Madams And Prostitutes Thrived In ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ Brothels In Fort Worth

by Ken Molestina | CBS 11

FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Fort Worth’s long gone infamous red-light district “Hell’s Half Acre” provided all kinds of vices.

It is prostitution specifically that created power and wealth for the women who chose that lifestyle at the time. They were known as “soiled doves” and while their less than moral activities contributed to an “anything goes” Wild West atmosphere in Fort Worth, their work in the sex trade left a lasting impact in the city’s history.

Brothels were abundant within the boundaries of Hell’s Half Acre during the era, which thrived from 1870-1920.

Dr. Jessica Webb is a TCU-trained historian who wrote her dissertation about the topic. She described the activity as being plentiful saying, “I would say the word rampant. The quote you see frequently used in newspapers of the day was that Fort Worth was a ‘wide-open town.’ “

Men were serviced in one of three types of sex houses of the time, that were set up in tiers.

Dr. Webb said at the top and most expensive were parlor houses, which would offer all of the amenities at the time and the most desirable prostitutes. A date there would cost $5 to $10.

Next down the line were brothels or boarding homes. Those tended to be smaller and less luxurious where the price for female company was about $1 per date.

At the very bottom of the list were cribs, one-room houses that customers would rent by the day. A date there was about $.25.

The women working there had usually “aged” out of parlor houses and brothels, but were still working in the sex trade.

If a prostitute was successful, had money, and business sense, she would usually become a madam were she would run an entire operation to include buying or renting a house for service and employing a long list of workers and staff aside from prostitutes themselves.

One of the most famous madams of the time was Mary Porter, who was buried in Fort Worth’s Oakwood Cemetery following her death in 1905. Her headstone, donated by local historians has her name inscribed on it, with the phrase “Call Me Madam” underneath.

The madams made an extraordinary amount of money for the time, and oftentimes invested their money in other pursuits including philanthropic affairs.

Historians say, whenever law enforcement did try and crack down on prostitution in “The Acre” it was the madams who were targeted with arrests. Those arrests were loosely carried out, because the real intent was simply to collect fines and fees from the madams.

Most who studied the matter say the madams were usually out of jail within hours and right back to business as usually once a fine was paid.

“They have this sway because they know that they are important to the city even if they are kept removed from the rest of the city,” said Webb.

While madam’s usually lived impactful and power wielding lives, the many prostitutes that never rose to that status didn’t.

Webb says by the age of 30 they were usually on the outs of the sex trade business, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear of a prostitute committing suicide.

“For a lot of these women (especially those that are reported on) is they are leaving notes,” said Webb. “They are saying, ‘You know, I am despairing I am distraught I can’t do this’.”

Prostitution was ultimately driven out of the acre along with other vices around 1920.

Soon after the city of Fort Worth called the area “morally cleaned.”


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