|The infamous Box 13 that gave Lyndon Johnson victory in the 1948 senatorial election.
Photo provided by Tommy Molina from the “T.H. Molina Photo Collection.
While serious accusations were whirling around in 1948 over allegations of voter fraud in Duval and Jim Wells Counties, the Dallas Morning News found time and space in its newspaper columns to poke fun at the situation. The News, in keeping with the times showed a total lack of sensitivity.
In its Oct. 19, 1948, issue the News reported “No Joy in Seven Sisters Because Papa Returned.” The newspaper said a Texas citizen of “Mexican ancestry . . . of course his name was Pedro” was crying uncontrollably on a street corner in the town of Seven Sisters because his father, who had been dead six years, had come back to life to vote in the recent election. His inconsiderate father, Pedro told his friend Miguel, had not come to visit after casting his vote. Mark McGhee relayed the story to the News. The newspaper did not report what McGhee, a Fort Worth attorney and former Texas Adjutant General, was doing in the streets of Seven Sisters. In my lifetime, I have not known Seven Sisters as a town with streets but perhaps that was the case on Oct. 19, 1948 when I was nine days from being born.
A few days later, the News reported that they were looking for empty ballot boxes in Jim Wells County for use in the General Election. All the county’s boxes were impounded. Duval County, “experienced in election challenges,” the News reported, offered to help with 20 boxes. Kleberg County offered another four but Jim Wells election officials said that was not enough. “Got any ballot boxes around you’re not using?” asked the Dallas newspaper mockingly.
The News was not laughing for long. In order to provide Jim Wells County the needed election boxes, Duval County Democratic Party Chairman Campbell King volunteered some of Duval County’s boxes. “Sure,” said assistant county clerk Francisco Aleman, who added the county had recently purchased some new shiny aluminum boxes. He directed courthouse janitor Epifanio Betancourt to go get the boxes from the basement. Betancourt emptied the ballot boxes, including the new ones with ballots from the controversial Aug. 28 primary runoff, and burned the ballots.
The News, of course was livid over the development. It was a sure sign of Duval County shenanigans. After all, this was not the first time the county had destroyed records in the midst of an investigation over an election. In 1919, the News reported, Duval County Democratic Chairman Juan Trevino destroyed ballots needed by the State Senate investigating the reelection of State Senator Archie Parr. In 1948, it was the United States Senate investigating.
The News sheepishly admitted, however, that the janitor burned the Duval County ballots the day before the Senate called for an investigation. Moreover, King indicated that they were scheduled to be destroyed on Oct. 28 (my birth date), 60 days after the election, since no one had contested the election. It seems, much to the News’ dismay, that Duval County was not the only Texas County to burn ballots before the required 60-day waiting period. Navarro County, home of Governor Beauford Jester and the State Democratic Party Chairman, burned its ballots. The Navarro County janitor that burned its ballots said the county always burned ballots before an upcoming election in order to have boxes available. Navarro County, incidentally, had given its votes to Coke Stevenson in the Senatorial runoff by a 2 to 1 margin.
Since the Jim Wells election officials had reported the ballot box for Box 13 stolen and the Duval County ballots had gone up in a puff of smoke, the investigations of the 1948 Senatorial election were snuffed as well. Lyndon Johnson went on to serve as United States Senator, Vice-President and President. Duval County politics, however, would continue on a rocky road for years to come.