The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 96, July 1992 - April, 1993

Southwestern Historzcal Quarterly

Hell's Half Acre: The Life and Legend of a Red-Light District. By Richard F. Selcer.
(Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1991. Pp. xvi + 364. Intro-
duction, illustrations, black-and-white photographs, maps, epilogue, notes,
bibliography, appendices, index. $24,95, cloth; $15.95, paper.)
This well-written book examines Hell's Half Acre in its heyday, from the
1870s to the 189os. Home to gambling, drinking, crime, and prostitution,
Fort Worth's notorious vice zone was a regular stop on the Chisholm Trail,
the "Gamblers' Circuit" (p. 278), and the "Outlaw Trail" (p. 278). The Acre
abounded with small-time figures and assorted greenhorns-prostitutes, two-
bitcrooks, cowboys, conventioneers-and an array of leading lights-infamous
gunmen and gamblers like Doc Holiday and Sam Bass, madames like Mary
Porter, and lawmen like T. I. Courtright. In telling the story of these people,
Richard Selcer has produced the best study to date of Hell's Half Acre and one
of the best books on the history of Fort Worth.
Selcer traces the evolution of Hell's Half Acre through three stages. The
district first took shape during the 1870s, growing apace with Fort Worth, the
state's premier cowtown. The railroad, not the Chisholm Trail, really put the
Acre on the map by turning Fort Worth into a boom town. By the time the
district had assumed its distinctive character, Fort Worthers had grown accus-
tomed to it as an integral part of their city. During the 188os, a "time of growth
and growing lawlessness" (p. 123), conventioneers rather than cowboys became
the Acre's primary source of income. Dance halls gave way to the more cos-
mopolitan entertainment provided by variety theaters. The district's perma-
nent population changed, too, becoming increasingly black. Starting in 1887
and continuing into the 189os, cleanup campaigns brought the Acre's turbu-
lent years to a close while urban renewal gave it a public facelift. Fort Worthers
grew increasingly intolerant of wrongdoing in the district and decreasingly de-
pendent on the Acre's contribution to the local economy.
To piece together a picture of Hell's Half Acre, Selcer drew heavily on news-
papers, given the dearth of correspondence, reminiscenses, and other records
of daily lives. He also made extensive use of court records and more modest
use of city council minutes, Sanborn fire maps, city directories, census data,
and prison records. He filled in the still-incomplete picture with his "knowl-
edge of the times" (p. xiii), his "scholarly imagination" (p. xiii), and fuller ac-
counts of similar red light districts in other towns. The results are not always
satisfying. For one thing, in some places the text is not footnoted adequately,
making it difficult to evaluate his sources. On occasion he makes dubious
claims. He states that Fort Worth authorities required medical inspection of
prostitutes. His source? A comment (in Nancy Wilson Ross's unfootnoted 1944
work, Westward the Women) by a former Idaho mayor that he required medical
inspections in his town. Was suicide really "the chief method of dying in the
Acre" (p. xv), as Selcer claims, or was it simply the case that among prostitutes
in the Acre the suicide rate was high?
Some readers may relish but others tire of Selcer's protracted attention to
noted desperadoes, including some who spent little time in the Acre. Those

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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 96, July 1992 - April, 1993. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101215/. Accessed November 27, 2014.