While doing research for my series The Burnett Brides, I read a book called HELLS HALF ACRE by Richard F. Selcer. This book gives details about a half acre section in downtown Fort Worth in the late 19th century where cowboys, gunslingers and gamblers frequented. This area of town had everything a traveling cowboy could ever want when they came to town with the cattle drives; saloons, dance houses, bordellos, cribs and gambling.
But the one item in the book that surprised me, and I used in my own novel, was the number of lawmen who once walked on the other side of the law. In my novel, THE MARSHAL TAKES A BRIDE, Tucker Burnett was once a well-known gunslinger. Until he takes a bullet that nearly kills him, and is nursed back to health by the beautiful Dr. Sarah James. But he runs scared from the feelings she evokes and goes back to Fort Worth where he gets his life in order and becomes a Marshal. Years later, she returns home to Fort Worth, married with her son in tow, and that’s where the story begins.
Many lawmen from this era were reformed gunslingers and men who had decided against a life of crime. Given the time they lived in, I’m sure they lived longer by being quick with a gun in a wild, lawless town. But they also were often friends and acquaintances with gamblers and gunslingers.
The other piece of information I came across in this book that made me dig deeper for a later book I wrote, was the availability of opium. You could buy it in a drug store, or if you couldn’t get it there, just go down the street to the Chinese laundry where it was available. There were opium dens in the city that people often frequented, even though they were against the law. I was stunned at the number of individuals who were addicted to drugs and used that information in another novel.
This book also revealed for me the true life of a soiled dove. Soiled dove is a pretty name for the profession, but few ladies actually chose this life, but were women down on their luck. If you were in the profession, you were lucky to be working in a sporting house. Most soiled doves worked in shanty’s called cribs and earned pocket change. The Miss Kitty I remember on Gunsmoke, would have lived in a crib or perhaps a sporting house. According to arrest records there were less than twenty women who worked in the sporting houses and the saloons were usually a male only establishment. Many of these women died young and lived hellish lives. Some even committed suicide. According to the book, the idea that many of these women married could not be verified.
I have other research books on the west and especially Fort Worth, but this one is on my keeper shelf. When I need to know the realities of life in a rugged, wild western town, I reach for this one first.
If you get the chance to visit Fort Worth, I encourage you to get a copy of HELL’S HALF ACRE. There’s an interesting map in the front of the book that shows the location of the saloons, the hotels and even Jim Earp’s residence. Most of these locations were located in the area where the Convention Center is now. It’s fun to walk down the street and try to figure out where the past occurred. I believe that they even have one of the saloons still open.
I’ve often thought it would have been fun to have lived back in this era, to have struggled with everyday living without electricity and water. But for a woman, it was a difficult era. The movies have glamorized the decade, but the reality is that women of the west were as strong if not stronger than the men they loved. And that’s what I hope my stories reveal, strong women who the men they choose to love, deserve their strength and love. Dr. Sarah James in THE MARSHAL TAKES A BRIDE is a strong woman in love with a man with a questionable past.
Now for the giveaway. Tell me your favorite western TV show and I’ll enter you in a drawing for a copy of THE MARSHAL TAKES A BRIDE. The winner will have a choice of either print or e-book.
Thanks to Petticoats and Pistols for having me today. If you’d like my list of western research books send me an email at Sylvia.McDaniel@verizon.net.