The War on Woo: When George C. Clarke Told the Prudes to Kiss Off

Life for lovers wasn’t easy in Fort Worth early in the twentieth century. Cupid, armed only with beaus and eros, seemed outmatched by city authorities, who were armed with the law, citizen snitches, and John Brown’s flashlight.

For example, in 1920—just one century ago—city prosecutor A. K. Harris proposed a strict ban on “flirting”:

“Any man and any woman not then and there husband and wife or not then and there related by blood or marriage in the third degree who shall go into and near any public place within the City of Fort Worth and will then and there be found kissing, holding hands, or putting their hands on the other’s person or fondling . . . shall be deemed guilty of flirting and fined in a sum not less than $1 and not more than $200.”

The Star-Telegram added that the proposal defined a “public place” as “a road, street, alley, public lot, block, park, public building, street car, vehicle or ‘any public place of business, pleasure or amusement.’”

Jeez, A. K., lighten up. Or better yet, pucker up.

Other city officials were doubtful that such a strict ban would be effective, and Harris’s proposal apparently was not enacted.

Nonetheless, Harris’s proposal was only an escalation of city policies against “spooning” that had existed and had been enforced with fluctuating degrees of narrow-eyed, flared-nostril zeal for at least fifteen years.

The earliest reference I can find to a city policy against public spooning in Fort Worth is this 1905 Telegram cartoon, which surely was a reaction to a newspaper report about police discouraging spooning in City Park (in 1910 renamed “Trinity Park”).

The cartoon depicts two spooners sitting on a park bench as a lurking police officer pulls a lever, transforming the bench into an ejector seat.

Fast-forward three years. In 1908 today’s near South Side was still sparsely populated, and Hemphill Street’s lack of illumination was inviting to lovebirds, who perched on the wall surrounding the new enclave of Chase Court.

So popular was the wall with bill-and-cooers that George Mulkey, city police and fire commissioner, dispatched officers to act as “chaperones.”

The city usually discouraged spooning by passing laws and patrolling trysting places, but sometimes the city used more subtle strategies. Benches in City Park were short: They would accommodate only two people—perfect for spooning because uninvited people could not share a bench with a couple who wanted to be alone.

So, the city planned to install longer benches that allowed a whole family to share a bench with a courting couple, thus rendering wooers woebegone. Also, strategically spaced along the longer benches were partitions that acted as bundling boards.

The Star-Telegram reported that a petition protesting the anti-spooning strategy had been presented to the secretary of the park board.

In October 1909 the Dallas Morning News reported that Fort Worth city commissioners had ruled that not one of the three Rs stands for “Romance.”

The next month the Morning News in its “State Press” exchange column quoted the Brownwood Bulletin’s criticism of Fort Worth’s crackdown on “spooning in the City Park.”

The Morning News chimed in, calling Fort Worth “straight-laced and rather Puritanical,” its residents “trained through generations of unimpassioned ancestors to a rigid observance of the blue laws.”

Meow.

Three years later the police got some help from a woman on the North Side. She saw a young couple spooning on a bench in Marine Park. She telephoned the North Side police station. An officer responded and took the couple to the station, where a captain explained the city ordinance to them.

In 1914 Trinity Park was patrolled by police officer John Brown, who would brook no hugging and/or kissing on his watch.

In May Brown saw a man kiss a woman on a bench.

He ordered the couple to cease and desist.

The kisser protested, telling Brown that the kissee was his wife.

Brown was not moved: “Well, this park is no place for a man to make a monkey out of his wife.”

Brown told the Star-Telegram that if couples persisted in misbehaving after his warning, he would arrest them.

But by July the city had stopped lighting the park at night, providing a delightfully dim setting for spooners.

Ah, but the resourceful officer Brown armed himself with a flashlight.

“I get around so fast that I keep this business [spooning] down to a minimum,” he said. “I make it a practice to hide my movements. That is, I don’t let the couples know where I am. A couple may think I am half a mile away, when I will suddenly come up and throw the light on them as they sit on the bench, hugging and kissing, and then they get scared so badly they don’t dare do it again. I find that it scares the women worse than the men.”

Lovers weren’t safe even out in the hinterlands of Seminary Hill, then still largely farmland. One night a farmer woke up to find spooning couples “from Fort Worth” in his front yard. He fired his revolver to dislodge them. A passerby heard the gunshots and women’s screams and hurried to the central police station to report murder most foul.

But the outlook for lovers began to improve in 1923 even as Police Chief Henry Lee began another crackdown on spooners. Cupid gained an ally: The Star-Telegram pointed out that thieves had robbed five safes in five weeks and that with cooler weather driving lovers indoors, part of Lee’s “anti-spooning squad” could “go back to policing.”

And lovers got more help in the war on woo—this time from a general in the enemy camp.

After six people were arrested for spooning, city prosecutor Gillis Johnson said he would not prosecute “spooners” per se.

Decreed Johnson: “There is no such offense as ‘spooning,’ and all cases marked as such will be thrown out of court.”

(Zion in Illinois was founded as a Christian utopian city. In 1923 it had begun a crackdown on spooning. Zion also forbade theaters and circuses, politicians and doctors, alcohol, tobacco, pork, oysters, and tan-colored shoes, gambling, dancing, spitting, swearing, and whistling on Sunday.)

Then came the big defection from the forces of fuddy-duddery.

George C. Clarke, city park superintendent, announced that “Spooning is all right in the parks. That’s what we have the benches there for.”

Furthermore, Clarke ordered “park policemen” not only to leave lovers alone but also to protect them from being disturbed by “mischievous youngsters.”

“Lovers are welcomed in our parks,” said St. George, patron saint of the smitten.

The Star-Telegram in an editorial applauded Clarke and chided Police Chief Lee for deploying officers to stop spooning instead of “real lawbreaking.”

This was not the first time St. George had revealed a romantic side. Eight months earlier, after Horace Cobb had donated land for a new city park southeast of downtown, Clarke had visited the park-in-progress and envisioned it becoming a “lovers’ lane.”

East Siders with a long memory will attest that Clarke’s vision of Cobb Park would be fulfilled.

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