In a literal sense, it was larger than the “half acre” of its name. In a figurative sense, it was smaller than the legends that survive it more than a century later. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid visited it. Sam Bass and his gang hid out in it. Mary Porter played mother hen to the “soiled doves” of its “gilded palaces of sin.” City Marshal Timothy Isaiah “Longhaired Jim” Courtright was ordered to tame it. J. Frank Norris preached sermons about it.
And a lot of people lost their money, their innocence, and even their lives in it.
It was Hell’s Half Acre, and for more than thirty years it was a sin-and-gin model of supply and demand, a two-fisted, pistol-packin’, hard-drinkin’, easy-lovin’ veritable mall of vice that reduced “greenhorns” to empty-pocketed drunks and reduced reformers to tears.
The Acre—and its location—was a logical response to the cattle drives on the Chisholm Trail during the 1870s. All that beef on the hoof and all that testosterone on the saddle entered Fort Worth from the south bound for the railhead in Abilene, Kansas. The trail skirted Fort Worth on the east along a corridor from today’s Commerce Street to Grove Street. Vice was right there on Cowtown’s back porch to greet the boys with a deck of cards, a bottle of whiskey, and a perfumed wink. The Acre was bounded roughly by 10th Street south to Lancaster and Throckmorton Street east to Jones Street. The Convention Center and Water Gardens now cover most of it. Within that area were saloons, dance halls, gambling houses, “honk-a-tonks,” opium dens, cockfight pits, and brothels. And within those establishments often was violence: gunfights, knife fights, fistfights, muggings, and suicides among gamblers, cowboys, prostitutes, tinhorns, and greenhorns.
In 1887 the Fort Worth Daily Gazette lamented: “It’s a cold day when the Half Acre doesn’t pan out a cutting or shooting scrape among its male denizens, and a morphine experiment by some of its frisky females.”
Of course, the Acre also was the home and workplace of law-abiding people who lived in its tenements and boardinghouses and worked in its laundries, groceries, and livery stables. But they seldom made the headlines except as victims. The headlines above from Fort Worth newspapers are from the late nineteenth century.
The life of prostitutes in the Acre was, to borrow from Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Their rates of suicide and drug abuse were high.
A Hell’s Half Acre Glossary (Part 1)
disorderly house: brothel
soiled dove: prostitute
woman of the town: prostitute
The Acre had dozens of saloons, but the White Elephant Saloon was not one of them. The White Elephant was located uptown just three blocks from the courthouse. However, the Acre did have the Black Elephant Saloon. It catered to African-American “sports,” although proprietor West Mayweather said he welcomed any color, especially green.
A Hell’s Half Acre Glossary (Part 2)
Third Ward: the city political district containing Hell’s Half Acre, created in 1877
vag: vagrant; vagrancy was sometimes a charge for prostitution