Sodom on the Trinity (Part 3): Gilded Palaces of Sin

Irish-born Mary Porter was the queen of Hell’s Half Acre (see Part 1), Fort Worth’s vice district of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Mary came to Fort Worth about 1885 and operated brothels in the Acre for about twenty years. Her career is typical of the Acre as a whole—most of the time police treated her lightly when enforcing the 1879 ordinance prohibiting prostitution. Hell’s Half Acre made Fort Worth sorta cross-eyed: Fort Worth saw the Acre as a disgrace with one eye and as a lively economic center with the other eye. “Business as usual” in the Acre’s disorderly houses waxed and waned with each new surge of reform.

As long as brothels didn’t advertise, kept fighting to a minimum, and insisted on regular medical exams for their women, they were allowed to operate with only an occasional arrest and court fine. From 1893 to 1897, Mary Porter was arrested 130 times but never spent a night in jail. In these clips, Josie Belmont and Jessie Reeves were two other Acre madams.

In his book Hell’s Half Acre, local historian Richard Selcer writes that Porter probably knew most of the prominent businessmen in town on a first-name basis. Indeed, among those posting her bond were gentleman gambler Nat Kramer, businessman E. B. Daggett, and Bill Ward, proprietor of the White Elephant Saloon and a city councilman. (In the top clip, note the appearance of Luke Short on the docket in 1886—a year before his shootout with Timothy Isaiah “Longhaired Jim” Courtright outside the White Elephant. That M. F. McLane probably is the gambler/gunfighter who was a member, with Short, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson, of the so-called Dodge City Peace Commission in 1883.)

Like the Acre itself, Porter was resilient. In 1890 the Acre’s “gilded palaces of sin” were pressured by a local religious group and city government. Porter was ordered to mend her wicked ways or face eviction from her place of business. So, she moved out of that place of business—and into one down the street.

That street was Rusk (Commerce) Street, which was lined with “resorts” both big and small.

1201 rusk and cribs photo

This photo of Rusk Street at East 11th Street appeared in 1906 in Purity Journal. It shows a brothel and a row of “cribs,” one-room shacks where “crib girls” (prostitutes) worked in the Acre. Texas Brewing Company can be seen in the background on Jones Street. (Photo from Dallas Historical Society.)

rusk 2 txu-sanborn-fort_worth-1898-08On this 1898 Sanborn map of the 1200 block of Rusk Street that boarding house and cribs are labeled “F.B.” (for “female boarding,” a euphemism for “brothel”).

beebee 1900-07The madam of that big house at 1201 Rusk was Pearl Beebe. Mary and Pearl were business competitors, but in the end, as we shall see, Pearl would be quite hospitable to Mary.One block north of Pearl, Mary operated her brothel at 1100 and later 1106 Rusk Street. Mary had a dozen or so women “boarders” at the turn of the new century, as the 1899-1900 city directory shows.

porter 1900In 1900 Mary listed her occupation as “boarding house keeper.” Her houses were located just about where the dome of the Convention Center is today. Would Madam Mary smile at the fact that wave after wave of conventioneers now pass over the site of her old place of business?

But by 1900 the days—and nights—of Mary Porter and Hell’s Half Acre were numbered (see Part 2).

Mary Porter died on June 10, 1905. Her brief obituary seems in denial of her colorful life.

porter 6-13-05 tele Porter left most of her estate ($20,000 would be $500,000 today) to gambler Nat Kramer. He died two months later. Attorney Sidney L. Samuels, who had played a role in the trial of serial killer Henry Howard Holmes, would administer both estates. (Clip from June 13, 1905 Telegram.)

Mary Porter was buried at Oakwood Cemetery in a 10-by-25-foot multigrave plot owned by her competitor Pearl Beebe. Oakwood has several sections where people are buried by affiliation: an African-American section, a Catholic section, a pauper section, Bartenders Row, a section of bricklayers, a fraternal lodge, Confederate veterans, nuns, even babies. Buried with Mary are at least three Acre prostitutes who had worked for Pearl. Little is known about them beyond their names—Addie Holliday, Laura Wallace, a woman named “Broyles.” They died about the time Mary Porter died.

Officially Pearl’s plot is Oakwood Cemetery block 32.5, lot 4. Unofficially it’s “Soiled Doves Row.”

In 2009 Dr. Richard Selcer and a few other local historians chipped in and bought a headstone for the unmarked grave of Mary Porter, the queen of Hell’s Half Acre. The headstone reads . . .

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4 Responses to Sodom on the Trinity (Part 3): Gilded Palaces of Sin

  1. John Olthoff says:

    I guess Madams looked upon $100 fine (which was a good piece of change at the time) as cost of doing business

    • hometown says:

      That was a lot of money. I guess they had fines built into their operating expenses.

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