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Riis Christensen: The Wickedest Woman in Dallas

Prosperity and growth in Dallas in the late 1880s attracted some shady characters. Belle Starr began her adventures in Dallas as a dance hall singer and dancer. She sold stolen horses and harbored wanted men. But Annie Wilson had already started to earn her fame as “the wickedest woman in Dallas” (please don’t send me additional nominees—I have my own list).
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Riis Christensen
Riis Christensen

We left off in my last blog at the Texas Insane Asylum in Austin with the demise of John Neely Bryan—the buckskin-fringed, coonskin-capped, moccasin-wearing, flintlock rifle-toting adventurer that founded Dallas on the banks of the Trinity River at the top of the now famous grassy knoll. Neely had staked out Dallas in a half-mile plat and built the first successful mixed-use project: a 10′ x 12′ log cabin out of which he had operated a trading post, a courthouse, a post office, a ferry crossing station, and his home, where he resided with his wife, Margaret Beeman Bryan, their five kids and assorted farm animals. (Think combo bead store/”River Monsters”/”People’s Court”/”Green Acres”/”Survivor” and ”The Waltons,” seasoned with smoke, chaw, squealing and manure.)

By 1846, Dallas had its first hotel, private school, and church. The city was on the verge of being in high cotton as the first cotton crop was harvested. It would become a major successful cash crop for the area. In 1849, The Cedar Snag was published—Dallas’ first newspaper for its 430 residents—many of Swiss, German-Belgian, and French heritage. The paper was later renamed The Dallas Herald.

News of the Gold Rush came, and 100,000 people flocked to the Sacramento Valley in California. Many passed through Dallas on their way to perceived fortunes out West. Some of them stayed out there and became 49ers—like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice—while others later returned and became Cowboys, many of whom are now bound by a fate of idiotic drafting by a humble owner/GM from Arkansas.

In 1850, the La Reunion Colony (as in Arena and Station) settlement was established just west of Dallas. The land was not ideal for farming, and none of the residents were farmers anyway. Harsh winters and summer droughts didn’t help their crops. The colony collapsed and was abandoned 18 months later. (What did you expect? It was a utopian commune!) The colony’s skilled European craftsman moved over to Little D and included musicians, cabinet makers, milliners, tailors, and brewers, as well as artists. Botanist Julien Reverchon (as in Park and Plaza) was one of those colonists. Some of this bunch is said to have moved permanently to lower Greenville and Deep Ellum, thus birthing that area’s artistic penchants, and thus explaining the proliferation there of galleries, nightclubs, and tattoo parlors.

French immigrant Maxime Guillot built Dallas’s first factory in 1852, manufacturing carriages and buggies. This was Dallas’ first official “stage” production of “Paint Your Wagon.” A brickyard was also established, along with a drugstore, an insurance agency, a boot/shoe shop, a saddle shop, and a dry goods store. (I’m not certain what a “wet goods” store is—more like Goody Goody or Bed, Bath and Beyond?)

Dallas’ First Capitalist

In 1855, Alexander Cockrell (who had purchased Bryan’s interest in Dallas for $7,000) built a saw mill and general store. When he died a few years later in a shootout with the city marshall, his widow Sarah built a flour mill and a three-story brick hotel called the St. Nicholas. But Sarah’s greatest contribution was the iron bridge she had constructed over the Trinity at Commerce, linking Dallas to Oak Cliff. Not only did it link all roads north and south, but we can thank Sarah for our being able to go to Norma’s, Mamma Connie’s, and Aunt Stelle’s without having to swim for it.

In 1884 Sarah opened the Sarah Cockrell Addition, a residential subdivision adjacent to The Cedars just south of downtown. A year later, she and her son commissioned the construction of the five-story Cockrell Office Building. In 1889, she handled 53 land transactions. Upon her death in 1892, she owned almost a fourth of the buildings downtown and several thousand acres in Dallas County. She is widely regarded as Dallas’ first capitalist, though many men can still be heard arguing over weekday lunch at Fearing’s that they should have won the title instead.

Traveling missionaries preached to Protestants for years in Dallas, while the first Episcopalian parish organized in 1856, and the first Catholics Mass was said here in 1859. Many churches were subsequently built, including Lamar Street Methodist (renamed First Methodist), City Temple Presbyterian, and First Baptist, all in 1886. The first Catholic Parish, under the Galveston Diocese, was organized in 1872, while Temple Emanu-El came in 1873. Dallas became a stalwart religious stronghold by the turn of the century and was well on its way to becoming the strapping Western waist of the Bible Belt. (Can I get an “Amen!”?)

