For much of America the 1950s were a time of “I Like Ike” and “We Like Short Shorts” and “I Love Lucy.” But out on Jacksboro Highway, the boys in the back rooms liked gambling, they liked prostitution, and they loved cops who looked the other way.
Jacksboro Highway gambler Nelson Harris had practically grown up on the Highway, having worked there in his teens as a club bouncer. Later he joined the Green Dragon narcotics syndicate and did time at Leavenworth.
By 1945 he was out of prison and owned a gambling joint on the Highway: Nelson’s Place.
By 1950 Harris was forty-one years old. His wife, Juanita, was twenty-five years old. On the morning of November 22 the couple got into their car outside their apartment on Wingate Street near University Drive. Juanita Harris was due to give birth the next week.
Then Nelson Harris leaned forward to start the car’s engine. He turned the ignition key. A bottle of nitroglycerin wired to the generator blew the car apart, killing Harris, Juanita, and their unborn child.
The Nelson slayings were the lead story on page 1 of the November 22 Star-Telegram.
“Auto exploded”: During the decade to come out on Jacksboro Highway, the boys in the back rooms would spice up the lives of the people who filled out death certificates.
The bomb that blew apart the car of Nelson and Juanita Harris also blew the lid off Jacksboro Highway’s underworld. Fort Worth’s Highway to Hell would never be the same.
Law enforcement and the public had spent the previous decade looking the other way as the hoodlums who controlled the vice on Jacksboro Highway had killed one another off. But that had been in-fighting. Now, with the Harris murders, someone had killed a woman and an unborn child. The public began to demand action.
The cops had to stop looking the other way.
Vice districts like Jacksboro Highway are organic, not synthetic. No developer plats an area of a city, gets it zoned “S” for “Sodom,” and puts up a billboard proclaiming, “Anything Goes.” Vice districts develop gradually, driven by circumstances. Jacksboro Highway was the reincarnation of Fort Worth’s original vice district, Hell’s Half Acre. But whereas the Acre developed out of the cattle drives that brought men and money into town, Jacksboro Highway developed out of a more complex set of circumstances. National prohibition had ended in 1933, but the Texas legislature had limited the sale of hard liquor. In 1935 Tarrant County ordered all establishments to stop selling whiskey. Jacksboro Highway was Fort Worth’s five-mile strip of Texas Highway 199, which since 1939 had run toward northwest Texas, where many of the counties were dry. Oilfield workers and ranchers—roughnecks and rednecks—in those dry counties came to Fort Worth to gamble and drink on Jacksboro Highway. And the Highway was a two-way street: Moonshiners in Tarrant County serviced those dry counties, running cars that were souped up and loaded down with liquor out the Highway, earning it the nickname “Thunder Road.”
In 1936 Fort Worth celebrated Texas’s first one hundred years with its Frontier Centennial. To make that months-long celebration an economic success, the city winked at illegal gambling and open bars. Cops began looking the other way.
In 1942, with America at war, Fort Worth became the home of Air Force Plant 4. Thousands of men and women worked at the plant building B-24 bombers. At adjacent Fort Worth Army Air Field (later Carswell Air Force Base), more men trained in those B-24s. All those workers with a paycheck to spend and a need to relax worked just three miles from the clubs of Jacksboro Highway.
The neighborhoods where the laborers of the stockyards and packing plants lived were even closer—less than a mile away. Even the high-rolling members of River Crest Country Club lived only three miles away.
Socialites from the West Side, frat boys from TCU looking for adventure, high-stakes professional gamblers, and penny-ante amateurs—the Highway offered something for them all. Clubs included the Four Deuces, 3939 Club, Black Cat, Black Sands, Coconut Grove, Rocket Club, Skyliner, and Showboat. Ad is from a 1948 Fort Worth Press.
At the Skyliner Club the interpretive dance of terpsichorean Candy Barr enthralled aficionados of the performing arts. Clip is from an August 1955 Star-Telegram.
Such clubs offered dining, dancing, and drinking. Also slot machines, cards, dice, roulette wheels, and bookmaking. And for those who were so inclined, a choice of fights: fist, knife, or gun.
That combination of big money and illegality lured to the Highway a certain class of businessmen. These were men who in a game of word association were less likely to respond to the word chamber with “of Commerce” and more likely to respond with “a revolver has six.”
Big money breeds big enemies. Author Ann Arnold, in her definitive Gamblers & Gangsters, wrote that between 1943 and 1959 nineteen gangland killings took place in Fort Worth. Most of the victims were habitués of the Highway. Most of the murders were never solved.
The clubs on the Highway could be classified as divas or dives. In the diva clubs well-dressed couples were ushered to their tables with deference by men in tuxedos. In the dives drunks were tossed out the back door by bouncers in denim jackets.
