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Hell's Half Acre

The Life and Legend of a Red-Light District

Richard F. Selcer

Publication Year: 1991

Texas is a place where legends are made, die, and are revived. Fort Worth, Texas, claims its own legend - Hell's Half Acre - a wild 'n' woolly accumulation of bordellos, cribs, dance houses, and gambling parlors.

Tenderloin districts were a fact of life in every major town in the American West, but Hell's Half Acre - its myth and its reality - can be said to be a microcosm of them all. The most famous and infamous westerners visited the Acre: Timothy ("Longhair Jim") Courtright, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Sam Bass, Mary Porter, Etta Place, along with Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, and many more. For civic leaders and reformers, the Acre presented a dilemma - the very establishments they sought to close down or regulate were major contributors to the local economy.

Controversial in its heyday and receiving new attention by such movies as Lonesome Dove, Hell's Half Acre remains the subject of debate among historians and researchers today. Richard Selcer successfully separates fact from fiction, myth from reality, in this vibrant study of the men and women of Cowtown's notorious Acre.

Published by: TCU Press

Series: Chisholm Trail Series

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v

Hell's Half Acre Key Spots

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pp. vi-vii

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pp. ix-xvi

IN 1915 THE DISTINGUISHED CHICAGO SOCIOLOGIST Robert Park declared that it was in the very nature of urbanization for a city to develop vice districts, or what he called "moral regions." He explained that "A moral region is not necessarily a place of abode. It may be a mere rendezvous, a place of resort. '" There was nothing particularly shocking in this observation, but Park went far beyond...

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Chapter One - Cowboy Capers or "Dress and Delight Days"

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pp. 1-32

CRIME AND VICE IN EARLY FORT WORTH WERE virtually synonymous with Hell's Half Acre. The night of April 9, 1877, represents a typical example. The cattle season had not really gotten underway, so there were few cowboys on the street and things were a little slow in the popular night spots. But homesteaders, section hands and drummers were looking for action. At the Blue Light Saloon and...

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Chapter Two - "The Wages of Sin Are A Damned Sight Better Than the Wages of Virtue"

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pp. 33-56

IF ALL THE COWBOYS WERE NOT AS LEGENDARY AS Shanghai Pierce, their exploits at least tended to be remembered that way. Stories of gunplay in the streets, of cowboys riding their horses up to the bars and demanding service, of those same cowboys shooting out the lights or the mirrors behind the bars are all part of the reputation...

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Chapter Three - "Beller Undressed Than Unarmed"

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pp. 57-82

HISTORIAN AND NOVELIST WILLIAM MAcLEOD RAINE described Texas in the 1870S, with only slight exaggeration, as "the most lawless spot on earth."1 As the state's premier cow town, Fort Worth was responsible for more than a little of that reputation. Closer to home, Reverend Addison Clark compared Fort Worth to Chicago—then considered a Babylon unequaled on the national...

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Chapter Four - "Lord Make Us Good But Not Right Now": The Timothy Courtright Years, 1876-1886

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pp. 83-121

T. I. COURTRIGHT WAS THE MAN BUSINESS-MINDED CITY fathers could count on to protect their interests and provide law and order.1 Courtright — a gunfighter who dabbled at gambling — cast a long, sometimes violent shadow over the Acre for a decade during its glory years. Courtright came from a typical western background. Born on the Iowa frontier in 1848, he served on the Union side in the Civil War...

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Chapter Five - "The Gamblers Must Go!"

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pp. 123-163

THE 1880s — HELL'S HALF ACRE'S SECOND DECADE — was a time of growth and of growing lawlessness. The increasing importance of the cattle trade to the Fort Worth economy was matched by the increase in businesses catering to the cowboy's pleasure. There were more saloons, more dance halls, more gambling houses and more prostitutes at the beginning of the 1880s. ...

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Chapter Six - "Ful, they've got me!"

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pp. 165-202

LATE IN 1883 LUKE SHORT, FAMOUS GAMBLER AND friend of gunfighters, arrived in Fort Worth. Described as "small in stature, mild of manner, [but] deadly with a six-gun" by one of his modern biographers, Short was a celebrity before he came to Texas.1 In the West, where a man was often measured by the number of notches on his gun, Luke had only one, and he earned that in a...

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Chapter Seven - "Nothing But Brick and Mortar ..."

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pp. 203-242

THE CHANGING TIMES HAD ALREADY CAUGHT UP WITH Hell's Half Acre. Newspapers now described it as "that dilapidated part of the city" where bums and tramps hung out.1 When reporters journeyed to the south end of town to work on their stories, they took their cue from Shakespeare's Cassius, coming not to praise the Acre but to bury it. An increasing proportion of the city's population no...

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Chapter Eight - The End of the Line

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pp. 243-270

IF, AS THEY SAY, ONE PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND words, it is not surprising that it took just one photograph to bring about the downfall of the West's most successful outlaw gang. The gang was Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch, and the picture was taken in John Swartz' studio on the edge of Hell's Half Acre in 1900. How Cassidy's Wild Bunch and John Swartz got together makes for one of...

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Chapter Nine - Epilogue

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pp. 271-279

HELL'S HALF ACRE DID NOT REALLY DIE IN 1900 OR 1901, though it no longer found its way onto the front pages of the newspapers the way it once had. The fact that Hell's Half Acre did not conveniently go away should not be too surprising. The real world never works that way; it has neatly wrapped eras and endings only in history books. This truism is reflected in the old adage that "reform is...


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pp. 281-325


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pp. 327-340

Appendix I

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pp. 341

Appendix II

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pp. 342

Appendix III

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pp. 343

Appendix IV

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pp. 344

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Appendix V

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pp. 345-346

Fort Worth had a number of newspapers in its early years, although most were small-circulation, limited-interest farm, labor and religious journals that tended to disappear quickly. The major newspapers covering 1871 to 1903, which are of greatest importance as sources for this volume, are a special boon for the researcher trying to piece together daily events in the city. The existence of two rival papers at the same period clarifies the picture even more. ...

Appendix VI

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pp. 347-348


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pp. 349-364

E-ISBN-13: 9780875655116
E-ISBN-10: 0875655114
Print-ISBN-13: 9780875650883

Page Count: 364
Illustrations: 50 b&w photos.
Publication Year: 1991

Series Title: Chisholm Trail Series