Duval County Crime and Politics

Duval County 001

Duval County, Texas

The character of Duval County, Texas is one of “old Mexico.” It was first surveyed in 1804 by Jose Contrerras, who was the Surveyor-General of San Luis Potosi.  The area’s first recorded birth was that of Luis Muniz in 1828.  The more important colonists from Mexico came from Mierand Tamaulipas, Mexico.  Not much happened in present-day Duval County between the early 1800s and 1836 (The Texas Revolution), nor even statehood in 1845.  But in 1858, the Texas legislature established Duval County, named in honor of Barr H. Duval, a Texian killed in the massacre of Goliad.  At the time of its organization, Duval County had but four stock raisers and no one expected the population to rise much beyond that.

Around 1860, Anglo-American immigrants arrived in Duval County to raise sheep.  These settlers included people from England, France, Ireland, and Scotland.  As with all immigrants, the settlers brought with them their culture and traditions and Duval County residents soon hosted formal balls and haute cuisine [1].  The food was so good that people traveled to Duval County from Corpus Christi fifty-miles away.  The bad news about Duval County, however, was that in the 1880s, its rate of violence rivaled that of Tombstone, Arizona.  Some of these deaths were attributed to dueling, but most were due to foul play —and most of these victims were Mexican or Tejano.  In 1881, at a time of rampant crime and depredation, Duval County was short on law officers, judges, and jails.  A vigilante group was thus formed from Duval and McMullen counties. Their purpose was to defend citizens from Mexican bandits, cattle rustlers, and horse thieves.  One of these groups was making a routine scout when they stumbled upon a large pile of cowhides at a place near the two-county line.  The vigilantes (logically) concluded that these hides came from stolen animals.  Fifteen Mexicans were promptly lynched at that location.

As the county economy improved, ethnic and racial tensions eased somewhat.  The Texas-Mexican Railway brought a line to the county seat of San Diego in 1881, and the town soon became an important center for shipping hides, wool, and cotton.  For some odd reason, the sheep began to die out in 1886 and the economic boom faded away.

As was the case in many South Texas counties, Hispanic culture dominated Duval County, which became a stronghold of the Democratic Party [2].  Within a short time, Duval County would experience the rise of a political dynasty similar to that of Jim Wells in Brownsville.  Archer (Archie) Parr was a cattle rancher and politician who eventually became known as the Duke of Duval County.  He was the political and crime boss of Duval County from around 1914 to 1934.

Archie Parr was born on Matagorda Island in Calhoun County in 1860.  His father George was a veteran of the Mexican-American War in 1846.  Archie was still a youngster when his father died. Then in the third grade of school, Archie dropped out to work on his family’s ranch.  By the time he was 11-years old, Archie was wrangling horses. He was a drover by the age of 14, and at 17-years he was a trail boss on the Chisholm Trail.  He later worked as a school teacher in Rockport, in Aransas County, Texas.

Although an Anglo (white), Archie spoke fluent Spanish. He moved to Duval County in 1882 where he worked as a ranch hand and a manager at the Sweden Ranch near Benavides, Texas.  Within a few years, he purchased his own ranch.  In 1891, then 31-years old, he married Elizabeth Allen in Huntsville, Texas. She was, at the time, a student at Sam Houston State Teacher’s College, and five years his junior.  The Parr’s had a family of five children, including sons Given and George Parr.  All of his children spoke English and Spanish.

Archie realized that given the population of Tejanos in Duval County, political success might be possible if he could galvanize these people into a base of support.  Among Duval County Tejanos, it was probably better to be ignored by the Anglo than to be persecuted by him.  In any case, Anglo attitudes afforded Archie the opportunity of seizing the reigns of Democratic politics in Duval County.  He treated his own workers in the manner of a Mexican patron: he helped “his” people and their families, giving them favors and looking out for their welfare.  It wasn’t long before he had earned a positive reputation within the Tejano community.

PARR Archie 001In 1901, the Texas legislature forced the payment of poll taxes [3], which in effect politically marginalized blacks, poor whites, and most Tejanos.  This was a post-Reconstruction strategy designed to end any competition from Republican and Populist parties in Texas, and, as intended, it propelled the Democratic Party into dominating most of the state.  In the end, competitive elections were mostly restricted to primary elections.  After 1901, in the absence of Republicans or Populists, die-hard Democrats turned on one another.

As but one example of this, Duval County Tax Assessor John D. Cleary (a Democrat) managed to engineer a sweep of the county elections in 1906.  The next year, Cleary was found murdered with evidence of a shotgun blast to his back. The county was in an uproar and among some, Archie Parr was suspected in the death because Cleary was Parr’s main political opponent at the time.  Texas Rangers were called in to investigate but the murder went unsolved.  It was with Cleary’s death that Parr seized the reigns of the Democratic Party in Duval County.  To solidify his base among Tejanos, he established his own party, which he called El Guaracha (the sandal party, or party of the poor), and he labeled other Democrats as the rich, or La Bota (the boot) party.

