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Hell's Half Acre:
Fort Worth's Dirty Secret

by Joshua V. Chanin

At the end of the nineteenth century, during an era where townsmen, outlaws and even politicians frequently enjoyed engaging in activities that are illegal and not considered 'politically correct' today, cities in Texas built entertainment sections and red light districts on the outskirts of downtown plazas. "Happy Hollow" was a popular destination in the City of Houston and many paid visits to San Antonio's disorderly area commonly known as 'The District," while Waco was the home to 'Two Street" and Dallas housed an underground quarters named "Frogtown" and "Boggy Bayou." Fort Worth was no exception.

Fort Worth TX 19th Century map showing Hell's Half Acre
A map of Fort Worth in the late nineteenth century.
Hell's Half Acre is highlighted by a red border on left side of map.
Notice the city courthouse on the right side of the map.
Picture from an issue of the Fort Worth Gazette, 1889.
Click on image to enlarge

It's dirty pocket, suitably named 'Hell's Half Acre,' was located north of the T&P depot and south of the downtown square and city courthouse, along Jones, Rusk, and Main Streets, and between 8th and 11th Streets. These streets were home to several grocery stores, saloons, gambling halls, pawn shops, and brothels. Crime and violence were prevalent in the acre, as depicted by the famous 1887 gunfight between former Fort Worth Sheriff Jim Courtright and gambler Luke Short—named by some as 'the last shootout of the Wild West'—where Courtright was killed in front of the Acre's White Elephant Saloon. (Forum: "The White elephant Saloon, site of the Courtright & Short gunfight, was very upscale and only 3-blocks south of the Courthouse. - Frank, 1-9-2024) In recent decades, there have been articles and books written about gunslingers who enjoyed the sex and thrills in Hell's Half Acre, such as the scholarship penned by Fort Worth native Richard Selcer. However, other than a PhD dissertation by Jessica Michelle Webb, there has been little written on the women who sold their bodies and propelled the main attraction of Hell's Half Acre-the brothels. To expand upon the unfamiliar fallen characters, this article will attempt to shed light on the prostitutes who were instrumental in creating Fort Worth's dirty secret.

Hell's Half Acre was established in 1876 after the arrival of the Texas and Pacific Railway in Fort Worth. As the city had a previous reputation of being a rowdy frontier town, the lawlessness of the 22,000 square-foot area blended well in the surrounding area. Comprised of saloons, betting parlors, and other structures that housed illicit activities, the Acre became a resting space for the railroad workers and cattle workers traveling on the cattle drive from Kansas to Texas. As drugs and booze were in the air every night, callers went to the Acre looking for trouble, desiring to be a rebel. And rarely did they get caught as many police officers and other local officials were also patrons to the Acre—this part of the 'Old Wild West' was named a refugee den and a safe zone for wanted criminals and outlaws. Frequent visitors to the Acre included cowboys Jesse James and Frank James, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Sam Bass. In recent scholarship, it appears that the City of Fort Worth approved (or blindly sided) the raunchy activities of Hell's Half Acre—the Texas cattle drive floats during the city's Golden Jubilee parade in 1927 passed through the Acre on Main Street to much celebrational applause.

Fort Worth TX Saloon on Main Street  night view , old post card
Saloon on Main Street N of T&P Railroad Station in Fort Worth
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/

The backbone 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 madam.

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 death.

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

Author Biography:
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.

Knight, Oliver. Fort Worth: Outpost on the Trinity. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.

Selcer, Richard F. Hell's Half Acre: The Life and Legend of a Red Light District. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1991.

Webb, Jessica Michelle. They Sold Their Bodies: Prostitution, Economics, and "Fallen Women" In Fort Worth's Hell's Half Acre, 1876-1919. PhD Dissertation. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University, 2012.

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