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Hell's Half Acre
The Life and Legend of a Red-Light District
By Richard F. Selcer
TCU Press Copyright © 1991 Richard F. Selcer
All rights reserved.
Cowboy Capers or "Dress and Delight Days"
Crime and vice in early Fort Worth were virtually synonymous with Hell's Half Acre. The night of April 9, 1877, represents a typical example. The cattle season had not really gotten underway, so there were few cowboys on the street and things were a little slow in the popular night spots. But homesteaders, section hands and drummers were looking for action. At the Blue Light Saloon and Dance House on Rusk Street, the girls leaned up against the bar, sharing a drink with anyone who was buying. The man at the piano played absently, wishing the cowboys would hit town so things would pick up.
Then Ben Tutt walked in. A small-time gambler, more often minnow than shark when he sat down at the table, Ben had a sour look on his face and more than a few drinks under his belt this night. Tutt made a beeline for the bar and demanded that the bartender set up drinks on the house. Startled, the bartender looked warily at the obviously drunk and agitated gambler and decided not to argue. He poured a shot of the cheap stuff, and Tutt downed it in one swallow.
Without another word, the gambler reached for his six-shooter and let fly three rounds in the general direction of the bartender, who prudently ducked behind the bar. The few patrons in the saloon dived for cover. Having made his point, Tutt backed unsteadily out the swinging doors, keeping the room covered with his gun. Outside, he fired three more shots into the saloon, grazing the bartender with one. Then he hotfooted it down the street.
Before the echoes of the second volley had died, the bartender grabbed his own pistol from under the bar and fired several shots out the door. They all missed. Folks inside rushed to the door to see which way Tutt went, but he had already disappeared. Figuring that the excitement was over, they went back to their dancing and drinking, but the pace had definitely picked up a little.
Someone sent for the town marshal who listened to the story, then took out after Tutt. Later that evening, the object of the manhunt turned himself in, but nobody filed charges, so he was released with only a stern warning from the lawman.
That was not the end of the story, however. On Sunday, April 15, Ben Tutt was again the talk of the town. It seems he was in the Theater Comique watching the girlie show when he began fooling around with his six-shooter, probably trying to impress the girls. He didn't make much of an impression, however, when he shot himself in the hand.
Tutt was hustled over to Doc Burts, who took the bullet out with the skill of one who had treated more than a few gunshot wounds in his day. A few days later, the Fort Worth Daily Democrat reported that Tutt was "doing well." He'd be dealing cards again soon.
* * *
Fort Worth in the late nineteenth century was no different than dozens of other western towns built on cattle and railroads. They all had their Ben Tutts and Blue Light Saloons and Theater Comiques. In fact, every frontier community—from Deadwood to Denver and San Francisco to San Antonio—had its own red-light district. They were as ubiquitous in the West as "boot hills" but much more fun and profitable for everyone involved. In Texas the chief rivals to Fort Worth for "Sin Capital of the State" were Austin, San Antonio, El Paso and Galveston—in all, two cattle towns, a railroad town and a seaport. Austin had an unfair advantage because, some said, politics are the worst sin of all and that was the main business in Austin. Dallas, some Fort Worthers were proud to point out, was not even in the running.
In the typical red-light district, prostitution went hand-in-hand with gambling, drinking and general hell-raising. One just naturally led to another. The amount of sinning and hell-raising that went on in these districts largely explains a curious sameness in the names of the most notorious examples. From Devil's Addition in Abilene to Hell's Half Acre in Fort Worth, most paid homage to Satan, the devil or hell somewhere in their names. Neither creative originality nor any desire to come up with mellifluous-sounding monikers entered into the picture; nor did anyone ever hold a contest to "Name that red-light district." Instead, the same names appear again and again in the local histories of western towns. San Antonio called its red-light district "Hell's Half Acre"; so did Tascosa, Texas, and Perry, Oklahoma. Even Dallas, only thirty miles away, had a smaller, less notorious district that went under the same name as Fort Worth's. Hell's Half Acre was such a common name on the frontier, it acquired an almost generic status. A cowboy could ride into practically any trail town and ask the first citizen he met, "Where's the Acre?" and the locals would know exactly what he was talking about.
