A swimming pool, cabana, and guest house followed. They kept buying land, eventually putting together about 1,200 acres, to which they gave the grand moniker of Colonial Acres. Others affectionately referred to it as Baghdad on the Prairie — back when Baghdad denoted exoticism, not an unpopular war.

Gov. John Connally pets one of the Medderses’ prize horses. Courtesy June and Charles Bartusch

Food and drink for the champagne buffets and other parties were flown in by helicopter from the Dallas Sheraton Hotel. Decorations were courtesy of Neiman Marcus, where Margaret had a $350,000 charge account. A few years later, in her ghost-written vanity press autobiography, Margaret would describe herself as “the fashion arbiter of North Texas.” Neiman staffers routinely piled stacks of clothes into the backs of limousines and drove them to Muenster, where Margaret would pick the garments and accessories she wanted and send the rest back.

Entertainers included Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, Ike and Tina Turner, and The Beach Boys. The attire was black ties and evening gowns. In addition to never-ending buffets, open bars were a given. No expense was spared.

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Before she got here, hospital whites were more in Margaret Medders’ line than furs and fashion.

In the 1950s, Margaret was married to a man named Riggs, mother to four children, and working at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. — the same hospital where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be brought in 1968 after he was felled by a sniper’s bullet. The hospital was run by the ironically named Poor Sisters of Saint Francis Seraph of the Perpetual Adoration, Inc. of Mishawaka, Ind. According to the nuns’ website, the order was formed in 1875 when their “foundress,” Mother Maria Theresia Bonzel, traveled to the Fort Wayne area. The website includes no mention of any Medders or Muenster or Spindletop money.

“We serve the Church through Perpetual Adoration, education, healthcare and other ecclesial apostolates,” reads their mission statement. “Our mission, like that of St. Francis and Mother Maria Theresia, is to pray as Jesus prayed — intensely, personally, communally — to become a living prayer.”

After her divorce from Riggs, Margaret fell so far into poverty that she resorted to putting her kids up for adoption. A newspaper report tells how she placed the children at St. Joseph’s so she could be near them while she worked, but that could not be confirmed.

Ernest was a retired mechanic for Gulf Oil. He sold fruits and vegetables out of his station wagon on Tennessee roadsides to make ends meet, so his marriage to Margaret didn’t do much for their finances. Despite having had to give up her older children, Margaret proceeded to have four more children with Ernest.

But in 1961, the Medderses’ life changed forever. According to later court testimony, that year Ernest had a fateful encounter with W.T. Weir, an attorney from Philadelphia, Miss., who oddly had made it his life’s work to investigate the history of the Spindletop oil fortune and its heirs.

Ernest met Weir after responding to an advertisement in a Tuscaloosa, Ala., newspaper seeking heirs of Ruben Medders, Ernest’s great-uncle. Ruben Medders was the brother-in-law of William Pelham Humphries who, in 1835 — prior to Texas’ war of independence from Mexico — had been granted a parcel of land near Beaumont by the Mexican government.

More than 60 years later, Anthony F. Lucas hit the billion-dollar gusher in East Texas that would become known as Spindletop. Humphries’ continued ownership of Spindletop land was greatly disputed, but Weir told Ernest that, as an heir of Ruben Medders, he had a claim to some portion of $16 billion. The couple picked up everything, including the children who’d been put up for adoption, and moved to Texas.


  1. Great article Steve. I worked with a district Alabama Judge in the private sector on up-dating the heirship claim to The Estate of Pelham Humphries from 1986 until the time of his sudden illness and death in August of 1993. The old judge, as an attorney, had taken over the claim after W. T. Weir whom everyone in my family knew as ‘Old Barefoot’ because he sat in his wheelchair in his sock feet to practice law. The old judge always stated in private and in public that the KEY to Ernest and Margaret Medders being able to draw that money from The Catholic church was for two reasons. First, Margaret found out about the money coming to St. Josephs from the Spindletop accounts while she was snooping around on the night shift at St. Josephs in Memphis. Second, Ernest knew all about the claim through his first marriage prior to his marriage to Margaret. Do you know anything about Ernest’s first marriage? I knew about the newspaper article that originated in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was told that the lawyer behind that took in alot of money and moved to South America??? I wrote two books about Spindletop following the old judge’s untimely death.
    He was planning on retiring from the bench and filing as administrator of The Pelham Humphries Mineral Estate. He stated this at many public meetings. Death prevented his dream. Up-date…there is a suit pending to be filed in Beaumont, Texas (May 21, 2012) styled Wayne Hodge vs. State of Texas, Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office and
    the descendants of W. P. H. McFadden. This might be worth watching if it is litigated. My interest is that my ancestors were summoned by The President of The United States, William McKinely in July of 1901 as heirs of Pelham Humphries. We WON and were granted leave to amend per Case 512 CL90 in Jefferson, Texas (Marion County) in September of 1901. Something happened and the old judge told us that our case is still open in State Court. I have worked two jobs most of my life and assure you that, unlike Ernest and Margaret Medders, I have never received any money from Spindletop. Oh by the way, if the current case goes to court, there is a MEDDERS claim that will probably intervene. These folk contacted me recently as to any knowledge I have that would help them They seem to be nice people but are claiming under a one-eighth unrecorded drilling document.
    Again, great article Steve. Sincerely, Jackie Carroll 205 410-5799