Oak Cliff history: The wild and brutal escapades of two notorious gangsters

Benny Binion holds his wrists out for Deputy U.S. Marsh Henry White to lock his handcuffs after receiving a four-year prison sentence: From the collections of the Texas/Dallas History and Arhives Division, Dallas Public Library
Benny Binion holds his wrists out for Deputy U.S. Marsh Henry White to lock his handcuffs after receiving a four-year prison sentence: From the collections of the Texas/Dallas History and Arhives Division, Dallas Public Library

Born five years apart in different North Texas small towns, Benny “The Cowboy” Binion and Herbert “The Cat” Noble both ended up in Dallas during the 1920s boom, when East Texas oil money was pouring in and before the law was willing to challenge many of the significant vice industries thriving around the city. Both men were heavily into the local gambling machine, with Binion’s headquarters anchored in the Southland Hotel Downtown and Noble’s at his Airmen’s Club venue in Oak Lawn (although Noble was an established Oak Cliff resident). The two men prospered, grew their various “enterprises,” along with all the underpinnings, and enjoyed what most would describe as a free rein in the North Texas underworld market. But as the saying goes, there is no honor among thieves.

Binion, with his many “friendships” among North Texas law enforcement personnel, provided protection for the other gambling bosses — for a 25 percent interest in their profits. But when The Cowboy (nicknamed that because of his acrobatic shooting style) realized that Noble’s business was beginning to match his, Binion upped the fee for protection. Noble refused to pay.

The feud that ensued, along with the 1938 murder of another gambling racket competitor (and Kessler Parkway resident), Sam Murray, on the streets of Downtown Dallas — planned by Binion but carried out by one of his associates, Ivy Miller — started what became known as the Texas Gambling War. It lasted 20 years, and it got messy.

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According to Gary Sleeper’s book, “I’ll Do My Own Damn Killin’: Benny Binion, Herbert Noble, and the Texas Gambling War,” the racketeer murders became so frequent that both Dallas and Fort Worth police departments came to accept the situation. Dead bodies were found in quicklime pools at Lake Worth, acid vats in East Texas and everywhere in between. It was a nasty business run by nasty people.

As a carrier for the Dallas Times Herald from 1940 to 1942, Adamson High School alumnus Don Coke had a route that included the west side of Beckley, home of a domino parlor just south of Jefferson and the “entertainment emporium” directly across the street. “These were well known hangouts for Noble and other shady characters,” Coke says. “My folks cautioned me to always go by to collect in daylight hours and never linger after getting my money.”

But things began to change in 1946, when Henry Wade was elected as the new district attorney for Dallas County and promised to crack down on crime in Big D.

Binion, known by most as the “boss gambler,” quickly moved his main operation to Las Vegas, where he had already begun buying property, and opened his famous (and also infamous) Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. Although Binion had physically left town, his fingers remained all over Dallas, Fort Worth and West Texas gambling operations. And he had no intention of letting Noble expand or take over.

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Well-known hit man Lois (pronounced “Loyce”) Green — possibly the most ruthless and cruel man of his ilk — often worked for Binion and was almost certainly responsible for several of the at least 11 attempts on Noble’s life. Surprisingly, after most of these attempts, no matter where he was in North Texas, Noble hightailed it back to Methodist Hospital in Oak Cliff for treatment. During one hospitalization, a hit man actually fired rifle shots through Noble’s hospital room window on Methodist’s fourth floor.

On the morning of Nov. 29, 1949, Noble’s wife, Mildred, walked out of the family home at 311 Conrad in Beckleywood and stepped into the car that her husband normally drove. (Herbert Noble had earlier taken his wife’s car.) Starting the engine, Mildred Noble met her end when a car bomb exploded, killing her instantly and distributing body parts around the neighborhood.

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Overcome with grief, Noble reportedly buried Mildred in a $15,000 (in 1949 money), two-ton, solid copper casket, said to have been the most expensive in Dallas County to that date. Those who knew him said he never adjusted to her loss.

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In Las Vegas at the time, and without today’s tracing capabilities, Binion escaped any prosecution on Mildred’s murder. But everyone in Dallas — and Nevada — recognized all the signs, believing that Lois Green almost certainly carried out the hit on Binion’s behalf. Thus, on Christmas Eve, in the rear parking lot of the Sky-Vue Club at 542 W. Commerce, Lois Green was blown away by a 12-gauge shotgun. His death certificate states that he was “shot by unknown assassin;” however, insiders understood that one of Noble’s hired guns most likely did the deed. At the time, Green lived at 1401 Walmsley in Oak Cliff.

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According to Sleeper, the death of Isaac “Slim” Tomerlin, a Forty Thieves gang member, was another among those “believed to be motivated by greed, jealousy, and the power vacuum created by Lois Green’s death.”

“My next-door neighbor on Melba Street was a gunman for Benny Binion and was gunned down in his living room,” says another Adamson alumnus, Bob Johnston. “Of course we didn’t know what Slim’s ‘career’ was.” Tomerlin was DOA at Methodist Hospital on Jan. 13, 1951.

A licensed pilot who had a landing strip at his Flower Mound ranch, Noble actually planned an air raid on the Binion family’s Las Vegas home. Noble had one of his airplanes equipped with bombs and an aerial map of the targeted house. Fortunately for the Binions, a Dallas police investigator intervened.

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The many lives of The Cat came to an end on Aug. 7, 1951, when he stopped his bulletproof car next to his ranch’s mailbox just before noon. Another brutal explosion took care of business, and all signposts again pointed to The Cowboy.

Binion eventually was nailed on tax evasion charges and agreed to a prison term. When he died in 1989, his family had managed to entangle and foolishly manage his empire into a financial and legal disaster, with his immense wealth evaporated. However, Binion’s reputation remains, as does his bronze statue in Las Vegas and his status as the creator and patron saint of the World Series of Poker.

It’s a bit difficult to believe that so many participants in the Texas Gambling War lived and operated all over Oak Cliff — and that several of the major hits took place here. But those are the facts, ma’am. Those are the facts.

Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly reported the year of Benny Binion’s death.

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  • Gayla Brooks

    Thanks, Benny! And I agree. We will never really know what went on at some of the places we visited and lived. If walls could talk.

  • Benny Kirtley

    Another great article Gayla. So,so, interesting is the accounts of this story about Dallas’s history. It’s hard to believe we all had neighbors that we never knew anything about and were possibly linked to the underworld unbeknown to us. “A” plus for this article

  • Gayla Brooks

    Well, I would certainly think so. What a coincidence! Glad she wasn’t in the wrong room when the shots were fired. Isn’t it strange how so many “Oak Cliff moments” get shared by folks who otherwise would have no connections?

  • Bill Melton

    Gayla-
    Another great story! And surprise, my Mother was actually in Methodist Hospital
    recovering from surgery, about three or four rooms down from Noble when the
    shots were fired at him there! It was very unnerving!

  • Barry

    Fabulous article. I need to get my hands on that book. Thanks for posting!

  • Gayla Brooks

    Thanks for posting, Danny!

  • Danny Smith

    Correction: That should have been Whitewright, not Whitesboro!

  • Danny Smith

    Interesting article, Gayla. I was in Whitesboro recently and learned that Benny was from there along with Kay Kimbell, who established the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth!