In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony gives the murdered emperor’s funeral oration. Most high school kids can recite at least a line or two.
In it Anthony says in part, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.”
This suggests that a life of bad acts can easily overshadow the good in a person. Sometimes finding that goodness can be a tall order. Does it really change our opinion about him that Hitler appears to have really loved his dog?
Such is the proposition we face in light of Billie Sol Estes’ death earlier this week. Once a household name, the a flamboyant Texas huckster became one of the most notorious con men in America back in 1962, when he looted a federal crop subsidy program. Estes died in his sleep at his home in DeCordova Bend, a city about 60 miles southwest of Dallas. He was 88.
Estes became a figure of note through his mammoth scams, avarice and corruption. The Los Angeles Times characterized Estes as having “reigned in the state (Texas) as the king of con men for nearly 50 years.”
Similarly, Time magazine used his image on a cover, dubbing him “a welfare-state Ponzi … a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes who makes Dr. Jekyll seem almost wholesome.”
Yes, Estes was the proverbial conundrum rolled up in an enigma. As Time went on to observe, “He considered dancing immoral, often delivered sermons as a Church of Christ lay preacher, but he ruthlessly ruined business competitors, practiced fraud and deceit on a massive scale, and even victimized Church of Christ schools that he was supposed to be helping as a fund-raiser or financial advisor.”
In short, Estes was the kind of guy who’d make church deacons count the collection plate before passing it down his row.
As with Caesar, Estes’ tale gets complicated. He readily admitted to being a swindler — at least eventually he did — but he colored himself as a “kind of Robin Hood.” He said that he hoped to be remembered for using his wealth to feed and educate the poor. Even more curiously, he was an advocate of school integration in Texas long before it was politically popular.
Philanthropic legacy aside, Estes’ schemes created a strong undertow, dragging with them many Washington insiders and sullying the reputation of future president Lyndon Johnson —- not that Johnson’s brash Texas swagger needed much help.
Like most folks in his line of “work,” Estes’ luck finally ran out. In 1965, he was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud. For these crimes, he served six years in prison, gaining release in 1971.
The legal rains came again in 1979. He was again convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to conceal assets from the Internal Revenue Service. He was released from that stint in 1983.
One of the oddest episodes of Estes’ life involved the death of an Agriculture Department official who was investigating Estes. In 1961, federal investigator Henry Marshall was found dead of gunshot wounds. The death was ruled a suicide. There was just one minor problem: Marshall had five gunshot wounds. To many onlookers, Marshall’s death was either murder or the most determined suicide in history.
In a 1984 grand jury inquiry, Estes claimed that Johnson had ordered Marshall killed to prevent him from exposing Estes’ illegal activities and ties to (the then) vice president. The prosecutor who conducted the investigation said there was no corroboration of Estes’ allegations. History seems to concur.
As we note Estes’ passing, it is clear that his “evil” will live on. As to the “good” he did, his bones may not have a lot of company in the casket.