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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Many Lives of
Ray Bourbon

by Clay Coppedge

Brownwood had never seen anybody quite like Ray Bourbon, an aging female impersonator, actor and comedian whose best days-most of his days, actually-were already behind him when he landed in the Brown County jail awaiting a decision on his appeal of a 99-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder. Bourbon wasn't so much famous as he was notorious.

In his heyday, during the 1920s through the 1950s, Bourbon worked in vaudeville and movies and released dozens of bawdy comedy albums. His real name was either Hal Wadell (or Waddell) or Ramon Icarez and he was either the illegitimate son of a Texas congressman or possibly a descendant of royalty on both sides of his family. He was probably born in Texas, but it might have been Mexico. He claimed to have had a sex change operation (he didn't) and went by the name of Rae Bourbon in his later years. Even his close friends never knew when Bourbon was telling the truth, embellishing it or making it up as he went along. He was a man with many versions of his life story.

Reporters interviewing the feeble and eccentric old man in Brownwood faced the same dilemma. One of the stories Bourbon told was how had had once worked as a messenger and gun runner for Pancho Villa-in drag-back in 1916.

According to the story he told long time Texas writer Carlton Stowers, Bourbon's family owned a ranch in Hudspeth County, about eighty miles east of El Paso, near the Rio Grande River. Villa was a close family friend and a regular visitor to the ranch. Bourbon's family provided Villa and his men with food, shelter and horses on as as-needed basis. Stowers' story is excerpted at raebourbon.com, a website devoted to Bourbon.

Bourbon said he went to work for Villa after returning from a trip to England. He said he told his mother of his desire to work as a "disguised messenger" for Villa and asked her to pass the information along. Bourbon made his pitch a few nights later when Villa and 40 of his comrades paid a visit to the ranch and Bourbon outlined his plan to Villa, illustrating it with pictures of himself in costume. Villa wasn't particularly impressed so Bourbon went to his room where he had his stage make up, wigs and costumes.

"When I returned to the kitchen, made up as a Mexican woman, (Villa) looked up at me and was speechless for a moment," Bourbon said. "Then he laughed, scratched his belly, and said, 'Et weel work. We do et!' I rode out with him that night, still in makeup."

Because Bourbon was known to edit and polish his stories, it's easy to dismiss this yarn, especially with zero verification that it ever happened. William Bell, Bourbon's court-appointed attorney, spent a lot of time fact-checking his client's tall tales. He found some of them, like Bourbon's alleged friendship with Bob Hope, Mae West and other Hollywood stars, were true. He came to believe the Villa story might have contained at least a sliver of the truth as well.

"It was after this trial was over with that some authority first came out and said Villa used planes in the revolution," Bell said in a 1979 interview. "Bourbon knew about that and told me about it. Villa visited the ranch in Texas, apparently knew his foster mother and father and they were on very good terms."

Bourbon also mentioned his association with Villa in letters from the Brownwood jail to old friends. In one he claimed that Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916 was not so much an act of retaliation against the United States but a rescue mission to save Bourbon, Villa's La Señora Diablo, from being shot by U.S. authorities for gun running.

Bell, Stowers and various law enforcement officers became acquainted with Bourbon following an incident in the fall of 1967 that led to him being charged as an accomplice to murder. Bourbon was driving from Kansas City to a gig in Juarez, Mexico, hauling a special trailer to transport his 75 or so animals, mostly stray dogs, when his car caught fire just outside of Big Spring. The car was a total loss but a helpful passer-by helped save the trailer and animals. Bourbon had what was left of the car and the trailer towed to Big Spring, where he registered the dogs at a kennel owned by A.D. Blount.

It took several months for Bourbon to come up with enough money to pay Blount for housing his animals, and Blount apparently grew impatient. By the time Bourbon called Blount to say he had the money and was on his way to pick up his pets, Blount told him not to bother, that he had already "disposed" of them.

Bourbon was furious and made no secret of his strong belief that Blount needed killing. Thus, he a prime suspect when somebody murdered Blount on Dec. 9, 1968. The trial was moved from Howard County to Brownwood on a change of venue. Two 23-year old acquaintances of Bourbon, Bobbie E. Christo and Bobbie R. Crain, were charged with the actual killing. Christo got a life sentence as the triggerman and Crain was given ten years as an accomplice. Bourbon, who was charged as an accomplice for hiring Cristo and Cain to do the dirty work, received a 99-year sentence-a life term for a 76-year old man in failing health.

Bourbon made headlines again in November of 1970 when he escaped from the Brownwood jail, though it wasn't much an escape. He'd just made a phone call to Mae West and hung up the phone when he noticed that the jailer who was supposed to be supervising him was gone and a front door was open. Bourbon simply walked out, assuming he would be shot as a dangerous and deranged escapee.

Instead, a Texas Ranger and a local officer found him an hour-and-a-half later, shivering quietly in the front seat of a truck across the street from the jail. The officers led the frail and ailing old man back to his cell. "If they had just shot me and ended the whole thing there, I would have been much better off," he would say a few days later.

But it didn't happen that way. He had a heart attack in jail and was taken to a hospital in Big Spring, where he died on July 19, 1972, still awaiting a decision on his appeal. The only part of the Ray Bourbon story he didn't get to edit or embellish was the ending. And while we'll probably never know if he rode with Pancho Villa or not, it's fun to think he might have.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" January 18, 21 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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  • Oilfield Voodoo 11-16-20
  • Apocalypse on the San Saba 10-16-20
  • The Real Texas Jack 9-16-20
  • Edgar Davis: Visionary Wildcatter 8-16-20

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