By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky
When writing a novel set in the American West, there are certain details that cannot be ignored -- not if you want to be accurate. Every frontier town had a saloon, and every town had prostitutes. Whether you call them a soiled dove, floozy, strumpet, the hooker with the heart of gold, or a shady lady, they were just as commonplace as the sheriff, the cowboys, the farmers, the preacher, and the schoolmarm in the one-room schoolhouse.
Very often, especially in western films, the upstairs of a saloon had sleeping rooms where the clientele was entertained by one of the girls working downstairs. You may not want to believe that the kind-hearted Miss Kitty from 'Gunsmoke' was a madam, but it seems likely. In any event, today I am going to share some research I collected a few years ago about Fort Worth and, in particular, its "Red Light District" known as Hell's Half Acre.
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 this river then rode back up 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.
As a side note for writers of historical fiction, it is important to know that very often street names changed over time. Researching vintage maps of an area during the time period and setting of your novel is a tremendous tool. Granted many readers will not care one way or another about a street name or if it is accurate for the time period, but I guarantee you there are history buffs who will know. The bottom line for me is that I will know. Although I am not infallible, I really try hard to transport my readers to the actual setting as one would have seen it and experienced it during the book's time period.
Now, back to to Hell's Half Acre.
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”, according to Dr. Richard Selcer (author of Hell's Half Acre: The Life and Legend of a Red Light District).
Ironically, the main cause of death for anyone in the Acre was not the result of a gambling dispute, drunken brawl, or a gunfight, but suicide by prostitutes. Many of these women who traveled west to work in rough frontier towns did so because they were unable to find work in the better quality establishments back east or lavish bordellos like those found in New Orleans. Tragically, they had nothing better to hope for and had come to the end of their own trail of tears.
Sporting houses, also known as "female boarding houses” provided some form of elegance, better selection of women, and were more expensive. These type houses were operated by a madam, and featured a parlor where clients could have a drink and select a girl.
The ‘cribs’, however, were nothing more than filthy pens where the desolate, unattractive women -- usually suffering from disease or alcohol addiction -- sold their services for just 25 cents. Not only were these women at the end of a downhill spiral, they had fallen so low that a sporting madam would never even allow her girls to speak with or 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 and free of disease.
The number of prostitutes who worked in the Acre varied. A sporting house in the late 1870s usually had 3-4 girls employed. Another interesting note gleaned from research 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 either listed with her father, guardian, or husband. However, if a woman lived alone and had a reputable place of employment listed, they were usually classified as widows. Respectable unmarried 'ladies' did not live alone. Period.
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 (featured in my Western Time Travel "Whisper in the Wind") was not located in Hell’s Half Acre. Neither was it, as many believe, located in the present-day Fort Worth Historic Stockyards area. The White Elephant was located on Main Street very close to the Courthouse. As I mentioned in a previous post about Luke Short, the White Elephant was very elegant, 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.
For many years, city officials tolerated Hell’s Half Acre because of the growth that the saloons, gambling halls, and even the sporting houses brought to Fort Worth’s economy. Lest you think the good townspeople of Fort Worth turned a blind eye to all the sin and disrepute going on in the Acre, think again. 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 were ways to get around the law, and many influential people knew how.
Time passed on, and the end of cattle drives, stricter law enforcement, as well as 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, the United States' involvement in World War I brought about the Red Light District's official demise. In 1917, Camp Bowie in Fort Worth was chosen to serve as the training ground for young soldiers soon to be shipped overseas. However, the government imposed a strict stipulation. Hell’s Half Acre MUST be shut down so as not to corrupt their brave young men in the Armed Forces. 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.
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.
Thank you so much for stopping by, and I hope you enjoyed hearing about Hell’s Half Acre.~ AKB