Bud Kennedy

Butch, Sundance & the Wild Bunch in bronze: reliving saloons, bordellos and ‘Hell’s Half Acre’

When Wild West outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came to hide out in Fort Worth’s bawdy “Hell’s Half Acre” saloons, the only shooting was in a Main Street portrait studio.

That photo session Nov. 21, 1900, produced both a famous wanted poster and a legend that later helped downtown Fort Worth cash in.

Yet the donor of a new Houston Street wall bronze of Cassidy and the “Wild Bunch” insists that he is honoring only the iconic photograph — not the gang’s history as bankrobbers and trainrobbers.

“The picture is what’s important — this is what got some of them caught,” said George Cravens, a neurosurgeon and owner of the historic Flatiron Building next door to the sculpture, 1006 Houston St.

“This is one of the most important photos in history. I know I’ll catch hell over it — just like I’ll catch hell for having a plaque about Hell’s Half Acre.”

Fort Worth long ago chose to celebrate its rough-and-tumble frontier past as a saloon stopover on cattle drives toward the Chisholm Trail. The story of the Old West is one of both outlaws and heroic law officers, and the same goes for the Wild Bunch photo.

Now we know more about how the photo by Fort Worth-based Western photographer John Swartz helped get the robbers caught.

It was chief detective Charles R. Scott of the Fort Worth police, not a private detective, who saw it in Swartz’s lobby, upstairs at 705 1/2 Main St. Scott wired the Denver office of Pinkerton detective agency.

Historians can only guess why the gang posed in fancy suits and bowler hats. Most theories involve alcohol.

They were living in young Elizabeth Maddox’s hotel upstairs over a grocery at 1014 1/2 Main St., a block from the new sculpture and inside a Hell’s Half Acre saloon district that by then encompassed most of the south end of downtown.

Fort Worth historian Richard F. Selcer, author of the definitive book on “Hell’s Half Acre” (TCU Press, 1991), guessed in a 2011 magazine article that the outlaws may have been celebrating one gang member’s engagement and bought suits and bowlers at the downtown Washer Bros. store, 900 Main St.

The Main Street buildings are gone now, and the remaining saloons and bordellos were demolished in 1967 to build what is now the Fort Worth Convention Center.

In 1994, Cravens bought the nearby Flatiron Building, a wedge-shaped, seven-story office tower built in 1907 for early-day surgeon Bacon Saunders, dean of what later became the TCU medical school. Saunders is credited with performing the first appendectomy in Texas.

The Flatiron is one of few historic buildings remaining near the Acre, which flourished 40 years but dwindled with World War I. The Flatiron houses Cravens’ medical office and other offices, with new condominiums next door along with a remodeled hotel, now a Fairfield Inn & Suites.

Cravens commissioned New Orleans artist Franco Alessandrini to craft what began as a fiberglass sculpture. Alessandrini also sculpted the Panther Fountain in nearby Hyde Park, which remembers the 1875 myth that an imaginary “sleeping panther” must have left an outline seen in the dust at the southwest corner of Houston and Weatherford streets.

“This end of town doesn’t have as much to see as Sundance Square, and we have all these hotels now and tourists,” Cravens said.

He originally wanted to put a Wild Bunch sculpture in the park, but decided it needed protection from weather.

Tourists have already taken to the sculpture, sitting in Butch Cassidy’s or the Sundance Kid’s lap.

(Legend has it that “Butch,” Utah outlaw Robert Leroy Parker, and “Sundance,” Wyoming outlaw Harry Longabaugh, only robbed banks and trains and never killed anyone until a final shootout with soldiers in Bolivia in 1908. Other gang members did, including Wild Bunch leader Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan, standing at back right in the photo and sculpture.)

As soon as the sculpture went up, social media gripers began complaining that we remember bankrobbers and trainrobbers but not Confederate leaders from the Civil War.

I can explain that.

First, this is Fort Worth. We remember the Wild West here and a dusty blufftop Army outpost on the Western frontier. Let other cities have the South.

Second, the South lost. Going to war against the United States was wrong and dumb in the first place, and set us back for years. Those markers belong in cemeteries, to make sure the Confederacy stays dead.

“That’s one of those discussions we’ll have as long as there is a Fort Worth,” Cravens said.

Along with one famous photo.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy