Sunday, October 30, 2011

HELL'S HALF ACRE: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF A RED LIGHT DISTRICT

By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon with Caroline Clemmons, my dear friend and critique partner, as well as co-moderator for the Sweethearts of the West blog. Much as we both enjoy each other’s company, I do believe the both of us were more interested in the speaker at this luncheon, author-historian, Dr. Richard F. Selcer, and the topic of discussion. After all, it isn’t every day a writer gets to hear a published historian talk about drinking, gambling, prostitution and various other types of corruption and vice in 19th century Fort Worth, Texas.

Any author of historical fiction will tell you they not only love history but recognize the importance of research and how it can both play an integral part of a story and transport the reader to another time—if only for a little while. Personally speaking, although research can be time-consuming and sometimes tedious, I enjoy it. In fact, I have been known to become so fascinated and side-tracked by research material that writing “the” book can come to a standstill. But I digress…

A few years ago while doing research about Fort Worth for my western time travel, I came across a wonderful book entitled, “Hell’s Half Acre: The Life and Legend of a Red Light District” by Richard F. Selcer. For anyone interested in the American West of the 19th century and, in particular, the history of Fort Worth, I strongly recommend it. This book provided a treasure trove of compelling information about Fort Worth and its infamous red light district.

Before I get into specifics about the Acre itself, I thought to first share a picture of an 1876 map of Fort Worth, Texas. Drawn by D.D. Morse in April of that year, the map is significant because it was in 1876 that Hell’s Half Acre first came to town. And contrary to what most people think, it was not located far north of town, across the Trinity, in what is now known as the Historic Stockyards area. The Acre was on the south end of town.

Depending on how interested or curious you are to see the specific location, you may want to save this picture to your computer then magnify it to see the perimeters I point out. In any event, you can readily see the largest building on the north side of town was the Courthouse. North of the Courthouse, there is a bluff and slope that leads down to the Trinity River. Cattle drives camped out across the river then rode back to Fort Worth to enjoy what the town had to offer.

The street south of the Courthouse (running north to south) is Main Street; the street immediately east of Main is Rusk (now known as Commerce). The street east of Rusk is Calhoun. Rusk and Calhoun were the east-west boundary lines for the Acre, but where exactly did it begin and end going north to south?

Using the Courthouse as a starting point, the first street south is called Weatherford; thereafter, each subsequent street was numbered and remains so to this day. Hell’s Half Acre began at Seventh Street, and its southern boundary line was Front Street (now known as Lancaster). If you look closely on the map, you can see a train traveling west with the notation, T.P.R.R. (for Texas Pacific Railroad). The red light district of Fort Worth ended just behind the railroad station.

Location was everything for the Acre. Apart from its proximity to the train station (and the passengers who came to town, as well as the railroad workers), there were the cowboys. Driving cattle north on the Chisholm Trail, they entered Fort Worth on the south of town. Tired, hungry, thirsty, and anxious to unwind and find some “entertainment’, Hell’s Half Acre must have been pretty appealing. Bear in mind, Fort Worth was their last chance to patronize a saloon, dance hall, gambling parlor, or bordello.

It could take anywhere from two months to four months, depending on the weather, to get that cattle to market. And once the herds moved north through Indian Territory, there would be nothing but open country until they reached Dodge or Abilene, Kansas.

“Crime and vice in early Fort Worth were virtually synonymous with Hell’s Half Acre”, says Dr. Selcer. However, the main cause of death for anyone in the Acre was not the result of a gambling dispute or drunken brawl, but suicide by prostitutes. According to Selcer, many women who went west to work in frontier towns were, more often than not, unable to find work in the better quality establishments back east or lavish bordellos like those found in New Orleans.

In 1876, Fort Worth was a dusty frontier town where lumber was scarce, which meant more than one business shared a building. Faded, poorly written signs identified a business, but a pair of swinging doors always indicated a saloon. Fort Worth offered two kinds of establishments from which “painted ladies” worked – the sporting house and the cribs. Sporting houses, also known as "female boarding houses” provided some form of elegance, better selection of women, and were more expensive. These were the type of houses operated by a madam, with a parlor where clients could have a drink and select a girl.

The ‘cribs’ on the other hand were downright cheap—just 25 cents—and the crib girls were usually desolate, unattractive women suffering from disease or alcohol addiction. Not only were they at the end of a downhill spiral, they had fallen so low that a sporting madam would never allow her girls to associate with someone from the cribs. After all, the reputation of her house--and the revenue it earned--was based on her claim that her girls were better quality, more refined, etc.

Just how many prostitutes worked in the Acre varies, but a sporting house in the late 1870s usually had 3-4 girls employed. An interesting note is that any woman listed as “Miss” in the Fort Worth city directory, and who lived alone and indicated no occupation or place of employment was considered a prostitute. A respectable woman was listed with her father, guardian, or husband. However, if a woman lived alone and had a reputable place of employment listed, they were classified as widows.

In the years that followed, the Acre not only grew but prospered. More establishments were built, some quite extravagant. It should be noted, however, that the famous White Elephant Saloon was not located in Hell’s Half Acre or, as many believe, in the present Fort Worth Historic Stockyards area. The White Elephant could be found on Main Street close to the Courthouse. As I mentioned in a previous post about Luke Short, the White Elephant was very exclusive and catered to wealthy clientele. Many famous figures of the American West often visited Fort Worth, the White Elephant, and Hell’s Half Acre, including Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holiday. And, as Caroline Clemmons mentioned in her blog post, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid even had their photo taken in Fort Worth.

