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 holed up in it. So did Sam Bass and his gang. Mary Porter played mother hen to the “soiled doves” of its “gilded palaces of sin.” City Marshal Jim Courtright was ordered to clean it up. J. Frank Norris was determined to shut it down.
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’, card-sharpin’, hard-drinkin’, easy-lovin’ veritable mall of vice that reduced “greenhorns” to empty-pocketed drunks and reduced reformers to tears.
In the nineteenth century many towns had a vice district, and several were called “Hell’s Half Acre,” including those in San Antonio, Augusta, Cincinnati, Nashville, Brenham, Tascosa, and Kansas City. But none was wilder or woolier than Cowtown’s Acre.
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 (covering about fifty acres) was bounded roughly by 10th Street south to Lancaster and Throckmorton Street east to Jones Street. (St. Patrick’s Cathedral was on the western edge, the brewery of Texas Brewing Company on its eastern edge.) The Convention Center and Water Gardens now cover most of the Acre. Within the fifty-acre Half Acre 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.
This clip from the Fort Worth Daily Democrat in 1883 describes the ambience of the Acre.
In 1887 the 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 (located in the Third Ward) 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 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
(The Third Ward was sometimes called the “bloody Third.”)
vag: vagrant; vagrancy was sometimes a charge for prostitution
In late 1900 Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the rest of the Wild Bunch rode into town and holed up for a few weeks in Maddox Flats on Main Street in the Acre. They had just robbed a bank in Winnemucca, Nevada of $32,000 ($936,000 today).
While staying at Maddox Flats the boys strolled up the street to the studio of photographer John Swartz at 705 Main Street to pose for a photo. It would not be a good career move.
Sitting, left to right: Harry Longabaugh (Sundance Kid), Ben Kilpatrick, Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy).
Standing, left to right: Will Carver, Harvey Logan (Kid Curry).
John Swartz later posted the photo in the front window of his studio. Someone—either a Wells Fargo agent or a Pinkerton detective—saw the photo and recognized one or more of the gang members. Pinkerton detective agency used the photo as the basis of a wanted poster. Fifteen thousand posters were plastered across the country. (Photo from Wikipedia.)