A Christmas Story, Hell’s Half Acre Style: “. . . And a Cartridge in a Pear Tree”

’Twas the night before the night before Christmas,
and all through the gambling house . . .
 

In 1890, three years after Luke Short killed Timothy Isaiah “Longhaired Jim” Courtright outside the White Elephant Saloon, Short was running the “club rooms” (gambling rooms) above Jake Johnson‘s Palais Royal Saloon at 406 Main Street.

short palais royal

The Palais Royal was, like the White Elephant, an uptown saloon.

short bank saloonA dozen blocks south at 1608 Main, in Hell’s Half Acre, Charlie Wright ran the gambling rooms above Isaac McCulloch’s Bank Saloon (located where the Water Gardens are today).

A rivalry existed between uptown gambling rooms and downtown (Acre) gambling rooms. In particular, there was bad blood between Luke Short and Charlie Wright. Short suspected that Wright ran a crooked gambling operation at the Bank. Short felt that crooked gambling rooms gave honest gambling rooms a bad name. According to one newspaper report, Short had been responsible for Wright being indicted for swindling, although a district judge dismissed the case, saying Wright had been engaged in gambling, not swindling. Short had recently gone down to the Bank and “threw things about in a very reckless manner.” Wright asked a justice of the peace to place Short under a peace bond because Wright feared that Short would interfere with Wright’s business, but the justice declined.

“Short and Wright are men of desperate nerve,” the Fort Worth Gazette would write. “Trouble had been brewing between them for some time, and the gambling fraternity of the city had anticipated a meeting between them. It was expected that when they did come together . . . there would be a case for the undertaker.”

Sure enough, on the night of December 23, 1890 Luke Short, despite attempts by friends to dissuade him, left his uptown establishment and again went down into the Acre. He intended to confront Wright at the Bank and demand that Wright shut down his operation. After Short reached the Bank, he walked upstairs to the gambling rooms, which were crowded with men playing faro, poker, and chuck-a-luck. Short carried a revolver in his hand.

The next day the Gazette quoted Short as demanding of the men in the gambling rooms: “Skin out of here, every one of you!”

They skinned. In the process, tables were overturned, chairs upended, cards and chips scattered. Short passed through the emptied rooms and into a dark hallway.

short gore heads

Secrets didn’t stay secret long among the gambling fraternity in Cowtown. A little elf had tipped off Charlie Wright: Something dapper this way comes.

As a result, Wright was waiting for Short. Behind a door. With a shotgun. Loaded with buckshot. As Short walked down the hallway, Wright opened the door and fired. Short fired back.

At least that is the account generally accepted by historians.

short eyewitness

But in the Gazette an eyewitness raised as many questions as he answered.

short-wright-dmnFrom the Dallas Morning News.

short doctored2

Both gamblers were taken to doctors to have their ho-ho-holes plugged: Luke Short to Dr. William A. Duringer, Charlie Wright to Dr. James M. Mullins. The Gazette reported that Short told his wife that he was not a very appropriate Christmas present for her.

Both men afterward had little to say to reporters about the shootout. Wright claimed that he had been armed with only a pistol and denied having shot Short with a shotgun despite the fact that Short definitely had suffered buckshot wounds. Had there been a third gunman? Additionally, friends of Short claimed that he did not fire a shot at Wright. And indeed some theorists say that because Short’s pistol afterward was found to be fully loaded, Wright must have accidentally shot himself.

short-wright-prospectorIn Tombstone, Arizona, where Luke Short in 1881 had killed another gambler named “Charlie” (Storms), the Prospector gave Short long odds of recovery.

But despite the predictions of the Prospector and the Gazette, there was “no case for the undertaker” in the Acre that night before the night before Christmas.

But come Christmas morning Luke Short and Charlie Wright no doubt found a doctor’s bill among the switches and coal in their stocking.

short-wright-trialFootnote: Luke Short was tried for attempted murder in the Bank shootout. In 1892 he was found guilty of aggravated assault and fined $150 ($4,000 today).

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