The diva clubs featured big-name entertainers: Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Andrews Sisters, Paul Whiteman, Dorothy Lamour, Kay Kyser, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Harry James. The dives had chicken-wire netting stretched in front of the stage to protect musicians such as young Willie Hugh Nelson.
Arguably the top diva club was W. C. “Pappy” Kirkwood’s Four Deuces, a five thousand-square-foot Spanish colonial casino and restaurant. The Four Deuces, so-called because of its 2222 Jacksboro Highway address, was by invitation only. Among the invited: cowboy singer Gene Autry, Speaker of the U.S. House Sam Rayburn, the wife of Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter, animal collector Frank Buck, and King Ranch board chairman Dick Kleberg.
Tens of thousands of dollars changed hands in a night at the Four Deuces. Not everyone gambled, of course. Some came merely for the ambiance, the food and drink: the best steaks, liquor, and cigars.
Associated Press writer Mike Cochran wrote in 1988 of Kirkwood’s son Pat: “As a youngster growing up on Jacksboro Highway, Pat Kirkwood scrambled atop the roof of his dad’s gambling joint on Saturday nights and assessed the economy by activities along the road below. ‘If it was a three-ambulance evening, money was a little tight,’ he said. ‘But seven or eight ambulances meant everything was OK. People were out spending money and boozing and brawling.’”
Car-bombed gangster Nelson Harris once worked at the Four Deuces as a lookout man.
Into the “dive” category fell an assortment of Highway establishments. Some offered wild life; one offered wildlife. Elmer Sharp ran a private club in his garage. Doyle Brunson, now a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, recalled Sharp from the 1950s in Brunson’s The Godfather of Poker: “Elmer kept a pet bear at the ‘private club’ he ran illegally out of his garage, and if business or brawling was slow, he’d just wrestle that damn bear.”
Elmer Sharp was solid and square shouldered—a refrigerator with five o’clock shadow. Doyle Brunson recalled, “They claimed the only person in town tougher than Elmer was his mama.” (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)
Fort Worth suffered a severe case of ambivalence about the Highway, just as it had about Hell’s Half Acre, bewailing its sin one minute and whispering thanks for its economic engine the next minute. Vice brought people to town, put money into circulation. Calls for reform waxed but always waned. Indignation was always followed by resignation.
And then came the car bombing of the Harrises in 1950.
And yet, seldom can one event be singled out as the last straw. More often there are many last straws that eventually make a broom. And the broom begins to sweep. In the case of the Highway, suddenly police began to find gambling where they had found none before. Arrests were made; equipment was confiscated.
Five weeks after Harris and his pregnant wife were killed in November 1950, a grand jury began to investigate their murders. Then investigators found that Harris had left behind a trunk full of business records—records pointing to police payoffs.
The grand jury widened its investigation to “gaming, bribery, and vice.” After a three-month investigation the grand jury indicted sixty gamblers, most of them Jacksboro Highway operators. Clip is from the March 31, 1951 Dallas Morning News.
Rumors circulated. The grand jury would indict police officers for taking bribes. But a deal was cut. No officers were indicted, but police chief George T. Hawkins was sacrificed: demoted and transferred to the traffic bureau. He had been suspected of taking bribes.
Police never solved the Harris killings.
But even as the broom made of last straws swept the Highway, killings continued. There were three in 1955 alone.
Clifton Edell Evans ran a rigged gambling operation and a call-girl business. Police once found four thousand pairs of dice in a raid on his house. In April 1955 Evans disappeared. Police found blood on the front seat of his Cadillac. A few months later police, following a tip, found Evans’s body in a shallow grave not far from Jacksboro Highway. Police Chief Cato Hightower said highway gangsters Cecil Green and Leroy “Tincy” Eggleston, who ran an extortion racket, might have killed Evans to increase their reputation as men to be feared. Clip is from the November 2, 1955 Dallas Morning News.
Tincy Eggleston (born 1909) was a gangster’s gangster. Beginning in 1926, Eggleston devoted a solid quarter-century to local crime. Clip is from the July 11, 1930 Dallas Morning News.
In 1935 Eggleston, serving thirteen years for robbery, broke out of the Harlem state prison farm. Clip is from the February 19, 1935 Dallas Morning News.
Eggleston associate Cecil Green also had been a suspect in the Harris car bombing. In May 1955 Green was gunned down at his sister’s By-Way Tavern on the Highway. Police suspected the hit man was highway habitué Gene Paul Norris but could not prove it. Eggleston and Green also were suspects in the William Clark murder case. Clip is from the May 4, 1955 Dallas Morning News.
Mike Cochran in 1988 quoted Cleon Nettles’s memory of the Highway: “When someone got too big for his britches, he just disappeared . . . and they’d find him in a well.” And so it was for Eggleston, who ran a gambling operation on the Highway in addition to the extortion racket with Cecil Green. In 1950, just hours after the Harris car bombing, Eggleston had called police to report that he had just found a similar bomb in his car. Some insiders had suspected that Eggleston had killed the Harrises and then had rigged his own car with a bomb to divert suspicion.
