Hell's Half Acre: The Life and Legend of a Red-Light District Review
By Richard F. Selcer
Good Times in Fort Worth
What should a city do about its vice and crime? Is a flourishing red-light district a rite of passage for every town? Writers for years have speculated on this hyperbole. Way back in the eighteenth century, Bernard Mandeville pointed out his allegory book The Fable of the Bees, that any prosperous and flourishing city includes (to its benefit) portions of vice, homes to "sharpers, parasites, pimps, players, pick-pockets, thieves, coiners, quacks and knaves."
In the 1870's, Fort Worth blossomed as a hub for the numerous cattledrives sweeping north to Abeline, by way of the Chisolm Trail. Fort Worth's central location on the Trinity River allowed it to cash in on the cattle boom. Serving as a rest spot, visiting Fort Worth amounted to shore leave for the recreation-deprived cowboy, who often had just been paid.
After the cattledrives established the city, the T&P railroad reached downtown, building their depot it its present location near Main St and 15th. This section of the city, lower Main St south of Ninth Street running up to the T&P railroad depot, formed the red-light district dubbed by the locals as "Hell's Half Acre." Richard F. Selcer's book Hell's Half Acre documents the stories and life in this district with great detail, despite the fact that the characters from this time have long since died.
During the late 1800's, the Acre attracted many well-known knaves like Timothy Courtright, Luke Short, Sam Bass, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Etta Place, along with Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch. This time was a rapidly changing time in the West. There were still many characters roaming looking for fame and fortune in the wild West. Although Texas was a organized state, New Mexico and Oklahoma were territories.
Fort Worth, or "Cowtown" as it is still affectionately called, drew its share of the West's notorious characters in this period. Butch Cassidy is not remembered for going to church. He and his companions obviously spent significant amounts of time in the Acre, a collection of saloons, bordellos, and gambling and dance houses. There was significant amounts of conspicuous gambling. (Fort Worth's relationship with gambling is further explored in Gamgsters & Gamblers - Fort Worth's Jacksboro Highway in the 1940's and 1950's.
Of course, these kinds of operations in the Acre, like gambling and prostitution, were illegal.
Some of the defendants who appeared before the courts enjoyed the protection of more powerful local figures. When Luke Short operated a gambling room in Fort Worth, he always took care of any of his dealers for illegal gambling. When they appeared in court, he promptly posted their bond, where upon they just as promptly skipped town....
Notorious madam Mary Porter also enjoyed the protection of her own guardian angels in the persons of respected businessmen E.B. Daggett and W.H. Ward who posted bond for her on occasion. The bigger fish like Porter and Luke Short paid proportionately larger fines which reflected their exalted status in the city's vice operations. But large fines of small, they were all paid with a wink and a smile before being divvied up by the city.
Legal entanglements meant paper records saved for history. In this respect, Selcer is able to trace much of the area's growth and change by reading Fort Worth city council minutes (all of which still exist), court documents and news reports in the local Fort Worth Gazette and Fort Worth Democrat newspapers.
The result is a very interesting look at the early history of Fort Worth, all related by the goings-on in the Acre. Historians have debated the area's legends for years. For example, Selcer devotes an interesting chapter to Timothy Longhair Courtright, who led a very short but exciting life. Courtright rose to become the city marshall. He was popular with the people of Fort Worth, but obviously tolerated or even assisted operations in the Acre. He'd often be found gambling with the locals in the Acre. Courtright later spent significant amounts of time chasing stagecoach robbers, including the famous Sam Bass. His controversial law enforcement style led him to lose his job, whereupon he drifted to New Mexico and back to Fort Worth in trouble with the law.
Courtright was one of the many interesting figures Selcer profiles in richly interesting detail. The book covers the Acre's history up to 1901. The 1900's brought an end to the cattle drives, lawless territories, and the Wild West, so essentially the fiery story comes to an end, but the Acre persisted as the city's less respectable area. The reader is left with a desire to additional follow-up to the stories in the book's too-short Epilogue. At over 300 pages, Hell's Half Acre provides a vivid and tantalizing account of how Fort Worth's interesting history can be told through the lens of this rowdy neighborhood.
Richard F. Selcer also wrote The Fort That Became a City: An Illustrated Reconstruction of Fort Worth, Texas 1849-1853.More Interesting Fort Worth Books:
- Fort Worth: Then and Now
Beautiful photo book of Fort Worth
- The Fort That Became a City: An Illustrated Reconstruction of Fort Worth, Texas 1849-1853
- Gangsters & Gamblers: Fort Worth's Jacksboro Highway in the 1940s and 1950s.
- North of the River: A Brief History of North Fort Worth
- Reminiscences of the Early Days of Fort Worth