players of Hell's Half Acre were prostitutes, young and older women
who joined the profession for a new opportunity or had fled their
abusive husbands and lovers from a previous life. Though they were
named disgraceful social threats, the brothel workers were popular
and entertained the Acre's outlaws and visitors just as much as
the booze and drugs offered in saloons and opium dens. There were
two distinct groups of girls for sale in the Acre-the Crib Girls
and the Sporting-House Girls. The Crib Girls, women who were "just
a step above the lowly streetwalker," housed in one-room shacks,
and provided fast and cheap sexual services. Often, the Crib Girls
would dance with their drunk clients on the saloons' dance floors
before then escorting the inebriated males to their beds. Though
they provided revenue to the City (in land taxes), these women rarely
elevated in social status. Most of these shacks were stacked against
each other on Rusk and Calhoun Streets. According to city records,
there were over sixty crib shacks in the Acre in 1907.
An 1893 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shows seventeen saloon and eleven
structures labeled as 'female boarding' in the Acre. The large boarding
houses were the homes of the Sporting-House Girls. These brothels
were expensive, lavishly-furnished with fine silk sheets, and offered
clients younger and more attractive girls than the cribs. Most of
the women who worked in this type of brothel were in their teens
and twenties, dolled in makeup and clothed in Victorian-styled dresses.
Ms. Mary Porter ran such a popular and luxurious brothel in Fort
Worth named 'Bloody Third Ward.' Each of these brothels were
owned by a madam, a prostitute veteran in their forties or fifties.
In Fort Worth, the madams included Joise Belmont, Dolly Love, Pearl
Beebe, and Mabel Thompson. Although they looked after 'their girls,'
the madams acted in their own best interests, and as landlords,
they rented their house rooms out to young prostitutes and sequentially
demanded a part of the girls' earnings for monthly rent. Thus, the
brothel madams were pimps who only desired money and interest.
According to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the life of a prostitute
was "nasty, brutish, and short." The Acre's prostitutes were often
lonely, hiding their social status from old friends and families.
In choosing a profession that was not idolized, they were ostracized
from the community. The life of a prostitute was "so unnatural to
pure womanhood," and prompted many brothel women to change their
names and identities, and invent fake backstories so their family
or friends did not know they were workers in a brothel. Some of
the nicknames in Fort
Worth included Irish Nell, Dutch Rose, and Midget Boston. Most
of the women left no paper trail and very few knew how to read or
write-they lived on the edge of society, plucked by men who needed
excitement and later discarded in filth.
Business was often very competitive in the brothels, diminishing
a prostitute's chance in making friends with her coworkers or women
of other local brothels. In 1883, after seducing a client that was
not supposed to be hers to woo, prostitute Maggie Weaver pulled
a knife while arguing with coworker Kittie Raymond and stabbed her
arm "inflicting a very serious wound… severing the artery." A few
years later, while quarrelling with coworker Lou Bell, prostitute
Belle Williams nearly cut off Bell's breast and stabbed her twice
"receiving only a scratch herself." As previously discussed, money
was constantly an issue in a prostitute's life, as women scrambled
to woo clients to their beds and find the highest bidder in hopes
that they would have enough savings after paying their rent to the
As prostitution was a mobile activity, women in brothels had little
time to form intimate and close relationships with partners, often
choosing to have multiple one-night lovers. Some men did not want
to pursue relationships with these desolate women, as they feared
they could be dragged down to society's lower tier if linked with
them. Furthermore, a prostitute feared of having children as they
could not afford to have a pregnancy-when pregnant, a brothel worker
had to stop working for several months to rest before labor and
then care for the child after birth. Many women did not want to
raise a child in the brothel conditions, as that child would probably
follow the career path of their mother, a life accompanied with
much sex and drugs. Thus, loneliness in the brothels was prompted
by competition among clients and the highest bidder, and only could
treated by either unusually marrying a wealthy man to escape the
lower social class or succumb from a drug overdose.
The brothels in Hell's Half Acre were accompanied by saloons, cockfight
pits, and betting parlors, where outlaws and townsmen enjoyed plentiful
amounts of alcohol and drugs. Illicit activities involving drugs
spread from the bar to the bedroom, as the prostitutes often became
involved with their client's drugs. Some women took opium and morphine
to calm the nerves-though they constantly battled drug addictions,
this was a pleasurable experience for them after a hard days work.
In the 1890s, one city newspaper claimed, "it was a slow night which
did not pan out a cutting or shooting scrape among its male denizens,
however, there was a morphine experiment by some of its frisky females."
Several brothel workers sold drink and drugs to their clients in
hopes to make a little profit besides the traditional sexual services.
