If you follow us on Facebook, check our website or receive our e-blasts then you know about our October 12th event, Billy Keilman’s Speakeasy: A celebration of Villa Finale’s bootleg history! But just who is Billy Keilman and how does he tie into Villa Finale?
Some time ago, I wrote a five-part blog called The Perils of 401 King William which detailed Villa Finale’s past owners. Part five touched upon Billy Keilman who owned the house briefly from 1924 – 1925. Of all the “personalities” who resided in the house, Billy definitely is worthy of his own themed event, even though he didn’t own the home for very long.
William H. Keilman was born on July 9, 1875 the son of pious German immigrants, Rudolph and Eliza Keilman. As a youth, he was feisty and impulsive – so much so that at a very young age, he ran off to Cuba to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Upon returning to San Antonio, he joined the police force. Standing at well over 6-feet and 225 pounds, Officer Keilman was an imposing figure who gained the respect of many petty criminals throughout the city. However, his new-found fame as one of the city’s toughest cops was not enough for Billy who yearned to be a businessman. Around 1910, after allegedly moving in with a red-head girl from “the district,” Billy quit the police force and forged his father’s name on a $5,000 check (over $121,000 today) to buy “The Beauty Saloon” bar and a 15-room house of prostitution – known as a “crib” – located on the corner Matamoros and South Concho Street, in the heart of what was then San Antonio’s red light area.
The issue of prostitution in San Antonio had been settled in 1899 when Mayor Bryan Callaghan successfully convinced the city council that “sin had to be regulated to be profitable.” An ordinance was passed restricting such businesses to a 10-block downtown area: the “district” roughly encompassed Durango Street to the south (now Chavez), Frio Street to the west, South Santa Rosa to the east and Buena Vista Street to the north. These “businesses” were under police enforcement, required an annual licensing fee of $500.00 per house and were subject to health inspections. Fines for non-compliance were strictly enforced.
“The Beauty Saloon” and its adjoining brothel were a hit as the entire San Antonio police force became instant patrons. Musician friends of Billy’s provided the entertainment while being paid with beer, much of which was donated by the Pearl Brewery after Keilmam personally promised them he would be their largest customer once the business was up and running. In addition to income from The Beauty Saloon and his “crib,” Billy also published The Blue Book: For Visitors, Tourists and Those Seeking a Good Time While in San Antonio, Texas. The 28-page nondescript booklet, available for only 25-cents, provided “safe” saloons for out-of-towners to visit as well as gambling houses, cock-fighting pits, and listed and categorized the best bordellos in town with an A, B or C rating. Ratings were based on cleanliness, service, and honesty. Madam Hattie Baxter’s place, for example, was given an “A” in the Blue Book. Not only did Madam Baxter store her client’s belongings in a secured safe, all items – including untouched wallets – were promptly returned at the end of a “visit” and all patrons received a receipt.
By the early 1920s, Billy and his wife, Minnie – a local madam – had sold the Beauty Saloon and focused most of their resources on the Horn Palace Bar and Cafe which was purchased around 1912. Reportedly, the business was first located in the south-west part of town near Kelly Field and later moved to 312 East Houston. The Horn Palace, as it was most commonly known, was meant to be a direct competitor to Albert Friedrich’s Buckhorn Saloon which had opened in 1881. The Buckhorn promised patrons a shot of whiskey or a beer in exchange for deer antlers. The Horn Palace, however, boasted a larger collection than the Buckhorn’s of antlers, horns and trophies including “Old Tex,” a world-record holding longhorn steer which had been stuffed and mounted. By this time, Billy was one of the richest and most influential men in San Antonio; while he had a lot of “friends,” he also made many enemies.
In 1921, a man named Yancy Yeager entered the Horn Palace and tried to murder Billy by shooting him five times – including once in the head! Despite a fractured skull – skillfully repaired when a local surgeon implanted a silver plate in Billy’s head – the rough and tough Keilman survived the attack. During his attacker’s trial, the defence tried to discredit Billy by presenting The Blue Book as evidence of Keilman’s “shadyness.” Billy denied under oath that he was the author of the scandalous Blue Book, despite the fact that his nameless likeness appeared on the back cover with the caption, “For Information of the Red Light District Ask Me. MEET ME AT THE BEAUTY SALOON.” The incident led to the closing of the Horn Palace which was deemed “unsafe” to the community following the attack. The Buckhorn’s Albert Friedrich purchased the Horn Palace’s collection and this, along with “Old Tex,” can still be seen today at its location on Houston and South Flores Streets.
