood to reason that he just might be able to pick a president, too.

The Anglo clique that ran Duval County at the turn of the century relied upon violence to preserve their ruthless regime. The key to maintaining their political monopoly was keeping the massive Mexican majority away from the polls.

When three Mexicans tried to exercise their right to vote in 1911 at the county seat of San Diego, they were shot to death. A Spanish-speaking politician named Archie Parr stood up for the powerless pariahs, a gutsy move that earned their undying respect and blind loyalty.

Exploiting the old country culture of the Mexicans, Parr assumed the role of "patron" ostensibly taking care of his illiterate followers in return for their bloc vote. This unbeatable combination made the former cowboy the political boss of South Texas, whose word was law in Duval and several adjacent counties.

Parr moved up to the state senate in 1914 and took along 13-year-old George as his page. Twelve years later, Archie engineered the youthís election as Duval County judge, and the son ruled the roost in the absence of the father who remained in Austin another decade.

The Parrs instituted a spoils system and cynically enriched themselves at taxpayersí expense. To avoid a public trial that would have exposed the source of their vast wealth, George pleaded guilty in 1934 to income tax evasion.

After violating the conditions of his probation, he served nine and a half months for the crime. But a full pardon from President Harry Truman wiped the slate clean in 1946 and enabled him again to hold public office.

The proud papa lived long enough to see his offspring add the counties of Jim Wells and Nueces to their empire. After Archieís death in 1942, George took complete control of the finely tuned political machine.

Although Parr had in the past backed Coke Stevenson, he opposed the ex-governorís bid for the 1948 Democratic senatorial nomination. George snapped his fingers and Duval, Nueces and Jim Wells counties obediently bestowed 10,547 votes on Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson to a token 368 for Stevenson.

Nevertheless, the official count five days after the election showed Stevenson ahead by 113 votes out of nearly a million statewide. Forty-eight hours after this announcement, a "corrected" return from Box 13 in Jim Wells County pushed LBJ over the top.

Astonishingly popular with the last-minute electorate in Parr Country, Johnson was the choice on 202 of the 203 tardy ballots. Before the tabulations and voting list mysteriously vanished, investigators discovered that the decisive votes had been cast in alphabetical order and several by civic-minded residents of the local cemetery.

With a tip of his Stetson to the Duke of Duval, "Landslide Lyndon" went merrily off to Washington and took a giant step down the road to the White House.

But even George Parr could not save Texas for Adlai Stevenson four years later in the presidential contest of 1952. Dwight Eisenhower soundly beat the Democrat by better than 133,000 votes.

Parr had a simple explanation for the one-sided outcomes of his suspicious plebiscites. "The people of Duval County go along with me because they are my friends and are satisfied with the government they are getting."

As much as Parr enjoyed masquerading as a benevolent dictator, his reign was sometimes cruel and bloody. In Jim Wells County, an Alice radio personality lost his life in a courageous campaign against corruption.

After W.H. Mason accused lawman Sam Smithwick, a cog in the Parr machine, of operating a wide-open brothel, two burly deputies beat him senseless. When Mason kept up the attack, Smithwick gunned him down in broad daylight in July 1949.

To the murdererís amazement, his trial ended in conviction and a life sentence. Angered by the betrayal, Smithwick wrote Coke Stevenson from prison to say he was ready to reveal the sordid truth about Box 13 and the stolen election. Before he could spill the beans, Smithwick was found dead in his cell, the victim of a supposed suicide.

The Duke himself did not get off entirely scot-free. Although a 1957 conviction for mail fraud was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, Parr once more ran afoul of the Internal Revenue Service and was found guilty a second time of short-changing Uncle Sam.

Facing ten years behind bars, 74-year-old George Parr chose to take his own life rather than die in prison. On April Foolís Day 1975, he drove out to his ranch, parked in a secluded spot and killed himself.

"Outlaws & Lawmen" - "Best of This Week in Texas History" Vol. VI is $10.95 plus $3.25 postage and handling from Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549. And donít forget to visit www.twith.com.