A prostitutes way of escaping stress was immersing themselves in
the world of drugs and alcohol. The brothels had a lasting party-atmosphere
reputation. Before she died, the final words of Fort Worth brothel
veteran Emmeline Gooden were "we die hard." As life was tough and
there appeared to be no exit from the prostitution trade, it was
common for brothel workers to commit suicide-by the end of the nineteenth
century, Fort Worth became one of the leading cities in female suicides
in Texas. Hell's Half Acre became a den of sin. Drugged and drunk
male clients often exhibited violence on the streets (between 1892-1920,
several policemen were killed by drunk clients outside theaters
and saloons) and in the bedroom-it was not unusual to see a prostitute
in tears, accompanied with bruises and deep cuts on their bodies
after an appointment with an intoxicated client.
Coupled with drug abuse and loneliness, abuse by intimate partners
was a constant problem for the women who worked in the Acre's brothels.
In 1878, Bell Fannin, a sex worker in the Acre, was beaten to death
by a supposed lover for giving birth to a baby boy. Her coworker,
Mary Ross, was repeatedly kicked to near-death by 'Colored Tough'
Oscar Smith in 1886. Smith denied involvement in the event, but
later convicted and executed. Dolly Love suffered abuse on various
occasions in the 1880s and again in 1903 by lover Tom Angus and
husband Thomas Ray.
In 1903, a prostitute by the nickname 'Gladys' was shot by her husband,
Hugh Wilson, when she simply requested a divorce. Though many workers
inside and customers outside the brothels knew about these problems,
no progressive action was taken to stop the incidents-violence among
the sex workers and their partners became the norm. Moreover, the
violence was encouraged by Fort Worth newspapers, such as The Star
Telegram, who were eager for a bloody story to headline their written
pieces. After a day's work and being subject to black eyes, bruises
and cuts, the Acre's prostitutes would happily take morphine to
calm their nerves, and retreat from the world, ensuring the longevity
of the continuous vicious cycle of bodily abuse they were in until
Although illegal activities occurred in the brothels and saloons
in Hell's Half Acre, the Fort
Worth police did not shut the complex down. Several criminals
were arrested in the 1890s due to 'foul behavior,' however, outlaws
continued to squat in the saloons and prostitutes sold their bodies
uninterrupted. This was because many city officials visited the
Acre. Council members would frequently dance on the dance floors
and win money in the betting parlors, while police officers would
have sex with the sporting-house prostitutes and women in the cribs.
It is suggested that a couple of police officers lived in the brothels-they
resided in the houses and cooked food for the women in exchange
for sex. Thus, the saloons and brothels rarely received complaints,
and for a long time police turned a blind eye on the Acre.
Moreover, as the Acre's alcoholic parlors and brothels made money,
city officials indirectly encouraged many citizens to follow them
to the complex. Hell's Half Acre was a money-making machine that
the City of Fort Worth did not wish to lose during the late nineteenth
century, no matter how bad the activities were. One historian said
the Acre "operated on a 'sin-and-gin' model of supply and demand.
It was a two-fisted, pistol-packin', easy-lovin' veritable mall
of vice that helped develop and establish Fort Worth's economy."
Thus, the acre helped Fort
Worth grow, in population, power in North Texas, and wealth.
However, the economic powerhouse of sex and booze was discredited
as 'a den of inequality' by many in the 1910s, including John Franklyn
Norris, the controversial pastor of Fort Worth's First Baptist Church.
The Acre's popularity decreased, prostitution ceased, and the saloons
gradually closed. In 1919, the year after World
War I ended, the saloons and brothels of Hell's Half Acre had
closed. And the streets were quiet. Ironically, money and success
did not save Hell's Half Acre from controversy.
Today, little remains of Hell's Half Acre except for a historical
state plaque south of the Fort Worth Convention Center and Water
Gardens, which was placed there in 1993. This is because the City
of Fort Worth in the 1960s decided to raze every building in the
Acre apart from one-a Catholic church-as the City Council deemed
it was necessary to demolish the once-run down area and execute
an urban revival project. Thus, if you were to walk along the streets
that once was home to drunks, gamblers, and brothel prostitutes,
you now would find restaurants, retail shops, and car parking spaces.
As scholarship on Hell's Half Acre and the brothels is not yet developed,
Fort Worth's dirty secret appears to be a distant memory to many
living in the city. Though moans, gunshots, shouts, and jeers are
all in the past, the stories that are uncovered by historians and
scholars are slowly revealing the truths on how the other side of
Fort Worth lived
in the late nineteenth century. Over time, though their trade is
considered illicit today and the specific topic of this article
is controversial to some, it is hopeful that we continue to understand
how and why historical events played out like they did within an
era. And we must never forget the background characters who impacted
the lives of our ancestors and our futures, such as the prostitutes
of Hell's Half Acre who played pivotal roles in creating the ever
politically-strong, economically-sound, and historically-rich City
of Fort Worth.
© Joshua V. Chanin October
19, 2018 Guest Column
Joshua V. Chanin is the Community Director of Samuel H. Whitley
Residence Hall at Texas A&M University- Commerce. He received his
M.A. in history from the University of Texas at Arlington, and specializes
in the history of women and Texas. Chanin is currently writing a
book about Sallie B. Capps, a education reformer in Fort Worth during
the Progressive Era.