Parr was first elected to political office in 1896, when he successfully ran for the office of county commissioner. He was re-elected to that position continually until 1906.

Tejanos formed Archie Parr’s political base, and for some this may have been enough, but inside the Parr machine, there was never any hesitation to use fraud and coercion to control county-wide elections.  Parr’s techniques were not necessarily unique: he orchestrated marked ballots, employed intimidating armed guards at polling places, and if needed, altered election results.  It was said that no one was more adept as stuffing ballot boxes than Archie Parr.

Having won election to the Texas State Senate in 1914, Archie Parr served in that office for nearly two decades.  Along with his seniority came tremendous power throughout the state and he easily aligned himself with the Democratic Party patronage system.  He was also instrumental in bringing cheap labor from Mexico to work the ranches and farms.  In time, Archie came to own the San Diego State Bank, the Dobie Ranch, Harcones Ranch, and was a silent partner of dozens of businesses in South Texas.  To say that he became a very wealthy man over his years in Duval County would be an understatement.

In 1928, Archie Parr led state democrats against US Congressman Harry M. Wurzbach, the only Republican elected to the House of Representatives from Texas since the end of Reconstruction. Wurzbach represented the 14thCongressional District, which included Guadalupe County, where German-Americans favored the Republican platform.  However, in this election the winner was a Democratic candidate. Wurzbach suspected election tampering and contested the election results.  The elections committee found in Wurzbach’s favor and he was finally seated in 1930. Wurzbach also won re-election, but then died while serving in office.

In 1932, Parr was indicted by the federal IRS for tax evasion.  His political opponent in the upcoming election successfully labeled him as a tax cheat [4] but in spite of these problems, Archie had hopes for reelection. Parr attempted to push through road construction project that would have put a modern highway from Duval County to Corpus Christi.  The Parr plan would have placed the highway on a track that extended through the King Ranch, but his long-time political ally (and the owner of the King Ranch), Robert Kleberg, Jr [5]., vigorously opposed the project and it was shelved.  Archie’s son George confronted Kleberg, saying, “You’re crucifying my father!  I’ll get you. I’ll gut you if it’s the last thing I do!”  When Parr was defeated in 1934, Kleberg became an enemy of the Parr machine.

In spite of Parr’s legal problems, his syndicate was a golden egg.  The discovery of oil in Duval County created ample opportunity for patronage and it allowed Archie Parr to add to his already substantial fortune.  In fact, the family political network continues to influence politics in Texas today, offering its patronage to both Democrats and Republicans alike.  As but one example, Jim Maddox [6] was a beneficiary of the Parr machine in his bid for State Attorney General; he garnered a majority of county votes despite the fact that he was running against a Hispanic.

In 1940, Archie Parr applied for a presidential pardon for the tax evasion conviction.  The pardon, if granted, would demonstrate to other political bosses in South Texas that Parr continued to wield power within the state. On the advice of then Congressman Richard Kleberg, US Attorney General Francis Biddle blocked it.  Archie Parr died in 1942; George Parr then mounted a campaign against Kleberg, throwing his considerable weight behind the candidacy of Major John E. Lyle, Jr. [7]  At the time, Lyle was serving on active duty in Europe during World War II.  When Tom Clark replaced Biddle as Attorney General, and with Kleberg out of the way, then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson lobbied President Harry S. Truman to approve Parr’s pardon, which he did on 20 February 1946. In any case, by the time of Archie’s demise, the Parr family had gained firm control of politics in Duval and Jim Wells County—the baton had been passed along to Archie’s his youngest son, George.

PARR George 001

George B. Parr

George Berham Parr [8] (1901-1975), like his father, became known as the Duke of Duval County.  His appetite for politics was wetted when he served as a page in the Texas Capital during one of his father’s terms.  He spent four years at the West Texas Military Academy and graduated from Corpus Christi High School in 1921.  He attended several colleges without much success, and attended the University of Texas Law School in 1923, but left without a degree.  In spite of this, he passed the Texas Bar in 1926 and was admitted to the practice of law.  In that same year, Archie appointed George to complete the term of his brother Given as Duval County Judge.  George’s first wife was Thelma Duckworth of Corpus Christi; he subsequently married Eva Perez, with whom he had two daughters.

The Parr political machine employed bribery, graft, and illegal donations.  Political support came from the southern-most counties in Texas.  The machine was able to produce large numbers of votes, legal or not, from among the impoverished and uneducated working-class Tejano population.  As a result of this arrangement, marginalized native Texan farmers moved away from Duval county.  County politics was thus left to the Parr machine and an easily bribed Tejano community; it made the county a bastion of Democratic crime and corruption.  Even so, George Parr was as charismatic as his father and equally fluent in Spanish.  Like his father, local Tejanos referred to George as “El Patron.”

