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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Stroll Through Hell's Half Acre with Bat Masterson

By Eddie Griffin

Recently, I decided to return to writing my memoirs, more excited now than ever before. Since being released from prison in 1984, I have gone about researching my experiences. For 12 years, I had little contact with the outside world. I remember stories. That’s all.

It never occurred to me that I might be making history until after Tom Kellam, archivist for the Fort Worth Public Library, recognized the newspaper account of the 1972 bank robbery. I was an outlaw, in the tradition of the Old Wild West, in a city where the West began.

The other day I visited the Sid Richardson Museum and had a lovely chat with the historian. When she heard my story, she immediately knew who I was. The museum guard looked at me strangely. But the historian was pleased to meet me. We chatted about old times.

The museum is named after the legendary Texas oilman Sid W. Richardson (1891-1959). Museum has been one of Historic Sundance Square’s top attractions, drawing more than 50,000 visitors a year from all over the world.

The center of our conversation evolved around the old Wild West cowboys and outlaws that came to Fort Worth and enjoy the sinful pleasure of downtown Hell’s Half Acre. The Museum sits in the center of what remains of Hell’s Half Acre, where I grew up.

The lower end of Hell’s Half Acre was gone. I remember seeing President John F. Kennedy come to the Texas Hotel, on the night of November 21, 1963. I was there when they turned the yellow lights on, to outline the city from the sky. We wanted John Kennedy to see our little city from Air Force One.

The old Western Union building still stood but the company has followed the decline of the railroad. Telegraph and railroad lines come to Fort Worth at the same time in 1876. That’s when Hell’s Half Acre opened its mouth.

Cowboy’s coming in off the dusty Chisholm Trail, the lit up red light district is the first thing that greets them, Hell’s Half Acre, Queen of the Prairie.

Here there was an aggregation of one and two story saloons, dance halls, and bawdy houses, interspersed with empty lots and a sprinkling of legitimate businesses. Only those looking for trouble or excitement ventured into the Acre…the usual activities of the Acre, which included brawling, gambling, cockfighting, and horse racing, were not confined to indoors but spilled out into the streets and back alleys.

But there were few classic gun fights as that between “Long-Haired” Jim Courtright and Luke Short, February 8, 1887.

From “Luke Short – Dandy Gunfighter” by W. R. (Bat) Masterson, 1906

The spring of 1881 found Luke Short in Tombstone , Arizona, dealing faro in a house managed by Wyatt Earp.

One morning I went into the Oriental gambling house, where Luke was working, just in time to keep him from killing a gambler named Charlie Storms. There was scarcely any difference between this case and the one with the bad man in Leadville a couple of years previous. Charlie Storms was one of the best-known gamblers in the entire West and had, on several occasions, successfully defended himself in pistol fights with Western "gunfighters."

Charlie Storms and I were very close friends, -- as much so as Short and I were -- and for that reason I did not care to see him get into what I knew would be a very serious difficulty. Storms did not know Short and, like the bad man in Leadville, had sized him up as an insignificant-looking fellow, whom he could slap in the face without expecting a return. Both men were about to pull their pistols when I jumped between them and grabbed Storms, at the same time requesting Luke not to shoot, -- a request I knew he would respect if it was possible without endangering his own life too much. I had no trouble in getting Storms out of the house, as he knew me to be his friend. When Storms and I reached the street I advised him to go to his room and take a sleep, for I then learned for the first time that he had been up all night, and had been quarreling with other persons.

He asked me to accompany him to his room, which I did, and after seeing him safely in his apartments, where I supposed he could go to bed, I returned to where Short was. I was just explaining to Luke that Storms was a very decent sort of man when, lo and behold! there he stood before us. Without saying a word, he took hold of Luke's arm and pulled him off the sidewalk, where he had been standing, at the same time pulling his pistol, a Colt's cut-off, 45 caliber, single action; but like the Leadvillian, he was too slow, although he succeeded in getting his pistol out. Luke stuck the muzzle of his own pistol against Storms' heart and pulled the trigger. The bullet tore the heart asunder, and as he was falling, Luke shot him again. Storms was dead when he hit the ground. Luke was given a preliminary hearing before a magistrate and exonerated.


