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Texas Trail -Nov. 25

published: November 25th 2022
by: Clay Coppedge

Nearly every frontier town worth its salt in sin had a section of town known as Hell’s Half Acre. San Antonio had one. So did rowdy Tascosa. Austin had a red-light district known as Guy Town. Waco had its Reservation. These districts put the most popular illegal vices of the day on full display and were allowed to do so, as long as they didn’t let their dirty business seep into the more res[ectable neighborhoods.

The most famous – or infamous –of the Hell’s Half Acres in Texas was the one in Fort Worth. Situated at the south end of town, its row upon row of saloons, gambling halls and bawdy houses were the first sights to greet cowboys sauntering into town after months on the dusty cattle trail. Some of the cowboys probably never saw what the rest of town had to offer, not when they had money to spend and everything they desired in Hell’s Half Acre.

A key to such a district’s survival is how well it keeps its secrets, thus we don’t have a good accounting of who might have spent time and money in Hell’s Half Acre  or what they did there. In addition to its many vices, Hell’s Half Acre offered a measure of secrecy and privacy that cowboys and outlaws alike appreciated.

Being a lawman in such a town and having legal authority in the area called for somebody who was good at breaking the law, including the one that prohibits killing people. It called for somebody like Timothy Isaiah “Longhair” Courtright, who had hair to his shoulders, in the manner of the buffalo hunter he once was. He wore two six shooters and holstered them butt-forward. Gunfight scholars have suggested that he was among the fastest on the draw of any gunfighter of that era but he ultimately finished second in a classic quick-draw contest with gambler and gunman Luke Short.

Sam Bass, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and many other major league and minor league criminals and gunfighters made their way to Fort Worth at one time or another during the Acre’s heyday, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Butch, Sundance and two other members of the gang were in Fort Worth in 1900 after robbing a bank in Winnemucca, Nevada, a job that shows as much as anything the uncertain nature of crime. On the way in to rob the bank one of the members, Will Carver, encountered a skunk and finished second in a “shootout” with the critter. Witnesses remembered Carver’s smell more vividly than the guns the gang brandished.

At some point in Fort Worth, flush with the loot from their latest jobs (and we assume rid of any lingering skunk smell) Butch, Sundance and the gang bought derbies and dress clothes and posed for a photograph. Somebody identified the people in the picture, which law enforcement used on the wanted posters that eventually led the gang to flee to South America, where Butch and Sundance met their demise.

As Richard Selcer noted in his book on Hell’s Half Acre for TCU Press, the  gang was last seen together in Fort Worth. “It is unfortunate that Fort Worth could never adopt Butch and Sundance as genuine hometown heroes, but the primary evidence for their connection is too scanty,” he concluded. But he added that the events “provide a fitting end to the heyday of Hell’s Half Acre and closes out the frontier era in the city’s history.”

The Progressive Era, which championed a more wholesome way of living and the outlawing of vice in all its forms, helped shut down the gambling parlors and bawdy houses. Eventually, even booze would be outlawed, an act that made outlaws of many an otherwise law-abiding citizen.  

 

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