The 1300 block of Rusk Street (today’s Commerce Street) was the Black Hole of Hell’s Half Acre a century or so ago. That block and the adjacent blocks on Main and Calhoun streets were a dense mass of saloons and gambling joints and bordellos that exerted an irresistible, 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.
The 1893 Sanborn fire map of the 1300 block of Rusk Street and environs—where the convention center is today—shows seventeen saloons and eleven structures labeled “F.B.” for “female boarding,” a euphemism for “bordello.”
Among the Black Hole’s victims over the years were at least four police officers. The first officer to be killed, the Star-Telegram said, was C. L. Waller, shot on Rusk Street between 12th and 13th streets by Acre gambler Jim Toots in 1892. Headline is from the June 29, 1892 Dallas Morning News.
The second officer to be killed, John Nichols, was 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. Clip is from the December 23 Telegram.
Nichols’s name is engraved on the wall of the Fort Worth Police and Firefighters Memorial in Trinity Park.
And on December 21, 1920 officer Jeff Couch was shot to death at Rusk and 12th.
Two nights later the suspect, Tom Vickery, thirty, was lynched after being forcibly taken from his jail cell by a mob of twenty masked men. The masked men may have been members of Fort Worth’s Ku Klux Klan lodge.
Of the four men accused of killing these police officers, only one—Toots—was convicted. Toots was also the only black defendant.
So dangerous was the Black Hole 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.
Other killings in the Black Hole of Hell’s Half Acre, classified by outcome of the case, included:
In December 1894 city alderman and former police officer 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. (1891 Swartz photo courtesy of retired Fort Worth police sergeant and historian Kevin Foster.)
In 1905 John Rains stabbed Charles Lee to death in a barber shop on 11th Street near Rusk. He was convicted in 1907 but, the Star-Telegram wrote in 1909, escaped from prison.
In March 1888 Maggie Estar, a “woman of ill-fame” at the bagnio (brothel) of madam Gracie Lane at Rusk and 10th streets, hit prominent real estate agent A. F. Truitt over the head with a small coal shovel during an argument over money. Estar was acquitted of murder but later committed suicide, the Telegram wrote in 1907.
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 Fort Worth Register to be “an expert in the art of separating men from their money”—shot Jack Snow in a lodging house at the corner of Calhoun and East 14th Street. She was acquitted.
In the 1880s, the Star-Telegram wrote in 1909, 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.
Also in 1906 Tommie Hillis, “a mere boy in years” who “frequented at times resorts that boys of his age should not visit,” was killed by a blow to the head in a brothel at Rusk and 12th streets, the Telegram reported in 1907.
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, bottle by bottle.
As 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 in 1909, the city, to end that dishonor to Rusk the man (so the story goes), changed the name of Rusk the street to “Commerce.”