Most city founders are quick to hide away a part of their history filled with gunfights, gambling, prostitution, drunkenness… and with it, murders and suicides. This is not so for Fort Worth. In fact, the city has erected a historical marker commemorating its days of the Wild West in a red-light district known as “Hell’s Half Acre.” Within its confines, there are lots of stories to tell and legends of spirits who still wander…
Fort Worth's history of debauchery began when it was a stop on cattle drives in the late 1870s- it was the first thing drovers saw as they approached the city from the south en route to Kansas. At the time, the Hell's Half Acre consisted of saloons, dance halls, and so-called "bawdy houses." Only those cowboys tired from the trails and looking for excitement typically ventured to this seedier section.
As the city's importance as a railroad stop and Cowtown grew, so did Hell's Half Acre.
It sprawled across four of the city's main thoroughfares; roughly two and a half acres. By then, it had developed a violent reputation and was often referred to as the "Bloody Third Ward" after its designation as one of the city's three political wards in 1876.
This map shows where the area was downtown. Hell's Half Acre was not the historic stockyards area, as many think.
Hell's Half Acre attracted many notorious outlaws, including this group known as "the Fort Worth Five" or the "Wild Bunch."
Pictured here, front left: Harry A. Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid; Ben Kilpatrick, the Tall Texan; and Robert Leroy Parker, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy. Standing behind them is Will Carver & Harvey Logan (a.k.a. Kid Curry). This photo was shot in Fort Worth in 1901, when the Sam Bass Gang used the area as a hideout.
Local citizens became afraid of criminals ruining their town. To curtail the lawlessness, they hired Timothy Isaiah Courtright (known as Longhair Jim) as marshall in 1876. He sometimes arrested as many as 30 lawbreakers in a single night.
On Feb. 8, 1887, notorious gambler Luke Short and Courtright engaged in a shootout on Main Street. Courtright died instantly with a bullet to the heart. Short became known as the "King of Fort Worth Gamblers."
Courtright is buried at the historic Oakwood Cemetery, founded in 1879 in Fort Worth.
Short, who died of natural causes six years after the famous shootout, is buried in the same cemetery... but out of shooting range of Courtright.
The clamp down on crime started to drive business away, leading city officials to mute their stand against vice.
Prostitution was rampant during these times. The bordello girls were the best taken care of; older, diseased, or unattractive girls worked in so-called "cribs," sometimes servicing as many 80 patrons in an evening. Many committed suicide to escape. Historians say more prostitutes died than gunfighters and gamblers.
Madams like Irish-born Mary Porter oversaw various "class levels" of bordellos here in Fort Worth. It was the heinous death of a prostitute only known as "Sally," who was found murdered and nailed to an outhouse in the Acre that started the outcry for reform.
As times changed, the area no longer attracted cowboys and out-of-towners. Instead, it focused more on homeless, hobos who rode the rails, thieves, and prostitutes. Even though Hell's Half Acre ceased to exist, it was still considered a "bad" part of town. The city cleaned up its act with renovations to the area and new businesses moved in as a result.
The building that is now home to Fort Worth's Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse and is said to be haunted; it was a bathhouse during the heyday of Hell's Half Acre.
A man was bathing when he was shot in the back of his head. It is said his spirit roams between the banquet room and the upstairs bar late at night.
Today, the site that was once Hell's Half Acre is now near the Convention Center and Water Gardens area, and is clean and inviting for visitors and locals alike.