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.
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
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.
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.
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.
made headlines again in November of 1970 when he escaped from the
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.