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3787Hell's Half Acre

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  • deadeye_dolly
    Sep 9, 2007
      HELL'S HALF ACRE, FORT WORTH. In the later decades of the nineteenth
      century, Hell's Half Acre became almost a generic name for the red-
      light district in many frontier towns, including San Antonio, Fort
      Worth, and Tascosa, Texas. The exact origins of the name are unclear,
      but in the days of the Republic of Texasqv it was applied to
      Webberville, near Austin, because of the community's lawless and
      immoral reputation. The name did not come into widespread usage,
      however, until after the Civil War.qv Returning soldiers may have
      brought the phrase back with them from such bloody battlefields as
      Stones River, where it had been applied with a different but equally
      vivid connotation. As a name for prostitution districts, it was
      usually shortened to "the Acre," but everyone knew what the
      abbreviation stood for.

      Among the various Hell's Half Acres that dotted the frontier, none
      was more infamous or more rambunctious than Fort Worth's. The Fort
      Worth version started during the city's heyday as a drover's stop on
      the cattle trails to Kansas in the early 1870s. The name first
      appeared in the local newspaper in 1874, but by that time the
      district was already well established on the lower end of town, where
      it was the first thing the trail drivers saw as they approached the
      town from the south. Here there was an aggregation of one and two
      story saloons, dance halls, and bawdy houses, interspersed with empty
      lots and a sprinkling of legitimate businesses. Only those looking
      for trouble or excitement ventured into the Acre. As one headline put
      it in a description of a popular saloon there, "They Raise Merry Cain
      at the Waco Tap." Moreover, the usual activities of the Acre, which
      included brawling, gambling, cockfighting, and horse racing, were not
      confined to indoors but spilled out into the streets and back alleys.

      As the importance of Fort Worth as a crossroads and cowtown grew, so
      did Hell's Half Acre. It was originally limited to the lower end of
      Rusk Street (renamed Commerce Street in 1917) but spread out in all
      directions until by 1881 the Fort Worth Democrat was complaining that
      it covered 2½ acres. The Acre grew until it sprawled across four of
      the city's main north-south thoroughfares: Main, Rusk, Calhoun, and
      Jones. From north to south, it covered that area from Seventh Street
      down to Fifteenth (or Front) Street. The lower boundary was marked by
      the Union Station train depot and the northern edge by a vacant lot
      at the intersection of Main and Seventh. These boundaries, which were
      never formally recognized, represented the maximum area covered by
      the Acre, around 1900. Occasionally, the Acre was also referred to
      as "the bloody Third Ward" after it was designated one of the city's
      three political wards in 1876.

      Long before the Acre reached its maximum boundaries, local citizens
      had become alarmed at the level of crime and violence in their city.
      In 1876 Timothy Isaiah (Longhair Jim) Courtright was elected city
      marshal with a mandate to tame the Acre's wilder activities.
      Courtright cracked down on violence and general rowdiness-by
      sometimes putting as many as thirty people in jail on a Saturday
      night-but allowed the gamblers to operate unmolested. After receiving
      information that train and stagecoach robbers, such as the Sam Bassqv
      gang, were using the Acre as a hideout, local authorities intensified
      law-enforcement efforts. Yet certain businessmen placed a newspaper
      advertisement arguing that such legal restrictions in Hell's Half
      Acre would curtail the legitimate business activities there. Despite
      this tolerance from business, however, the cowboys began to stay
      away, and the businesses began to suffer. City officials muted their
      stand against vice. Courtright lost support of the Fort Worth
      Democrat and consequently lost when he ran for reelection in 1879.
      Throughout the 1880s and 1890s the Acre continued to attract gunmen,
      highway robbers, card sharks, con men, and shady ladies, who preyed
      on out-of-town and local sportsmen.