LBJ 001

Lyndon B. Johnson

In 1948, Coke Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, and others, competed for the United States Senate seat.  Stevenson and Johnson advanced to a runoff election.  For five days following the election, Stevenson appeared to hold a lead of 112 votes.  Then, Jim Wells County amended its return adding 202 additional votes —200 of which were for Johnson, who ended up winning the election by 87 votes.  This miraculous showing at the polls earned Johnson the sobriquet, “Landslide Johnson.”  It was dirty politics, pure and simple —but Parr did pay Johnson back for supporting his application for a presidential pardon.

By 1950, the Parr machine had become an irritation to Governor Allan Shivers and Attorney General John Shepperd.  Federal officials initiated an investigation in Duval County, which resulted in 650 indictments against the Parr Machine.  Three hundred of these indictments were rendered at the state level. George Parr eluded indictment, however. Later charged with fraud, the allegations were dismissed by a local judge.  Now under the protection of Lyndon Johnson, George Parr eluded every attempt to indict him for fraud, bribery, corruption, racketeering, and murder.  At the time John Shepperd was seeking indictments against Parr, he also served as a close political advisor to Lyndon Johnson.

In 1950, Jake Floyd, from Alice, Texas successfully lead the Freedom Party against the Parr machine and won. The result was the Parr operation lost an important office that was used to control their South Texas interests. Then, in 1952, Jacob “Buddy” Floyd, Jake’s 22-year old son, was murdered by a Parr assassin named Mario Sapet. Sapet’s intended target was Jake; it was a case of mistaken identity.  Sapet was arrested and later convicted, but everyone knew that the real culprit was never indicted for this crime.

Parr continued to be object of political reform movements in Duval and Jim Wells counties and in 1954, Governor Shivers declared war on the Parr faction.  Texas Rangers were sent to investigate George Parr.  He was charged with embezzlement but managed to beat the case against him.

In the early 1960s, a group of county women organized to clean up county politics.  They requested that the State Attorney General investigate voting fraud in Duval and Jim Wells Counties.  Several investigations were conducted, but without any meaningful change. With the end of the Johnson administration in 1968, Parr lost his primary protector.  Under the advice of Johnson and other prominent state democrats, George relinquished control the Parr apparatus to his nephew, Archer Parr III in the 1970s.

The law finally caught up with George Parr in 1974 when he was convicted of income tax evasion and received a ten-year prison sentence.  Determined not to go to jail, George committed suicide on 1 April 1975.  At this time, Archie Parr III was serving as the Duval County Judge; he stood down later that year and it wasn’t long after that that the Parr machine collapsed.  Even though a small land-owning minority attempted to retain control of county politics, the party was taken over by the large Tejano community.  In spite of all this, the family and its network remain significantly influential in Duval and Jim Wells counties —both of which remain one of the strongest and most consistently Democrat localities in Texas, frequently giving national and local Democratic candidates winning margins greater than 70 percent.

Notes:

[1] Also, Grande Cuisine, as may be served in gourmet restaurants, and luxury hotels.

[2] The last Republican to carry the county was Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.

[3] In the United States, poll taxes were implemented in some U.S. states and local jurisdictions; paying the tax was a pre-condition of voting.  Many southern states enacted poll taxes as a means of restricting eligible voters for exercising their right to vote.

[4] Convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to supervised parole, Parr eventually served nine months in the Federal Correction Institution at El Reno for violating his parole.

[5] Richard Kleberg served as a Democrat in the US House of Representatives for seven consecutive terms (1931-1945); he passed away in 1955 at the age of 67 years.

[6] Maddox was indicted for commercial bribery (an attempt to deliver corporate funds to an election campaign) in 1983.  In essence, Maddox received $125,000 from his sister, a Dallas lawyer.  She in turn received the funds from the Seafirst Bank in Seattle, which had close ties to Clinton Manges, who was a controversial South Texas rancher and the heir to the Parr machine in Duval County.

[7] Lyle replaced Kleberg in the US House of Representatives in 1945, serving through 1955.  He was a beneficiary of the Parr political machine.  He passed away in 2003, aged 93 years.

[8] George attended the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston, Texas with his father.  It was in Houston that he was introduced to Alvin Wirtz (State Senator), Ealy Johnson, Jr., (State Representative) and members of the Bexar County political machine. He was also introduced to Ealy’s son, then a college student by the name of Lyndon B. Johnson.

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3 Responses to Duval County Crime and Politics

  1. Andy says:

    My great-grandfather and his wife were among the first five Anglo families to move into Duval County. My grandfather and George B. Parr were childhood friends. I first saw George in a courtroom in Houston. I had driven my great grandmother into town to watch part of his legal proceeding. Before court began, George was seated at the table, he turned around, and saw my great-grandmother in the gallery. He stood up and came from behind the bar and greeted her very politely. Quite the gentleman. He was a legend in Duval.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      I daresay that Duval County was an interesting place at the turn of the 20th Century. It would be so neat to read what your ancestor had to say about life there. Did your great-grandfather remain in Duval County into adulthood, or did he migrate to another area of Texas?

      Like

  2. Andy says:

    My great-grand parents lived to old age and died in Duval County. Two of their three children married and lived throughout their lives in Duval, as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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