Eggleston was listed in the 1955 city directory as a “cattleman” living with wife Walterine in a modest house on Beddell Avenue on the South Side.
On a day in August 1955 Eggleston left Walterine and that modest house to meet an extortion victim for a payoff. The next day Eggleston’s bloodstained car was discovered.
A few days later Eggleston’s body was found in an abandoned well east of the Highway.
No one was ever tried for the murder. The Highway’s gangland slayings were always front-page news at the Star-Telegram. Clip is from September 1, 1955.
Frames from WBAP-TV news footage of the time show Eggleston, his bloodstained car, and the recovery of his body from the well.
Considering how much time Tincy Eggleston spent touring Texas prisons, it’s a wonder he managed to work so much crime into his short life.
After these three gangland killings, a Texas Senate committee investigating narcotics added Fort Worth’s underworld to its to-do list. Clip is from the September 2, 1955 Dallas Morning News.
And the body count continued to rise. In 1956 gambler Charles Frank Cates, who had been questioned in the Harris car bombing, was in a house behind Chenault’s Dining Place on the Highway. He was counting money when the phone rang. Cates picked up the receiver, and the house exploded. Under the house police found wires that ran 250 feet down Jacksboro Highway. Police suspected that one man had phoned Cates from a phone booth on the Highway and that another man in a car nearby had detonated the bomb when signaled by the first man. Cates survived. A few weeks later he received another phone call. He told his wife he had to go meet a man. Police found Cates’s shotgunned body within a mile of the well that had yielded the body of Tincy Eggleston.
“Shotgun blast”: the death certificate of Charles Frank Cates.
By 1957, as the broom of last straws continued to sweep the Highway, Gene Paul Norris was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. And he had achieved that ranking before he planned the biggest crime of his career. Norris planned to rob a bank. But not just any bank: the branch of Fort Worth National Bank that was located in Carswell Air Force Base and held the base’s payroll of $225,000 ($1.8 million today). But police found out about the plan, and when Norris and his accomplice made a practice run along their escape route, police were waiting. Norris was killed in a shootout with police after a high-speed chase on—where else?—Jacksboro Highway. Clip is from the April 30, 1957 Dallas Morning News.
Police Chief Cato Hightower said that with the death of Norris police could close the books on nine local murders, including those of Eggleston, Green, and Cates.
“He was a madman,” Hightower said of Norris. Clip is from the April 30 Star-Telegram.
(Longtime local residents will recognize the byline of this grisly crime story. Before Elston Brooks was an entertainment columnist of the Star-Telegram he was a police reporter during Fort Worth’s gangland era. )
After the 1951 grand jury named names, the IRS also became interested in business-as-usual on the Highway. Gamblers and gangsters didn’t report their illegal income, of course. Likewise, city and county employees who were on the take didn’t report their bribes. But they often spent far more than the income they did report. That discrepancy interested investigators. Some gamblers were convicted of tax evasion.
By the time Gene Paul Norris was killed in 1957—seven years after the Harris car bombing—the Highway was reaching the end of the road. The world—big and small—was changing. In the big world, the postwar economic boom gave people less motive to gamble to get rich quick, to take a chance on repercussions, legal and otherwise. In the small world, the crackdown on vice on Jacksboro Highway was putting an end to business-as-usual. Many of the Mr. Bigs had been killed or jailed. And the Highway’s high rollers now had an option: They could pack up deck and dice and move to Las Vegas.
Finally came a public works project: Jacksboro Highway was widened. The city, invoking eminent domain, removed with a bulldozer what had not already been removed by indictment, bullet, or bomb.
Now the nightclubs are gone. Even the diva Four Deuces was demolished, despite attempts to preserve it for its historical and architectural significance.
A survivor is the Rocket Club building. The building, with its canvas roof over the dance floor that retracted so couples could dance under the stars, was converted into a muffler and welding shop.
One block north is the Avalon Motor Court, once owned by gangster Asher Rone, who also owned the Black Cat Café next door. Gangster Elmer Sharp, who worked for Rone, once interrupted an assignation with a waitress at the Avalon to run next door in his boxer shorts to beat up four men who were robbing Rone.
The Avalon survives as a respectable motel.
Today the Highway to Hell is the highway to fast-food outlets, small used car lots, propane distributors, and other small, decidedly prosaic businesses. For example, now located at 5811 Jacksboro Highway, just a block from where bored Elmer Sharp wrestled his pet bear at 5717, is an establishment that would have thrived on the Highway to Hell in the 1950s: Fort Worth Monument Company, crafter of quality tombstones.
(Photos from Find A Grave.)