Tidbits of Shelby County History
Murder of Marlie Childs, continued

This week's article is a continuation of the murder of Marlie Childs. It will reflect the history of Reable Childs' time in prison. The information was taken from an article written by Skip Hollandsworth for Texas Monthly in May 2003.

In the early forties, eight inmates of the Goree prison unit formed one of the first all-female country and western acts in the country. They called themselves the Goree All Girl String Band, and every Wednesday evening in the early forties, an estimated seven millionAmericans tuned their radios to WBAP in Fort Worth

Their male admirers sent them candy, money, flowers, and handwritten marriage proposals. Some of their fans traveled for hundreds of miles just to get a glimpse of them during those Wednesday night radio shows, which were always broadcast live from an auditorium in the East Texas town of Huntsville.At some point, one of the women from that group suggested that Goree have its own band.

When asked why Reable wanted to start a band, it was said Reable could sing her way out of Goree. At that time, the governor of Texas was the rambunctious W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, the former manager of the Light Crust Doughboys who had campaigned for the governor by traveling the state performing with his new band, the Hillbilly Boys. O’Daniel loved Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls, and he seemed to have a special fondness for the musicians on the show.

Reable must have figured if she and her fellow inmates could create a female version of the Light Crust Doughboys, they would get noticed by Governor O’Daniel and perhaps receive an early parole. (They had, after all, seen other singers on the show get early parole.) At the least, Reable wanted to prove that the women of Goree, the state’s most notorious female outcasts, were capable of doing something no one believed they could do.

Reable chose to play the steel guitar and the banjo. Three women were chosen to play acoustic guitar: Georgia Fay Collins, a blond, curly-haired divorcée with false teeth who had been caught after a burglary in the East Texas town of Winnsboro; the leggy Ruby Dell Guyton, who had been convicted with her husband of cattle rustling in Wheeler County; and the full-figured Bonnie Scott, who had come down to Texas from Colorado to commit robberies with her husband. Lillie Mae Dudley, a waitress from Denison who was spending seven years at Goree for assaulting a man and then taking his money, agreed to play the bass fiddle, and four-foot-ten-inch Burma Harris, who had pleaded guilty to a charge of heroin possession in Houston, took on the task of learning the violin. The main singers were Ruby Mae Morace, the woman who had helped her boyfriend rob the man at the Texas-Louisiana line, and young Mozelle McDaniel. Before prison, Ruby Mae had done some singing in honky-tonks in her hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana.

They began practicing in January 1940. The Heaths’ daughter, Sybil, then a high school pianist, taught some of the band members how to read music. Members of the Rhythmic Stringsters, the country and western band at the Walls Unit, eagerly agreed to come over to Goree to help the women learn to play their instruments. And during the days at the prison garment factory, they found time to sew their own cowgirl costumes so that they wouldn’t have to wear their standard white dresses for their performances.

On July 10, 1940, the Goree All Girl String Band was taken to the Walls Unit to make its first appearance on Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. When they were finished with their two songs, they stood there, their smiles shaky—and the applause began to wash over them.

WBAP executives did not have to be told that they had just struck gold. Even if the Goree Girls missed a few notes on their guitars or their harmonies went a little sour, audiences were captivated by their sweet, tremulous, untrained voices, and the fact that these women had also once violently defied the law gave them an irresistible appeal.

Just three months after their debut, the Goree Girls were asked to be the featured act during intermission at the Texas Prison Rodeo. The rodeo, featuring inmate “cowboys,” was then the largest sporting event in Texas, drawing more than 100,000 visitors over four October Sundays to the rodeo arena just next to the Walls Unit. According to one writer covering the event, it was the Goree Girls who “stopped the show” with their cowboy music.

Proud cigar-chewing prison officials, sensing a public-relations bonanza, were soon showcasing the Goree Girls around Texas. The women performed at the Old Fiddler’s Contest in Crockett and the Black-eyed Pea Festival in Centerville, where they rode the Ferris wheel. The Goree Girls played at several small-town rodeos as well as the nationally renowned rodeo in Fort Worth.At the end of the shows, many in the crowd would push toward the stage to try to get the Goree Girls’ autographs. But the band members never had much time to linger. They were quickly escorted away by uniformed guards and driven in a van down U.S. 75 to a two-story dark-brick building a few miles south of Huntsville with a sign in front that read “Goree State Farm.” At the time, the Goree State Farm was Texas’ sole penitentiary for women, and the Goree Girls were convicted criminals.

Although there is no way to gauge how many letters the Goree Girls received, it is known the number of letters sent to Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls rose from 32,000 in 1939, the year before the Goree Girls were introduced to 100,000 in 1941, the year after they began to perform.

The Goree Girls were on the verge of becoming genuine celebrities—as long as they stayed in prison. But conceivably, the reason they had started the band was to receive early parole and leave. They may have been the only band in musical history set out to gain attention in order to disappear.

To get out of Goree, the women might have had to do nothing more than charm the very charmable Governor O’Daniel or his successor, Coke Stevenson, who was recently widowed and no doubt a little lonely. It is also possible that they might have used the money they received from their admirers to pay for attorneys who were close to the state’s parole board and regularly got favorable clemency recommendations for their clients.

As each woman left, the show’s producers had other Goree inmates ready to replace her. They didn’t want to lose their franchise. And they still had the ever-popular Reable, who no one thought was going anywhere because of the notoriety of her case.

Then, in October 1943, Reable was paroled having served only seven years of her twenty-five year sentence. Her departure was an emotional event at the prison—she was beloved by the other inmates—and it meant that only one member of the original Goree Girls band was left. At some point in 1944, Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls came to a quiet end. A band from the Goree unit did continue to perform for several years on Sunday afternoons at the annual Texas Prison Rodeo, but except for a few instances—as in 1960, when the former Dallas stripper Candy Barr, then imprisoned on a marijuana-possession charge, sashayed across the stage while performing the Peggy Lee song “Fever”—the women received only scant attention.

Reable Childs was equally determined to start a new life for herself, to be known as someone other than Texas’ most infamous female ex-con. After her release, she moved to Houston, and in February 1944 she married Paul Mitchell, the former death row inmate, who had been paroled soon after she was. A year and a half later, they had a child, Gayle. Paul worked at a tool factory and then later as a security guard at Sears; Reable worked as a nurse. The Mitchells lived in a pretty neighborhood near Rice University, where Reable was known as the kind of mother who always baked brownies for the children and took in stray kittens and volunteered at the school library. She joined South Main Baptist Church, but she didn’t join the choir; perhaps she thought someone might recognize her voice.

Still, even with the news out, Reable rarely talked to her daughter about what had happened with her first husband, and she didn’t talk about what life was like in prison. She said only that she was not guilty of the crime that had sent her to Goree. After Reable and Paul divorced in the mid-sixties—the drama of their early life didn’t carry them into old age—she married a pharmaceutical drug salesman named Wesley Wilson. But it took more than a decade for her to tell him about her imprisonment.

Reable’s story came to an end when she died in January 2000 at the age of 87. After Reable’s release from prison, she married twice, had one daughter, and lived the life of an upstanding member of society. Reable received a full pardon, first class, in 1951.Many who knew her later in life never knew she was “the Reable Childs who was convicted as a co-conspirator in the death of her husband”; not even her own daughter until she was much older.

This is a story that seems almost impossible to believe: a group of female convicts, few of whom had ever played a musical instrument or taken voice lessons, forming a country and western band, and becoming, at least in Texas, the Dixie Chicks of their day. It is also a story that has been almost entirely forgotten.