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The curious case of combative Austin Mayor Joseph Nalle

His name is inscribed on the face of the Paramount Theatre, but who was he?

Under a yawning grotesque, a name appears in stone. Visitors to the Paramount Theatre have passed under it for almost 100 years. Yet what do they know about Joseph Nalle?

The quickest answer: A businessman and contractor, Nalle served as city alderman and, later, mayor of Austin during the late 19th century. His son, Ernest Nalle, built the Majestic Theatre in 1915, renamed the Paramount in 1930. In at least one sense, it is dedicated to his father.

But that is not all.

The Nalle descendents remain prominent in Austin, sometimes quietly so, in business, philanthropy and other fields. Recently, for instance, the family was hailed by Preservation Austin for its part in restoring the grand Sampson-Nalle House at 1003 Rio Grande St.

As anticipation builds for the Paramount’s big birthday bash in the fall, it is timely to ask: Who was Joseph Nalle, and what part did he play in the city’s history?

The details might raise a few eyebrows.

One of the most complete versions of the story is a short typewritten biography by James T. Jones, finished in July 1994 and stored at the Austin History Center. Another good source is a 1960 article, “Joseph Nalle: Man of Controversy,” by Anita Brewer, a former reporter for the Austin American. Brewer, in turn, relied on “Joseph Nalle: A Citizen of Austin,” a biographical sketch by graduate student Robert Wagner.

And not only did articles in the Daily Democratic Statesman, another predecessor of the American-Statesman, provide key details for this history, but some of the most dramatic scenes took place in its offices.

“Hardly a person in Austin felt neutral about the small, dogged, tempestuous man,” writes Brewer about Joseph Nalle. “A man to admire, a man to a respect, even a man to fear. But he apparently was not a man who made friends easily. His staunch opinions were too undeviating.”

Admiration, respect and fear

Born in Virginia, Nalle served as a captain in the Civil War before moving to Austin in 1869. By 1872, he was working for lumber dealer T.W. Parr Co. By 1877, he was running his own lumberyard at East Avenue and East Fifth Street. He built a Victorian mansion on the southwest corner of Neches and Live Oak (now Second) streets and rose quickly in the city’s power structure.

On March 13, 1878, he and fellow city alderman Thomas J. Markley exchanged heated words in the offices of the Statesman about an ordinance to build a new public marketplace. Nalle supported the “bloody ordinance,” while Markley bitterly opposed it.

The following account of their scuffle was recorded in the coroner’s jury report:

At the Statesman, Nalle threw an inkstand at Markley, then a pair of eight-inch shears. The duo went outside “to settle it,” but were separated by other men. They spat out more words at Hannig’s restaurant and, later, at Frank and Jule’s Saloon.

Markley: “Are you as good a man as you were a while ago?”

Nalle: “I am.”

After some wrestling, Nalle pulled out a knife and plunged it into Markley’s chest three times.

“He seemed to wrench and twist the knife as if he was trying to get in Markley,” stated one witness. “Then he pulled the knife out — the knife appeared to have a blade six or seven inches long and a very heavy blade — it looked to me like a Bowie knife.”

Markley fell to the floor. Several people witnessed the death of the unarmed man.

After killing Markley, several sources report, Nalle calmly walked up the avenue and turned himself over to the town marshal, bloody knife in hand. He stopped to chat with Mayor Jacob Carl DeGress along the way.

Nalle’s lawyers managed to keep their client out of jail after he swiftly posted bail. Claiming self-defense, the attorneys postponed the case for almost two years and received a change of venue to distant Georgetown. Witnesses were called, but not all showed up. Nalle was found not guilty in early 1880.

By Feb. 6, 1880, he was voting again during an Austin City Council meeting. In 1884, Nalle ran for mayor and lost. In 1887, the Statesman backed him for the post, noting that he had the “unqualified endorsement of every business interest in the city, from boot black to banker.”

Nalle’s opponent was one of the witnesses, but apparently the killing was not a big issue in the campaign. Nalle won. Then, after attempting to engage in some pretty obvious political patronage, he tangled with the school board over the site of a new school and with backers of a proposed dam on the Colorado River, meant to support public utilities.

The fact that Nalle was already president of a privately held utility company did not seem a conflict of interest to him. Future mayors A.P. Wooldridge — also the Statesman’s president — and John McDonald supported the dam; the latter defeated Nalle during his re-election bid in 1889. He fought the idea of a public utility all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.

Nalle, who thought the dam was unsafe when it was built in 1892, likely felt vindicated — once again — when it failed during the disastrous 1900 flood.

Nalle lived until 1911. He and his wife, Sallie Kaiser Nalle, had seven children. They moved to a bigger house at 1220 W. Sixth St., where the family often staged dinner parties, according to his daughter, who was interviewed by the Houston Chronicle as an adult in the 1950s.

The Nalles married into other families, some of them prominent, such as the Sampsons, Pages, Hamiltons, Higginbothams, Bordens and Fergusons (of Govs. “Ma” and “Pa” Ferguson). Their names appear in the newspaper’s business and society pages throughout the 20th century, often in association with philanthropies, including historic preservation.

After Nalle’s death, his family expanded the lumber and contracting business. His son Ernest Nalle, who served in the Spanish-American War as captain of the Nalle Rifles, built the Majestic Theatre (today’s Paramount) for $125,000 or $150,000 — depending on the source — in 1915. The designer was the famed John Eberson of Chicago.

According to Ernest’s obituary in the Jan. 11, 1950, Austin Statesman, he held high positions in banks and other businesses. During the late 1920s, he ran into some financial and legal trouble. The lumber concern was closed in 1930 after serving Austin for nearly 60 years.

George Nalle Sr., a grandson of Joseph and Sallie — and son of Ernest — was around when the Paramount was renovated in the 1970s. He also was generous with graduate student Wagner when he was assembling his biographical project. George Nalle spoke at a dedication ceremony that included practiced speakers Cactus Pryor and John Bustin.

Not much was said about Mayor Nalle. Joseph and his wife were buried at Oakwood Cemetery.

His obituary, published in the Austin Statesman on March 19, 1911, summed up the man diplomatically: “A man of strong character and personality, and when he entered into a contest, he usually carried it through to a successful issue.”

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