Thursday, February 2, 2023

Hells Half Acre: A St. Louis History Lesson

People have used the name Hell’s half an 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 cowboy movies.

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 of 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 “a place where drunken bouts and gambling houses, with doors, flung open, operated day and night, unmolested by the law… It was the little half-brother of every crime from petit larceny to murder.”

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 beaten and mugged people, it is difficult to find records of the many murders that were committed there.

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 barter 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 the demolition of most of the buildings and establishments.