Several theories can be advanced to explain the origin of the name Hell's Half Acre. One of the numberless mining camps in California during the 1849 gold rush was named Hell's Half Acre. Like so many of those camps built out of canvas and false hopes, it soon disappeared when the local claims played out, and no record of Hell's Half Acre, California, exists today. The earliest known use of the name in Texas was also well before the Civil War when the tiny community of Webberville, near Austin, was known as "Hell's Half Acre" because of its notorious lawlessness and immorality. But the name really came into vogue in trail towns after the Civil War. Texans may have brought it back with them from the bloody battlefield of Stones River in Tennessee where it was applied to a different type of hellhole for a few brief hours.
In Texas and Kansas a number of such red-light districts sprang up after the Civil War to serve cowboys who traveled up and down the trails between cow towns. Many, like Abilene, scarcely existed before the cattle boom era, while others, like Fort Worth, were small villages at a crossroads or a river crossing. All of that changed after 1866 when the first successful cattle drive traveled up the Chisholm Trail from south Texas to Kansas. The vast unclaimed herds of longhorns in south Texas and the highly profitable beef market in the East made cattle driving the most lucrative business on the frontier. As one historian expressed it: "No event since San Jacinto ... meant as much to Texas as the cattle drives."
Fort Worth's location on the Trinity River, on a direct line between San Antonio and the Indian Territory, placed it in a unique position, both economically and geographically, to cash in on the cattle boom. It was the last major stop between the broad, unfenced ranges to the south and the rail centers of the Great Plains. The journey north took up to two months, and even under the best of conditions, it was six weeks of eating dust, living in the saddle, and keeping one eye open for hostile Indians and the other for potential stampedes. Fort Worth was also the first rest stop for thirsty and lonely cowboys after they left the Indian Territory on the return trip.
The first herd of cattle moved through Fort Worth in 1866, when the town consisted of one dusty street and a handful of one-story, wooden shanties on the site of the old military post for which it was named. In the next eighteen years, during the height of the cattle-driving era, three and a half million beeves were trailed northward, including more than 600,000 in the peak year of 1871. But the best news for places like Fort Worth, San Antonio and Abilene was that these herds required a cowboy escort, which some authorities estimate numbered as many as 35,000 over the course of two and a half decades. Although a cowboy might earn only $30 a month, he was quite likely to spend the entire amount on one night's fun in town. Multiplied by the thousands of drovers who might pass through a major cow town during a season, this translated into big profits for local businesses.
To the cowboy, towns like Fort Worth meant the same as shore leave for the sailor— money in his pocket and plenty of opportunity to spend it. He tended to measure a town by two simple criteria: the pleasures it offered and how well he was treated by the local constabulary. Cowboys were not interested in church socials, bingo parties or shopping sprees when they hit town. Their needs were more basic: a bath and a haircut, then a drink, fun and female companionship. They found all these in Fort Worth, and dubbed it "the Paris of the Plains." Excitement, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The semiannual visits of cowboys to Fort Worth were occasions to "light up" and take in the city sights. The drovers called these times "dress and delight days."
How and when Fort Worth's district acquired the name Hell's Half Acre is impossible to determine. The name must have been in common currency by 1881, however, when the Fort Worth Democrat described the district as lying "midway between the [courthouse] square and the [Texas & Pacific] depot," and commented on how rapidly it was growing. This reference in the Democrat is the first known use of the name in public print. The use of the full name rather than the abbreviated form, "the Acre," suggests that the designation was still fairly new. The fact that the writer felt obliged to describe the location for his readers also supports this conclusion.
In most cow towns the "Acre" was not hard to find even without directions. It usually was located on the end of town that the cowboys first entered. This was true of Fort Worth. Coming into town by way of the Chisholm Trail, herds entered from the south and went north on what is now Commerce Street. For the first few years the street did not even have a name; it was considered more an extension of the trail than a city street proper. Later, as businesses grew up along either side of this thoroughfare, it was named Rusk Street after one of the heroes of the Texas Revolution.
Once the cattle were through town and across the Trinity River north of the bluff, the trail drivers made camp and then rode back into Fort Worth for a little fun before making the long drive through Indian Territory to the Kansas railhead. They rode hurriedly past the nice homes on the bluff overlooking the river and past the courthouse square with its offices and outfitting stores. They were only interested in the saloons, cat houses and gaming tables—places either remembered from earlier visits or described in detail around the evening campfire on the long journey from South Texas. The drovers did not get off their horses until they came to one of these "comfort stations." The hour didn't matter; it was hell-raising time.