The closing of the Horn Palace had very little effect on Billy’s wealth, however. In 1924, Billy and Minnie Keilman took part of their wealth to purchase the opulent home at 401 King William Street (then “407” and now Villa Finale). The Keilmans more than likely purchased the home from Dr. G. E. Gwynn who had bought it in July, 1922. Prohibition had been enacted in 1919 with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and thus the “dry movement” spread across the nation, but that did not deter many Americans from getting a drink including the business-minded Keilmans.
Billy and Minnie wasted very little time in making use of their new home’s 6,500 square feet. Under the leadership of Minnie, the Keilmans operated a brothel in the home and bootlegged liquor from the basement. Their new venture was known locally as the “Marathon Club.” Just as it seemed Billy had more lives than a cat, fate finally caught up to him.
In November 1925, Billy went on a hunting trip with a couple of friends. It is unclear how an argument began or what the matter of discussion was but it eventually led to a fist fight between Billy and one of his companions. While it seems that it had been broken up several times, Billy’s luck finally ran out as he was struck in the head with a blunt object and reportedly died instantly marking the end of one of San Antonio’s most infamous characters (in an earlier blog post, we had reported that Billy had died from a gun shot). The house at 401 King William was inherited by Billy’s son, Rudy, who then gave it to his step-mother, Minnie, who in turn continued operating the Marathon Club after her husband’s death. In 1967, Minnie’s grandson, James Campbell, who ran a boarding home at the location, sold the house to Walter Mathis and the rest, as they say, is history!
Billy Keilman’s Speakeasy: A celebration of Villa Finale’s bootleg history on October 12th sponsored by Alamo Beer, will be a fun remembrance of the home’s most colorful owner and San Antonio’s rough and tumble past. During the event, people will partake of local beer, learn about home-brewing from San Antonio Cerveceros (Billy would be proud!), dance to jazz music, receive a souvenir mug, and enjoy finger food catered by Liberty Bar to compliment “suds.” We also encourage everyone to get in the spirit and dress up in their 1920s best! Prizes will be awarded to the most original costumes including one for the best Billy Keilman look-alike. As a highlight for the first time, Villa Finale will be opening the basement for the public to view … the event would not be complete without this important room!
For more information about the Blue Book and its various issues, check out the Postcards from San Antonio website. If you are as fascinated with Billy Keilman as Villa Finale’s staff is, you can take an iTour of the Alamo and old San Antonio hosted by the “ghost” of Billy Keilman. If you click on the link, note that its authors point out that Villa Finale “does not mention Bill.” Not only are we mentioning ol’ Bill, he will now have his own event … MEET US AT THE SPEAKEASY!
Billy Keilman’s Speakeasy: A celebration of Villa Finale’s bootleg history! Saturday, October 12, 2013 from 5:30pm – 7:30pm on the grounds of Billy Keilman’s former home at 401 King William Street (now Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens). Members: $35.00, Non-members $40.00. Event for 21 and over only. Call Villa Finale Visitor Services at (210) 223-9800 for reservations or more information. Major credit cards and personal checks accepted.
The following sources were used as references for this article:
Bowser, David. West of the Creek: Murder, Mayhem and Vice in Old San Antonio. San Antonio: Maverick Publishing Company, 2003.
Bricktop, Jenny. “The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum: San Antonio, Texas.” The Butcher’s Floor. http://butchersfloor.blogspot.com/2006/06/buckhorn-saloon-museum-san-antonio.html
Eckhardt, C.F. “San Antonio’s Blue Book.” Texas Escapes. http://www.texasescapes.com/CFEckhardt/San-Antonios-Blue-Book.htm
Kindrick, Sam. “Profile of a Red Light District King.” Action Magazine. November, 1980: 7 – 9, 30. Print.
Morgan, Lael. “The San Antonio Blue Book: Proof of a Secret Era.” The Compass Rose: Special Collections, the University of Texas at Arlington. Fall 2007: 1 – 3. Print.
Rogers, Alan W. “The National Texas Longhorn Museum: The Horn Palace and the Buckhorn.” The National Texas Longhorn Museum. http://www.longhornmuseum.com/BuckhornHornPalace.htm