The Black Hole of a Red-Light District

The 1300 block of Rusk Street, where police officer W. A. Campbell was shot down on August 12, 1909, was the Black Hole of Hell’s Half Acre. That block and the adjacent blocks were a dense mass of saloons and bordellos that exerted a gravity-like attraction for many. That attraction could be fatal. Many a man went into the Black Hole but never came out. At least not vertically.

acre sanborn 1893This 1893 map of the 1300 block of Rusk Street and environs shows seventeen saloons and eleven structures labeled “F.B.” for “female boarding,” a euphemism for “bordello.”

acre murders head 8-13-09 stEven into the early twentieth century the Black Hole was a dangerous place. So dangerous, in fact, that after the Campbell murder the Star-Telegram on August 13, 1909 printed a compilation of homicides that had occurred within two blocks of where Campbell fell.

acre 2 officersOfficer Campbell was at least the third police officer to be killed in the Black Hole. The first, the Star-Telegram said, was C. L. Waller, shot on Rusk Street between 12th and 13th streets by Acre gambler Jim Toots in 1892. The second was officer John Nichols, shot to death on December 22, 1906 while on duty in the Standard Theater on Rusk at 12th Street. Barney Wise of Red River County was tried and acquitted.

In December 1920 officer Jeff Couch would be shot to death at Rusk and 12th. The suspect, Tom Vickery, would be lynched two days later.

Of the four men accused of killing these officers, only one—Toots—was convicted.

Other killings in the Black Hole of Hell’s Half Acre, classified by outcome of the case, included:

Conviction

 

acre mcgrath mug 3-28-96 dmnIn December 1894 city alderman Martin McGrath shot and killed James Rushing in McGrath’s saloon on Main at 11th Street. McGrath was convicted and sentenced to nine years but in 1896 “took French leave” from the county jail, the March 26, 1896 Dallas Morning News reported. He just walked out. “Without violence to lock or bars, his cell was unlocked and the coast clear.” The Star-Telegram in 1909 said McGrath had not been captured,

In 1905 John Rains stabbed Charles Lee to death in a barber shop on 11th Street near Rusk. He was convicted but, the Star-Telegram said, escaped from prison.

Acquittal

In April 1890 horse trader Walker Hargrove killed hotel cook Bill Williams at the Ridgway Saloon on Calhoun Street at 13th Street and was acquitted.

In October 1890 Hargrove shot and killed saddler Harry Tackett in Captain Shields’s saloon on Main at 10th Street. The two men had argued, the Gazette said, over “the affections of a young woman whose affections anybody could have bought quite cheap.” Hargrove was again acquitted. (In 1908 Hargrove, “survivor of a half dozen gunfights,” the Telegram said at the time, was himself shot to death in a saloon, but that saloon was located uptown at Main and 3rd streets.)

Mart Davis spent about as much time before the bar of justice as he spent behind the bar of his Shamrock Saloon on Rusk Street between 12th and 13th streets. In 1885-1886 Davis killed John Christ and Bill Davis within a block of where officer Campbell was shot. Davis was acquitted both times.

In 1902 in a saloon near 13th and Main streets a man and a woman were shot to death by the woman’s husband. He was acquitted.

In 1902 Minnie Strauss—said by the Register to be “an expert in the art of separating men from their money”—shot Jack Snow to death in Mart Davis’s Shamrock Saloon on Rusk Street and was acquitted.

Unsolved

In the 1880s, the Star-Telegram said, a half-dozen persons unknown shot to death Joe Collins as he entered a gambling house at 12th and Rusk streets. No one was arrested.

In 1906 a man in a black derby hat rushed into The Cave saloon at 1306 Rusk and stabbed to death “man about town” Pete Newman as Newman was singing a song at the bar. Dutch Murdock briefly was a suspect but was never tried.

In 1909, after the assassination of officer Campbell, District Judge James Swayne predicted that the Acre itself would soon be fitted for a toe tag (see Ambush in the Acre (Part 1): The Victim). Swayne’s prediction was premature, of course, by a few years. The Acre would rebound, as it always had, until such forces as J. Frank Norris, the Army’s Camp Bowie, and plain old change shut down the Acre brothel by brothel, saloon by saloon.

acre rusk wikiAs a primary downtown street, Rusk Street had been named in honor of Texas statesman Thomas Jefferson Rusk (photo from Wikipedia). But the street had become the Acre’s heart of darkness and, some people thought, increasingly brought dishonor to its namesake. Four months after the murder of officer Campbell, the city, to end that dishonor to Rusk the man (so the story goes), changed the name of Rusk the street to “Commerce.”

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2 Responses to The Black Hole of a Red-Light District

  1. Michael Lavender says:

    Have you heard of or seen a reference to a horrific murder committed in The Acre’ to one of the ‘Soiled Doves’? It may have been referenced in Selcer’s book.

    It was gruesome enough to be compared to the White Chapel murders attributed to our friend Jack the Ripper.

    • hometown says:

      Mike, according to Dr. Selcer, the only source for the story of “the crucifixion of Sally X,” the dance-hall girl found nailed to an Acre outhouse, is the Oliver Knight book. Selcer says no newspaper documentation has ever been found. Even Knight gives only five lines to the crime.

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