Throughout the 1870s, Hell's Half Acre hardly had an exclusive license on local vice, despite its later legendary status. The truth is, vice was not concentrated in any one section of the city yet. Rather, saloons, pool parlors, dance halls, theaters and gambling dens were scattered all over on every major street and on both ends of town. There were as yet no boundaries between residential and commercial, nor rich and poor, nor moral and immoral neighborhoods. A liquored-up cowboy, a tinhorn gambler, or a dance-hall floozie out for a stroll would have felt comfortable in any part of town. Such unsavory characters would hardly have drawn a second glance on any of Fort Worth's streets. The city was a jumble of people living together in a frontier town that had hardly more plan to it than if a giant hand had dropped a set of building blocks on the ground. To be sure, streets were laid out nice and neat, but their dimensions and sharp angles looked much better on official maps than they did in reality. Fort Worth was not even big enough to rate a city directory before 1877. Prior to that time, everyone knew everyone by name, and there were simply not enough businesses to make the job of putting out a directory anything more than a pretentious waste of time and money. Things were so quiet in those days that a visitor once reported seeing a panther asleep in the middle of Main Street, and before the end of the decade a dozing, twelve-foot alligator was pulled out of the Trinity River near the city. It would be another decade before all the rough edges were smoothed off, and vestiges of this wide-open, boom-town atmosphere would linger long after that. During all those years, Fort Worth remained pretty much a "hiyu" community.
In the 1870s, the town and its nascent red-light district grew apace, their growth marked by the successive creation of new numbered streets—Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and so on, down to Fourteenth Street and finally to the railroad reservation, which marked the southern boundary of the city by the end of the decade. Many of these streets were quickly populated by characters who believed that the farther they were from the courthouse and city hall, the better off they were. They had no interest in contributing to the growth of a decent city though they did so unwittingly.
In the absence of photographs, city maps and detailed descriptions, one has to use a little imagination today to visualize how the Acre looked in the 1870s. The casual visitor would not have noticed much difference between uptown and downtown judging by the style and construction of those early buildings. Most were one-story, wooden-frame structures made of unseasoned yellow pine and held together with a few nails. Some had false fronts to make them look grander than they really were. Others leaned at crazy angles because they had no foundations. Gray was the dominant color scheme as rain and sun took their inevitable toll on the unpainted lumber. Public buildings had the classic hitching post out front; a few also had boardwalks, although there was no uniformity in height or width. Most folks walked in the streets, keeping an eye out for horse and wagon traffic, not to mention other surprises beneath their feet. Interspersed among the public buildings were private homes, boarding houses and numerous outbuildings.
All Fort Worth in the 1870s reflected the rapid evolution of frontier architecture; wooden-frame buildings stood beside simple log structures dating from the first building boom. More than a few tents dotted the landscape, reflecting both the population boom and the chronic shortage of lumber in most frontier villages. In 1877 the first brick buildings began to go up, beginning with the El Paso Hotel, the city's first three-story structure and genuine first-class hotel. The El Paso boasted eighty rooms, each with solid walnut furniture and Brussels carpet. The rest of the city's buildings fell far short of such lofty standards, and in 1879 the city council ordered all ramshackle buildings torn down, a directive that covered any "structure liable to fall down and injure persons or property." Paved streets and a metropolitan skyline were visions of the future.
The buildings were not crowded together cheek-to-jowl like on a Hollywood set, and fences were a rarity because they cost money and were unnecessary in a town that still considered itself "wide-open." Only much later would come paved streets, multi-storied buildings, continuous sidewalks and fenced lots. The impression one gets from comparing Fort Worth with photographs and descriptions of other cow towns is that all western cow towns of a couple of thousand people looked pretty much alike, just like all modern metropolises of several hundred thousand do today.
In Hell's Half Acre, the cracker-box house and the one-story, wooden shanty remained the principal form of architecture almost to the end of the century. Residential dwellings continued to outnumber businesses for many years, in the form of "shotgun shacks," tenements and boarding houses. The big landmarks on the south end of town for years were not the saloons, theaters, and dance halls of legendary fame, but Battle's Cotton Yard at Fourteenth and Main, the Fort Worth Gas Works at Tenth and Rusk, and Elliott and Roe's Lumber Yard between Tenth and Eleventh on Main.
Excerpted from Hell's Half Acre by Richard F. Selcer. Copyright © 1991 Richard F. Selcer. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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