Fire broke out in the spring of 1856 in the town square at the W. W. Peak Brothers Drugstore and destroyed most of the buildings. Suspicions as to who was responsible for the blaze fell upon three African-American slaves (who were hung), and two abolitionist preachers from Iowa who were whipped and run out of town (not on a rail—they’d have to come back 16 years later for that). Resilient merchants rebuilt most of the stores within nine months. A photographer and a barber set up shop in 1859. If they bartered services, there should be a daguerreotype or grainy picture somewhere of a guy with a really bad haircut.

The population of Dallas had grown to 678 by 1860. Dallas citizens voted by a three to one margin for secession in 1861, and on June 8 of that year, a state of war was declared. Dallas was one of eleven quartermaster posts in Texas in the Trans-Mississippi Army of the Confederacy. Troops amassed and drilled, and a munitions factory was built. As the Union Army ultimately approached Louisiana and Mississippi during the War, tons of cotton were shipped to and stored in Dallas that would have otherwise been routed to those states. Because Dallas was far from the fighting, sympathizers gave the Confederates money, flour, and supplies (as well as money collected from the sale of “Forget Hell!” bumper stickers and bobble head Li’l Generals).

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, many ex-slaves flocked to Dallas, as the city had remained intact and prosperous compared with many other southern cities like Atlanta that lay in ruin. They lived in freedman’s towns on the edge of the city—the most significant one spanned from Woodall Rogers north into Uptown. One of their cemeteries was re-discovered in the 1990’s during the widening of Central Expressway—it is located at the southwest corner of Lemmon Avenue and Central. All surface evidence of the site and its 1,100 graves had been covered up before or during the construction of Central Expressway in the late 1940’s. It is one of the largest freedman’s cemeteries in the United States.

Many white southerners also came here—they could no longer afford large plantations (frankly Scarlet, I don’t give a damn), but surrounding farm land offered them opportunities for a new start. Dallas also became the center of the leather and buffalo markets. Tatonka!

In 1867, Captain James McGarvey piloted a steamship from Galveston up the Trinity to Dallas—and it took him 12 months to do it. This would be the first of many efforts to navigate the Trinity, including at least seven feeble attempts by Mike Wyatt. Dallas also built a steamship, the Sallie Haynes, which made a few forays up to the northern reaches of the Trinity before it sank. (Officials from Carnival Cruise Lines were not available for comment as of blog-posting time).

The key to economic growth has always been better transportation. The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. With the pounding of a golden spike at Promontory, Utah, passengers no longer had to spend arduous and dangerous months traveling and $1,000 or more to get from New York to San Francisco—that same distance could now be traversed in “less time than needed for a bath” (a week), and for a mere $70-150, depending on whether you rode emigrant or first class. The first train of the Houston and Pacific railroad reached Dallas a few years later in 1872, and the Texas and Pacific chugged in a year after that, thereby making Dallas a key rail crossroads and bigger than Petticoat Junction, though Uncle Joe may disagree.

The railroad traffic and ease of access to Dallas helped the population more than double to 7,000+ in a nine-month period. New businesses and buildings sprang up daily, and there was an immense housing shortage. Telegraph lines connected Little D to the outside world for the first time. Tremendous amounts of grain and cotton were being shipped north and east to manufacturing plants. Elm Street became the center of the cotton market. Water and gas utilities were hooked up to homes and businesses, gas lamps lit the streets, and the first volunteer fire department, Dallas Hook and Ladder No. 1 was organized. Telephones came in 1881 and electricity in 1882. Collectively, this meant that you could finally see at night to call the Fire Department when you were sitting in a hot bath being electrocuted.

Shady Characters

All of this prosperity and growth attracted some shady characters. Belle Starr began her adventures in Dallas as a dance hall singer and dancer. She sold stolen horses and harbored wanted men. But Annie Wilson had already started to earn her fame as “the wickedest woman in Dallas” (please don’t send me additional nominees—I have my own list). Annie ran her first “Go Crazy On You” brothel, or “begnio,” as it was known, at 1112 Jackson Street. An 1880 census showed 13 women “boarders” in another of her houses on S. Market Street, and her profession was listed as “ill fame.”

