HELL'S HALF ACRE, FORT WORTH
HELL'S HALF ACRE, FORT WORTH. In the later decades of the nineteenth century, Hell's Half Acre became almost a generic name for the red-light district in many frontier towns, including San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Tascosa, Texas. The exact origins of the name are unclear, but in the days of the Republic of Texas it was applied to Webberville, near Austin, because of the community's lawless and immoral reputation. The name did not come into widespread usage, however, until after the Civil War. Returning soldiers may have brought the phrase back with them from such bloody battlefields as Stones River, where it had been applied with a different but equally vivid connotation. As a name for prostitution districts, it was usually shortened to "the Acre," but everyone knew what the abbreviation stood for.
Among the various Hell's Half Acres that dotted the frontier, none was more infamous or more rambunctious than Fort Worth's. The Fort Worth version started during the city's heyday as a drover's stop on the cattle trails to Kansas in the early 1870s. The name first appeared in the local newspaper in 1874, but by that time the district was already well established on the lower end of town, where it was the first thing the trail drivers saw as they approached the town from the south. Here there was an aggregation of one and two story saloons, dance halls, and bawdy houses, interspersed with empty lots and a sprinkling of legitimate businesses. Only those looking for trouble or excitement ventured into the Acre. As one headline put it in a description of a popular saloon there, "They Raise Merry Cain at the Waco Tap." Moreover, the usual activities of the Acre, which included brawling, gambling, cockfighting, and horse racing, were not confined to indoors but spilled out into the streets and back alleys.
As the importance of Fort Worth as a crossroads and cowtown grew, so did Hell's Half Acre. It was originally limited to the lower end of Rusk Street (renamed Commerce Street in 1917) but spread out in all directions until by 1881 the Fort Worth Democrat was complaining that it covered 2½ acres. The Acre grew until it sprawled across four of the city's main north-south thoroughfares: Main, Rusk, Calhoun, and Jones. From north to south, it covered that area from Seventh Street down to Fifteenth (or Front) Street. The lower boundary was marked by the Union Station train depot and the northern edge by a vacant lot at the intersection of Main and Seventh. These boundaries, which were never formally recognized, represented the maximum area covered by the Acre, around 1900. Occasionally, the Acre was also referred to as "the bloody Third Ward" after it was designated one of the city's three political wards in 1876.
Long before the Acre reached its maximum boundaries, local citizens had become alarmed at the level of crime and violence in their city. In 1876 Timothy Isaiah (Longhair Jim) Courtright was elected city marshal with a mandate to tame the Acre's wilder activities. Courtright cracked down on violence and general rowdiness-by sometimes putting as many as thirty people in jail on a Saturday night-but allowed the gamblers to operate unmolested. After receiving information that train and stagecoach robbers, such as the Sam Bass gang, were using the Acre as a hideout, local authorities intensified law-enforcement efforts. Yet certain businessmen placed a newspaper advertisement arguing that such legal restrictions in Hell's Half Acre would curtail the legitimate business activities there. Despite this tolerance from business, however, the cowboys began to stay away, and the businesses began to suffer. City officials muted their stand against vice. Courtright lost support of the Fort Worth Democrat and consequently lost when he ran for reelection in 1879. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s the Acre continued to attract gunmen, highway robbers, card sharks, con men, and shady ladies, who preyed on out-of-town and local sportsmen.
At one time or another reform-minded mayors like H. S. Broiles and crusading newspaper editors like B. B. Paddock declared war on the district but with no long-term results. The Acre meant income for the city-all of it illegal-and excitement for visitors. Possibly for this reason, the reputation of the Acre was sometimes exaggerated by raconteurs; some longtime Fort Worth residents claimed the place was never as wild as its reputation. Suicide was responsible for more deaths than murder, and the chief victims were prostitutes, not gunmen. However much its reputation was exaggerated, the real Acre was bad enough. The newspaper claimed "it was a slow night which did not pan out a cutting or shooting scrape among its male denizens or a morphine experiment by some of its frisky females." The loudest outcries during the periodic clean-up campaigns were against the dance halls, where men and women met, as opposed to the saloons or the gambling parlors, which were virtually all male.
A major reform campaign in the late 1880s was brought on by Mayor Boiles and County Attorney R. L. Carlock after two events. In the first of these, on February 8, 1887, Luke Short and Jim Courtright had a shootout on Main Street that left Courtright dead and Short the "King of Fort Worth Gamblers." Although the fight did not occur in the Acre, it focused public attention on the city's underworld. A few weeks later a poor prostitute known only by the name of Sally was found murdered and nailed to an outhouse door in the Acre. These two events, combined with the first prohibition campaign in Texas, helped to shut down the Acre's worst excesses in 1889.
More than any other factor, urban growth began to improve the image of the Acre, as new businesses and homes moved into the south end of town. Another change was the influx of black residents. Excluded from the business end of town and the nicer residential areas, Fort Worth's black citizens, who numbered some 7,000 out of a total population of 50,000 around 1900, settled into the south end of town. Though some joined in the profitable vice trade (to run, for instance, the Black Elephant Saloon), many others found legitimate work and bought homes.
A third change was in the popularity and profitability of the Acre, which was no longer attracting cowboys and out-of-town visitors. Its visible population was more likely to be derelicts, hoboes, and bums. By 1900 most of the dance halls and gamblers were gone. Cheap variety shows and prostitution became the chief forms of entertainment. The Progressive era was similarly making its reformist mark felt in districts like the Acre all over the country.
In 1911 Rev. J. Frank Norris launched an offensive against racetrack gambling in the Baptist Standard and used the pulpit of the First Baptist Church to attack vice and prostitution. Norris used the Acre both to scourge the leadership of Fort Worth and to advance his own personal career. When he began to link certain Fort Worth businessmen with property in the Acre and announce their names from his pulpit, the battle heated up. On February 4, 1912, Norris's church was burned to the ground; that evening his enemies tossed a bundle of burning oiled rags onto his porch, but the fire was extinguished and caused minimal damage. A month later the arsonists succeeded in burning down the parsonage. In a sensational trial lasting a month, Norris was charged with perjury and arson in connection with the two fires. He was acquitted, but his continued attacks on the Acre accomplished little until 1917. A new city administration and the federal government, which was eyeing Fort Worth as a potential site for a major military training camp, joined forces with the Baptist preacher to bring down the curtain on the Acre finally. The police department compiled statistics showing that 50 percent of the violent crime in Fort Worth occurred in the Acre, a shocking confirmation of long-held suspicions. After Camp Bowie was located on the outskirts of Fort Worth in the summer of 1917, martial law was brought to bear against prostitutes and barkeepers of the Acre. Fines and stiff jail sentences curtailed their activities. By the time Norris held a mock funeral parade to "bury John Barleycorn" in 1919, the Acre had become a part of Fort Worth history. The name, nevertheless, continued to be used for three decades thereafter to refer to the depressed lower end of Fort Worth.
Fort Worth Daily Democrat, April 10, 1878, April 18, 1879, July 18, 1881. Oliver Knight, Fort Worth, Outpost on the Trinity (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953). Leonard Sanders, How Fort Worth Became the Texasmost City (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1973). Richard F. Selcer, Hell's Half Acre: The Life and Legend of a Red Light District (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1991). F. Stanley [Stanley F. L. Crocchiola], Jim Courtright (Denver: World, 1957).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Richard F. Selcer, "HELL'S HALF ACRE, FORT WORTH," accessed January 20, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hph01.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 30, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.