      At one time or another reform-minded mayors like H. S. Broiles and
      crusading newspaper editors like B. B. Paddockqv declared war on the
      district but with no long-term results. The Acre meant income for the
      city-all of it illegal-and excitement for visitors. Possibly for this
      reason, the reputation of the Acre was sometimes exaggerated by
      raconteurs; some longtime Fort Worth residents claimed the place was
      never as wild as its reputation. Suicide was responsible for more
      deaths than murder, and the chief victims were prostitutes, not
      gunmen. However much its reputation was exaggerated, the real Acre
      was bad enough. The newspaper claimed "it was a slow night which did
      not pan out a cutting or shooting scrape among its male denizens or a
      morphine experiment by some of its frisky females." The loudest
      outcries during the periodic clean-up campaigns were against the
      dance halls, where men and women met, as opposed to the saloons or
      the gambling parlors, which were virtually all male.

      A major reform campaign in the late 1880s was brought on by Mayor
      Boiles and County Attorney R. L. Carlock after two events. In the
      first of these, on February 8, 1887, Luke Short and Jim Courtright
      had a shootout on Main Street that left Courtright dead and Short
      the "King of Fort Worth Gamblers." Although the fight did not occur
      in the Acre, it focused public attention on the city's underworld. A
      few weeks later a poor prostitute known only by the name of Sally was
      found murdered and nailed to an outhouse door in the Acre. These two
      events, combined with the first prohibitionqv campaign in Texas,
      helped to shut down the Acre's worst excesses in 1889.

      More than any other factor, urban growth began to improve the image
      of the Acre, as new businesses and homes moved into the south end of
      town. Another change was the influx of black residents. Excluded from
      the business end of town and the nicer residential areas, Fort
      Worth's black citizens, who numbered some 7,000 out of a total
      population of 50,000 around 1900, settled into the south end of town.
      Though some joined in the profitable vice trade (to run, for
      instance, the Black Elephant Saloon), many others found legitimate
      work and bought homes.

      A third change was in the popularity and profitability of the Acre,
      which was no longer attracting cowboys and out-of-town visitors. Its
      visible population was more likely to be derelicts, hoboes, and bums.
      By 1900 most of the dance halls and gamblers were gone. Cheap variety
      shows and prostitution became the chief forms of entertainment. The
      Progressive eraqv was similarly making its reformist mark felt in
      districts like the Acre all over the country.

      In 1911 Rev. J. Frank Norrisqv launched an offensive against
      racetrack gambling in the Baptist Standardqv and used the pulpit of
      the First Baptist Church to attack vice and prostitution. Norris used
      the Acre both to scourge the leadership of Fort Worth and to advance
      his own personal career. When he began to link certain Fort Worth
      businessmen with property in the Acre and announce their names from
      his pulpit, the battle heated up. On February 4, 1912, Norris's
      church was burned to the ground; that evening his enemies tossed a
      bundle of burning oiled rags onto his porch, but the fire was
      extinguished and caused minimal damage. A month later the arsonists
      succeeded in burning down the parsonage. In a sensational trial
      lasting a month, Norris was charged with perjury and arson in
      connection with the two fires. He was acquitted, but his continued
      attacks on the Acre accomplished little until 1917. A new city
      administration and the federal government, which was eyeing Fort
      Worth as a potential site for a major military training camp, joined
      forces with the Baptist preacher to bring down the curtain on the
      Acre finally. The police department compiled statistics showing that
      50 percent of the violent crime in Fort Worth occurred in the Acre, a
      shocking confirmation of long-held suspicions. After Camp Bowie was
      located on the outskirts of Fort Worth in the summer of 1917, martial
      law was brought to bear against prostitutes and barkeepers of the
      Acre. Fines and stiff jail sentences curtailed their activities. By
      the time Norris held a mock funeral parade to "bury John Barleycorn"
      in 1919, the Acre had become a part of Fort Worth history. The name,
      nevertheless, continued to be used for three decades thereafter to
      refer to the depressed lower end of Fort Worth.

      BIBLIOGRAPHY: Fort Worth Daily Democrat, April 10, 1878, April 18,
      1879, July 18, 1881. Oliver Knight, Fort Worth, Outpost on the
      Trinity (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953). Leonard
      Sanders, How Fort Worth Became the Texasmost City (Fort Worth: Amon
      Carter Museum, 1973). Richard F. Selcer, Hell's Half Acre: The Life
      and Legend of a Red Light District (Fort Worth: Texas Christian
      University Press, 1991). F. Stanley [Stanley F. L. Crocchiola], Jim
      Courtright (Denver: World, 1957).