Sunday, December 4, 2022

What was Hell’s Half Acre?

The St. Louis Star described it at the beginning of the 20th Century as a place “saloons, gambling houses, doors flung open and operated day and night,” unaffected by the law.

People have used the name Hell’s Half Acre for hot springs and lava fields, Civil War battlefields and a New Jersey Golf Buner. They also refer to river rapids, hot springs and a cowboy movie.

Our Half Acre was located between Wellston, University City and a small 700-foot-long slice of unincorporated land. Its wild nature was due to its free-floating status. It did not belong to any municipality and therefore it was not under any police department’s jurisdiction. Officially, North Cabanne was the heart of the neighborhood. It was located at the 6100 block on Bartmer Avenue.

The St. Louis Star described it in a description that “saloons, gambling houses, with doors open, operated day-and-night, unmolested… It was the little brother of every crime, from petit larceny, to murder.” Louis Post-Dispatch provided a more balanced account. They described it as something that looked a bit like a small town. But, once night fell, they said it was “soberingly drunken,” and “men and women from St. Louis engage in drunken bouts and sing ribald tunes and misconduct themselves so scandalously as not only to shock the neighborhood but keep it awake with their carousals.”

Historical records support the Post. North Cabanne’s crimes were as small and petty as the neighborhood itself. There were drunken brawls as well as bloodless holdups and backroom dice games. Although gangs may have beat and mugged people, it is difficult to find records of the many murders that were committed there.

Finally, 200 people, led by Pastor Robert Evans petitioned Governor for assistance. The St. Louis County sheriff and several temperance societies, churches, businesses, and other organizations joined the cause. James Simpson was arrested in 1910 for operating his saloon with no license. His place was the first to be closed. The Sunday blue laws followed. The Post reported that the was the last bartmer saloon, and it belonged to C.A. Jackson, a.k.a. Jackson, a.k.a. “The mayor of Hell’s Half Acre,” had been shuttered and a new evangelical church mission had taken its spot. An assistant prosecutor attorney commented in the same article that North Cabanne had become “pious and dry” and should be renamed “The Desert.”

Tony Foley, the “king of county gamblers”, was the last to hold out. He operated a Bartmer establishment until 1920. The Missouri Federation of Women’s’ clubs, Hodiamont Businessmen’s Association and St. Louis County began a crusade “cleaning up Hell’s Half Acre,” which saw demolition of most of the buildings and establishments.

Half Measures

Although there was some crime at the Acre, it was mostly comical and improvised.

July 1910

A group of thieves used a 10-foot fuse and a large amount of explosives to blow the door off the safe in the E.R. office. Darlington Lumber Company. The 100-pound door flew through the room and broke a window. The only thing the thieves were able to find was $5 worth of loose coins.

March 1912

During a robbery, twenty patrons fled William Murphy’s saloon in Bartmer. The robber also fled the saloon on Bartmer after waving his revolver around, demanding all the money. The people who were brave enough to remain told police they thought it was a joke at first because the perp was “a cute, little boy, about five feet tall,” and wore a highwayman mask. The perp then demanded all the money in the cash register.

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