For many years, city officials tolerated Hell’s Half Acre because of the growth in Fort Worth’s economy the saloons, gambling halls, and even the sporting houses brought to the city. Lest you think the good townspeople of Fort Worth turned a blind eye to all the sin and disrepute going on in the Acre, gambling and prostitution was still illegal. Fines were imposed for everything from being drunk and disorderly, fighting, carrying a gun, and especially prostitution. Still, there are ways to get around the law…and many influential people knew how. According to Selcer, “Some of the defendants who appeared before the courts enjoyed the protection of more powerful local figures.”

In fact, Irish born Mary Porter, an infamous madam of the Acre, was on a first name basis with many influential businessmen, including W. H. Ward and E. B. Daggett. Both men “occasionally” posted bond on her behalf. As her prosperity increased, the madam paid larger fines. Just in the four year period from 1893-1897, Porter had 130 offences on record, yet never spent a night in jail. [Pictured above: Mary Porter]

Time passed on. The end of cattle drives, stricter law enforcement, and attempts to tame the Wild West by law-abiding citizens, philanthropists, and civic leaders started the beginning of the end for Hell’s Half Acre.

Ultimately, it was the United States' involvement in World War I that brought about the red light district's official demise. 1917, Camp Bowie in Fort Worth was chosen to serve as a training ground for young soldiers soon to be shipped overseas. However, there was a stipulation. Hell’s Half Acre would be shut down so as not to corrupt these brave young men. In fact, martial law was imposed to ensure the deed was accomplished. Today, the land upon which Hell’s Half Acre once existed is the home of the Fort Worth Convention Center.

In closing, I have only addressed a very minute bit of information about Hell’s Half Acre, and recommend Dr. Selcer’s book for anyone interested in learning more about Fort Worth’s red light district, as well as the wonderfully researched insight he provides into 19th century Fort Worth.

Author-Historian Richard F. Selcer holds a Ph.D. from Texas Christian University and is now a professor of history. In addition to Hell’s Half Acre: The Life and Legend of a Red-Light District, Dr. Selcer’s other published titles include: The Fort That Became a City, Fort Worth: A Texas Original!, Legendary Watering Holes: The Saloons that Made Texas Famous, and Fort Worth Characters. His latest release is Written in Blood: The History of Fort Worth's Fallen Lawmen, Volume I - 1861-1909, which he co-wrote with Kevin S. Foster. Dr. Selcer has also had published numerous articles about military history and the Old West.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoyed hearing about Hell’s Half Acre.~ AKB

14 comments:

  1. Ashley, this was a wonderful post, and so well written and informative. You put mine to shame. Thanks for the plug, though, and for your friendship!

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  2. Very interesting, Ashley. Anything about Fort Worth interests me. I was born in a nearby town and traveled to FW often to visit cousins, aunts, and uncles.
    I used Fort Worth in my sweetest story yet. My little heroine meets a young man who ends up in FW and he partners with a wealthy man who came to town to begin a newspaper. I had Amon Carter in mind when I wrote that part, but of course the magnate was not really part of the story.
    Now every time I see the Ft. Worth convention center, I'll think and "see" Hell's Half Acre. That is a great tidbit of history.
    But I did not know it was shut down when WWI began because of Camp Bowie located nearby.
    The old photos and paintings are wonderful. I always see an entire story in one of those.
    Thanks for the thorough research and the photos....I enjoyed reading it.

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  3. What a fabulous post. Absolutely fascinating thank you.

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  4. Carolyn -- You are so dear, I appreciate the compliment. But, YOUR post was wonderful. I'm so glad we got to attend this luncheon together. Yay! ~ Ashley

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  5. Hi Celia! Thank you for the praise. I do love Fort Worth, and that it strives to preserve its history as much as possible. Your story sounds like something I would love to read. What is the title? ~ Ashley

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  6. Thank you, Marybelle. I am so glad you enjoyed the post. :) ~ Ashley

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  7. Ashley--the title is Wish for the Moon-in digital right now, will be in print very soon...maybe now! I plan to use it to sell at Christmas.

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  8. Absolutely fabulous post, Ashley. And definitely a book worth investigating. How sad that so many women had no other choice. Good job and photos!

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  9. Grrr, Ashley, I just typed you a long message and got a message saying something or another was full and they were "sorry"- so it disappeared. Great post, I loved it, and the pictures were just wonderful!
    Cheryl

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  10. Thank you, Tanya. It is sad, especially when you consider lack of education and few vocations available back then for women. ~ Ashley

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  11. Hi Cheryl! Well, don't feel bad. I just checked the link to the blog that I posted on Twitter and it comes up as there is no such blog but the name is available for a blog. Uh...HUH??? No, there is a blog by that name! Reminds me of when you call information and they tell you there is no such business at that address when you KNOW there is because you've been there! GRR.

    But thank you for being patient and commenting. Glad you enjoyed the post. (hugs) Ashley

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  12. Ashley, that was absolutely fascinating. I sometimes get lost in my research even though I don't write historicals. However, I do have one WIP that will be set in the latter 1800s... but it's a paranormal sorta Wild Wild West story.

    Plus, I was doing research on Old West Saloons because I have one that is a replica in a short story.

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  13. Savanna, Thanks for your comment. A great research book for your story on Old West Saloons is Dr. Selcer's "LEGENDARY WATERING HOLES: THE SALOONS THAT MADE TEXAS FAMOUS". Though your book may not be set in Texas, it gives a great visual and perspective about saloons in the Old West. :) ~ Ashley

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  14. Ashley, thanks. I'm adding it to my resources list.

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