Dig This

Amateur archeologist Alex Troup has some advice for those who would bring life back to downtown Dallas: The answers are under your feet.

There, just beneath the topsoil on a vacant downtown lot where an outhouse once stood, Alex Troup found a trove of gloriously bawdy objects, most of them dating to the late 1800s.

The first items that captured Troup's imagination were the tiny, tubular-shaped glass vials. One had "Burnett's Cocaine" stamped into its aqua-colored glass. Another, manufactured in Germany, bore the word "Tropfen," which means to drip or leak. Troup had seen these types of vials before. He believes they contained opium drops, which were commonly sold at pharmacies in the late 1800s. Other objects, including a bullet casing, suggested that the people who used this outhouse were a little shady. But it was the perfume bottles, along with a woman's hatpin and a French douche, that really got Troup thinking.

"We're definitely focusing on the female attire," Troup says.

Amateur archeologist Alex Troup believes Dallasites once used these rocks as toilet paper. He has other thoughts on Dallas history just as likely to rub some the wrong way.
Mark Graham
Amateur archeologist Alex Troup believes Dallasites once used these rocks as toilet paper. He has other thoughts on Dallas history just as likely to rub some the wrong way.
Want to know what a vibrant downtown Dallas looks like? This turn-of-the-19th-century street scene gives you a clue.
Want to know what a vibrant downtown Dallas looks like? This turn-of-the-19th-century street scene gives you a clue.

Then Troup found an item that brought everything into focus. It was a madam's oval pendant featuring the image of a woman baring her breasts, though not quite her nipples. As Troup examined the piece, he recalled late-19th-century photographs of whorehouses. Women in those pictures wore these types of ornaments. Finally, Troup knew what he had unearthed.

"This was not just a regular neighborhood," he says. "This was a bordello."

This was in May, and Troup, an amateur archeologist, was in downtown Dallas doing what he does for fun: conducting a stealth dig. Troup did not have permission to enter the dirt lot, though no fences or signs were erected to keep people out. During the five months he was there, nobody asked Troup what he was doing, and he didn't talk about what he found, until now.

By the time Troup wrapped up his dig in September, he had found a Civil War-era whiskey flask, dominoes made from bones, a harmonica reed and the fractured remains of a doll's head. It made sense. Where there are prostitutes, Troup notes, there are bastards.

Today, the site is covered by a parking structure behind the George Allen courts building. The land is owned by a subsidiary of Belo Corp., parent company of The Dallas Morning News and WFAA-TV.

The irony made Troup giddy. If he could confirm his discovery, it would mean that Belo, creator of the "Family First" school of journalism, the virtuous captain of Big D's pompom squad, was built on land that was the city's first red-light district.

After inventorying his treasures, Troup spent the next four months investigating who owned and occupied the land. He discovered that the area was one of the city's first black neighborhoods, dense with homes, saloons and theaters. Fannie Howard, a mixed-race woman, once operated a boarding house on the site and became one of Dallas' most notorious women of the night.

The story of Fannie Howard is just the type of history Troup believes Dallas historians and civic boosters don't want to hear. To polish the city's reputation as a straight-laced business town, built by God-fearing do-gooders, these boosters embrace a false history, Troup contends. As evidence, he points to the longhorn sculpture that stands outside the Dallas Convention Center. Dallas, Troup notes, was never a cow town.

As much as they don't want to hear this story, Troup says the timing couldn't be better, given the debate over whether Dallas taxpayers should fork over money to build a park and other projects intended to reinvent the city's moribund downtown. If Dallas boosters would take a look at what he found, Troup says, they would see the origins of a once-thriving entertainment district that by the 1940s had evolved into exactly what they crave: a vibrant core where people worked all day and played all night.

Other cities--New Orleans, San Francisco, even Galveston--celebrate their wild pasts with plaques, meticulously restored buildings and guided tours. But Troup doesn't expect Dallas leaders to listen. They're too busy passing no-smoking ordinances and putting the heat on convention-center officials who have the audacity to take clients to strip clubs. That's OK, Troup says, they can go on pretending that nothing seedy ever goes on in this town.

"The dig reveals that we're not learning from our human history anymore," Troup says. "The city may as well go on and forget its history. I think we've lost the battle because Dallas is a boring city."


Troup's theory that Dallas historians have conspired to conceal the past's darker side is an allegation some of them deny. Among them is Tom Smith, who is putting together the contents of Old Red Museum of Dallas County History and Culture, scheduled to open next year in the Old Red Courthouse.

"There's no great conspiracy or conscientious attempt to cover that up," Smith says. "It's a matter of what historians want to look at."

At the same time, Smith admits that Dallas tends to focus on its better side. "Dallas has always been a big booster city," Smith says. "It's always talking about itself and how good it is. Dallas has done that for a long time, with the Chamber of Commerce and all of its antecedents. They would really pump up the city."

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