Betting, Booze and Brothels

Guy and Marcella Chadwell
Guy and Marcella Chadwell

From Prohibition to the James Commission of 1961, this region was “wide open” for any activity that would make money, regardless of its legal status.

Museum of the Gulf Coast will host “Betting, Booze and Brothels,” May 6-Aug. 26. The exhibit is a silly, salacious, and scandalous story of crime, vice, and government corruption in Southeast Texas and Louisiana. The Museum of the Gulf Coast will host a free public reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, May 12. The authors of the book that inspired the collection will be available to sign their books, available for purchase at the museum gift shop.

In 1961, a young and ambitious Texas Representative named Tom James became the face of an investigation into crime, vice, and government corruption in Jefferson County. What he found would shock and shame everyone. Since before Spindletop, both Beaumont and Port Arthur were “wide open” towns. Elected officials provided immunity for every kind of gambling, liquor violation, and prostitution – for a price. The disregard for the law was so blatant that criminals deposited unmarked envelopes full of payoff money right on the seats of police cars. Port Arthur’s fourteen well-known brothels earned the city the nickname “the Wickedest Town in Texas.”

As citizens watched the drama of the James Commission unfold on the news, serious questions began to arise. Was it really possible to eradicate vice? How did everyone become so corrupt?

Inspired by the book, “Betting, Booze, and Brothels: Vice, Corruption, and Justice in Jefferson County Texas from Spindletop to the James Commission” by Wanda Landrey and Laura O’Toole, this exhibit chronicles the history of three of Southeast Texas and Louisiana’s favorite vices: betting, booze, and brothels. View photographs and objects related to the history of vice in this region, from the Maceo gambling empire of Galveston to Port Arthur’s own Marcella Chadwell and Beaumont’s infamous Rita Ainsworth. Hear recordings of stories of local bootleggers and benevolent madams from those who knew them well.

For more information, contact Sarah Bellian, museum curator, 409-999-6283 or email

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