In the spring of 1883 Luke formed a partnership with Harris and Beeson of Dodge City, and operated the Long Branch Saloon, the biggest and best paying gambling house in Dodge at the time. The mayor of Dodge, whose name was Webster, was also running a gambling house and saloon next door to that operated by Short. At this time Dodge City was the shipping point for the Texas cattle driven every summer from the great cattle ranges of western Texas to the northern markets.

A fortune was to be made every season by the gambling house that could control this trade and, as Short was from Texas and had once been a cowboy himself. The mayor and his colleagues to Short to the train station and gave him of choice of which direction out of Dodge, East or West. Luke Short took the East-bound to Kansas City.

Lining Up for a Big Fight

I was in Denver at the time, and he wired me to come to Kansas City at once, which I did. We talked the matter over when we met, and concluded to go up to Topeka and place the matter before the Governor. The next day we did so. The Governor denounced the conduct of the Dodge City authorities, but said that he could do nothing, as the local authorities at Dodge had informed him that they were amply able to preserve the peace and did not desire state interference. We stated to the Governor that we believed we were able to rehabilitate ourselves in Dodge, but did not care to run afoul state authorities, in case we concluded to do so. The Governor told us to go ahead and re-establish ourselves, if we could; that he would keep off, and wished us luck. Immediately I started for Silverton, Colorado, where Wyatt Earp was located at the time, and enlisted him in our cause. Luke went to Caldwell, Kansas, where he had a couple of staunch friends, who were willing to take the bit in their mouths and go to the front and fight his battles whenever called upon.

Wyatt was selected to land in Dodge first. With him, but unknown to the Dodge authorities, were several desperate men. Several more dropped into town unobserved by the enemy. It finally became whispered about that Wyatt Earp had a strong force of desperate men already domiciled in town in the interest of Luke Short. The mayor called a hasty meeting of his friends, and after they had all assembled in the council chamber of the city hall, informed them solemnly of what he had heard about the Earp invasion. Anyone who was present at that meeting could easily have seen that anything but a fight was what the mayor and his friends were looking for, now that such a thing was not altogether improbable. Someone present suggested that Wyatt be invited to attend the meeting and state, if he would, his position in the matter. The suggestion met with the instant approval of all present, and the mayor proceeded to forthwith appoint a committee to call upon Earp and inform him of its action. Wyatt was soon found, and told of the wishes of the assembled patriots.

"Mr. Mayor, and gentlemen of the meeting," said Wyatt; "I guess the report is true. I came here some days ago," said he; "and, thinking that perhaps something might happen where I would need assistance, brought along some other gentlemen who signified a willingness to join in whatever festivities might arise."
"Moreover," continued Wyatt, "Luke and Bat will each arrive at noon tomorrow, and on their arrival we expect to open up hostilities."

"Now, look here, Wyatt," said the mayor, "you have no better friends anywhere than we are, and we don't want any more fighting in this town. There has already been enough shooting and killing in Dodge to do for a while. Now, why can't this thing be fixed up before it goes any farther?"

"It can," said Wyatt, "if you are willing to allow Luke to return and conduct his business unmolested as heretofore.”
"I am perfectly willing to agree to that," said Webster. "And so are we," sung out the meeting in a chorus.

"All right, gentlemen," replied the phlegmatic Mr. Earp, "there shall be no conflict. I will proceed to inform both Mr. Short and Mr. Masterson of your decision in the case, and I will guarantee that if you keep your part of the agreement there shall be no bloodshed.

Luke, soon after his restoration to Dodge, concluded to settle up his affairs and move to Texas. He somehow could not bring himself to like those with whom he had so recently been on the outs, and that fall, sold out all his interests in Kansas to his partners, and went to Texas .

The fall of 1884 found him the proprietor of the White Elephant gambling house in Fort Worth. The White Elephant was one of the largest and costliest establishments of its kind in the entire Southwest at the time. As a matter of course, he made plenty of money but it required a lot of money to keep him going, for he was one of the best-hearted men who ever lived. He could not say no to anyone, and, as might be expected, was continually being imposed upon by professional "cadgers," who make it a point to borrow all they can and never pay back anything. While he made fortunes in his gambling establishments, he died a comparatively poor man. He perhaps owed less and had more money due him when he died than any gambler who ever lived.