City records show her being fined $100-$500 per month for the better part of 15 years. One jury foreman noted, “The offenders against the ordinances prohibiting gambling and public prostitution are arraigned before the City Court about once a month, a nominal fine and costs imposed, and they are turned loose upon the community to ply their nefarious trades for, perhaps, a month longer. This appears to amount, in effect, to a license.”

Opium was commonly smoked in these dens of inequity, and in 1893 at the overripe but relatively young age of 43, Madame Annie died of “softening of the brain.” (I have this, but at least I’ve gotten 10 more years in than she did). Other residents of interest included Doc Holliday, who came to Dallas to recuperate and opened a dentist’s office at the current Bryan Tower site. Doc soon transcended dental medication and went back to his gambling ways. Sam Bass robbed four trains in the Spring of 1878, but was shot and killed four months later near Round Rock.

The Dallas Independent School District was officially formed in 1884 and outraged citizens surprisingly didn’t make immediate calls for the Superintendent’s resignation. (Go Mike, go!). There were six segregated schools operating at the time: four for whites and two for blacks. Booker T. Washington was known as “Colored School No. 2” until it was renamed after the turn of the century.

The first edition of The Dallas Morning News was printed on October 1, 1885. Under the guidance of George Bannerman Dealy, it soon became the leading paper. In 1888, the two existing evening papers, The Dallas Daily Herald and The Dallas Daily Times merged to form The Dallas Daily Times-Herald. The Times-Herald couldn’t compete head-on with the DMN, so it came out in the afternoon and focused on local stories. The competition between the papers would remain strong until The Times-Herald closed during the doldrums of 1991.

Occasional fairs had been held since 1859 where businessmen set up displays. But in 1886, the fair was greatly enlarged and held at a new site in East Dallas, the current-day Fair Park, thus starting the tradition that many of us now enjoy. The first corny dogs made their debut for 2 cents: cornmeal dipped, deep-fried miniature dachshund puppies impaled on sticks. (OK—I made that up. I really do love animals—they’re delicious!) Horse racing was one of the main attractions at the fair, and the racing continued until 1909. Hoooooowwwddddy folks—and they’re off!

The first official baseball game came in 1877, when Dallasites played a touring team. By 1882, the semi-pro Brown Stockings (having had the crap scared out of them in extra innings) emerged and won the league championship for the next two years. The Dallas Hams (who ate only pork and loved the limelight) won the Texas League pennant in 1888. The Dallas Football Club was formed in 1891, and a team from Dallas High School is widely thought to have been the first high school football team in Texas. Cheerleaders in skimpy outfits that would suggestively and wildly gyrate on the field didn’t come until later in the 20th Century.

By 1890, Dallas had turned into Big D. It had annexed areas east of the city’s current central business district and was the most populous city in Texas, boasting 38,067 residents. The new Old Red Court House was completed in 1892. During this last quarter of the century, business leaders like William Gaston and William Cabel grew banking and insurance sectors to emerge as major industries. Cotton and longhorn cattle had also become major sources of wealth. The look, the feel—of cattle!

The period from 1850-1900 not only spawned the wickedest woman in Dallas, but was perhaps the most important 50-year span in the history of the city. But on January 10, 1901, in a little-known place called Spindletop just south of Beaumont, a derrick erupted—with awl, that is, black gold, Texas tea—which would enrich Dallas residents, further grow and transform the city, and forever change the future of Dallas, Texas and the world. In my next blog, we’ll take a look at Big D in the early 20th century—roughnecks, leathernecks, and longnecks!

Riis Christensen is a senior vice president of tenant advisory services at Transwestern who enjoys (putting things in parenthesis) and in “quotes” and purchasing wet goods. He refrains, however, from smoking opium and frequenting begnios.

Source info: Jackie McElhaney and Michael V. Hazel, Dallas, TX, “The Handbook of Texas Online”; The Texas State Historical Association; Sam Hanna Acheson, “Dallas Yesterday”; William L. McDonald, “Dallas Rediscovered: A Photographic Chronicle of Urban Expansion”; Darwin Payne, “Dallas: An Illustrated History”; John William Rogers, “The Lusty Texans of Dallas”; WPA Writer’s Program, “The WPA Dallas Guide and History”; Dallas Historical Society, “Topics in Dallas History”; Stephen Ambrose, “Nothing Like it in the World: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad”; Ancestry.com, “Ancestry.com/jwheat/adair columns/adair19apr1925”; and Wikipedia, “Dallas.”