In the spring of 1887 I visited Short in Fort Worth, and learned soon after my arrival that he was having some trouble which was likely to end seriously with a notorious local character by the name of Jim Courtright. It appears that this fellow Courtright, who had killed a couple of men in Fort Worth, also a couple more in New Mexico , and was therefore dreaded by almost the entire community, asked Short to install him as a special officer in the White Elephant. Luke, who had been a substantial friend of Courtright's during his trouble at Fort Worth, told him he could not think of such a thing.

"Why, Jim," said Luke, "I would rather pay you a good salary to stay away from my house entirely."

"You know," continued Luke, "that the people about here are all afraid of you, and your presence in my house as an officer would ruin my business."

Courtright, who was a sullen, ignorant bully, with no sense of right or wrong, could not see it as Luke did. He could not understand that it was a pure matter of business and would be much better for Short to hire him to stay away from the house altogether than to have him coming around it. At any rate, Courtright got huffy at Luke and threatened to have him indicted and his place closed up. Courtright could not get it through his head how it was that Luke had dared to turn him down. He knew that he had everybody else in town "buffaloed" and could see no reason why Luke should be different from the others.

Luke and I were sitting together in the billiard room of the "White Elephant" one evening, discussing the trouble he was having with Courtright and the effect it was likely to have on his business.
Just then, one of Luke's business associates, by the name of Jake Johnson, came to where we were sitting and informed Luke that Courtright was in the outer lobby and would like to have a talk with him.

"Tell him to come in," said Short.

"I did invite him in," replied Johnson, "but he refused and said I was to tell you to come out."

"Very well," said Luke, "I will see what he has to say; and immediately got up and accompanied Johnson to where Courtright was waiting.

It did not take Luke very long after meeting Courtright to discover that the latter's mission was anything but one of peace. He brought along no olive branch, but instead a brace of pistols, conspicuously displayed. It was not a parley that he came for, but fight, and his demeanor indicated a desire that hostilities open up forthwith.

No time was wasted in the exchange of words once the men faced each other. Both drew their pistols at the same time, but, as usual, Short's spoke first and a bullet from a Colt's 45-calibre pistol went crashing through Courtright's body. The shock caused him to reel backward; then he got another and still another, and by the time his lifeless form had reached the floor, Luke had succeeded in shooting him five times.
Luke was arrested on the spot by a deputy sheriff, and taken to the county jail, where he remained during the night. The next day he was taken before a justice of the peace. Who held him for the grand jury in a nominal bond. This ended the case. as the grand jury refused to indict on the evidence, holding that it was a case of justifiable homicide.

This ended Luke Short's shooting scrapes with the exception of a little gun dispute three years later at Fort Worth which had no fatal results.

This ended Luke Short's shooting scrapes with the exception of a little gun dispute three years later at Fort Worth which had no fatal results.

I took occasion at the opening of this story to state that when Luke reached the age of young manhood he was totally lacking in education. It is now but proper for me to say that at the time of his death, twenty years later. he was an exceptionally well-read man. He could write an excellent letter; always used good English when talking and could quote Shakespeare, Byron, Goldsmith and Longfellow better and more accurately than most scholars.

To the burning of the midnight oil was due the transformation. It transformed him from a white Indian when I first found him, to a diffident, courteous gentleman, who was, at his death about twelve years ago, one of the best known and most popular sporting men in this country.

Written by Bat Masterson, 1907

Though most of us know that W.B. "Bat" Masterson was famous as a gunfighter and friend of such characters as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Luke Short, many may not know that he was also a writer. After his many escapades in the American West, he accepted a post of U.S. Marshal in New York state. However, by 1891 he was working as a sports editor for a New York City newspaper. In 1907 and 1908 he wrote a series of articles for the short-lived Boston magazine, Human Life. This tale of Luke Short, was just one of several of those articles. Masterson died in 1921 of a heart attack.


  1. i could have kicked it and been real successfull in the wild wild west, as a gun slinger

  2. I was the last old time bank robbers in Cowtown, Where the West Began. This is the historical background of my roots.