Dig This

Keep Dallas Observer Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Dallas and help keep the future of Dallas Observer free.

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.

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."

Smith, who has published an article about a drug epidemic that swept through Dallas in the late 1800s, argues that historians have recognized the city's history of vice. For reading material, he recommends a book about Isadore Callaway, otherwise known as "Pauline Periwinkle." She was a turn-of-the-century Morning News columnist who advocated women's suffrage and later became president of the Dallas Federation of Women's Clubs.

The suggestion makes Troup's stomach turn.

"That's the most hideous crap that's ever popped out from an elephant's tail," Troup says. Oh, sure, Callaway was a commendable sort--a social reformer who held bake sales and donated the proceeds to charity. Her story, Troup says, is exactly the kind of historical treacle Dallas boosters use to clean up the city's reputation.

One Dallas historian who has delved into the city's bawdy past is Darwin Payne, author of Big D--Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century. Payne dedicates eight pages of his book to the "Reservation," a neighborhood north of Troup's dig that later became Little Mexico. Payne discovered that the Dallas City Charter specifically designated the area as a red-light district in the early 1900s. At the time, an estimated 240 to 400 women worked there.

Payne's material on the Reservation, however, mostly focuses on J.T. Upchurch, a Dallas preacher who led a crusade against prostitution that ended in 1913 when Dallas police forcibly evicted the women from their homes, shutting down the Reservation. Asked whether Dallas historians have intentionally concealed this aspect of Dallas history, Payne initially starts to say they haven't, but stops. He pauses.

"Well, here's what I would say," Payne continues. "After [the Reservation] was shut down, Dallas was so concerned for so many years about its image that it shut out those things. By the time the '60s came along, there was nobody around to remember it because they hadn't been reading any references to it. It's like the Ku Klux Klan in Dallas--it had been 'forgotten.' We didn't want that sort of image."

Like Troup, Payne agrees that this side of the city's history has been ignored. That's why he wrote his book.

"With Big D, I wanted to show that Dallas has a very interesting, lively past. We have glossed over it for so many years, trying to put forth this very positive image," Payne says. "When we did that, Dallas became plain vanilla."


"I think it's perceived to be boring," Payne says. "But I don't think it has a boring history."

"I am a creative spirit in this city," Troup says. "I represent urban history and recovery."

Troup is sitting behind an antique desk in the living room of his Oak Cliff apartment. The tiny run-down pad is packed with brown boxes containing carefully wrapped objects Troup has unearthed over the past 20 years.

Troup holds no college degrees, but his ability to unearth pieces of Dallas history has been recognized by the Dallas County Pioneer Association and cited in numerous newspaper articles. At 42, Troup is unemployed, though he used to work for Dallas County as a clerk. Sometimes Troup gets paid to conduct research, and he makes some money selling the objects he digs up. Mostly, though, he lives like a magician. "I levitate between paper and plastic," he says. Cash and credit.

While Troup could be accused of living in the past, he is not oblivious to what's happening today. He knows there's a new party going on downtown, and he didn't get invited. The problem is, Troup can't afford to partake in the version of fun that Dallas serves up so well: The opera. The symphony. Days spent shopping, nights feasting on white tablecloths. Loft living at $1,400 a month.

Instead, Troup watches in horror as his hometown grows into a city that has less room for him. Troup isn't even safe in his own home: His apartment building has a new owner who's planning to renovate. Like downtown, Troup is about to get gentrified.

"I love the future," Troup says. "I just hate progress."

Troup knows that one man cannot turn back progress. But one man can try to salvage history. That's why he digs.

Troup presents an 1888 map of downtown on which he has marked the spot of his dig. The site is located two blocks south of Old Red along Market Street, bounded by Jackson Street on the north and Wood Street on the south.

Troup unseals one of his boxes. Out come the opium vial and an empty bottle of "Thompson's Wild Cherry" imprinted with the description "A hygienic phosphate." "That's a cure-all," Troup says, "like snake oil."

In the late 1800s, cocaine, opium and prostitution weren't only legal, they were part of the entertainment. Troup brings out the cocaine bottle and a soda pop bottle manufactured by the "Dallas Bottling Co."

"If you mixed the three elements--soda pop, cocaine and ice--you had a wonderful drink," Troup says. "The party was going. The party would go all night."

When he was digging, Troup says, the ground itself suggested that he had discovered an outhouse--human waste turned the red clay into sand--but he didn't know for sure until he went to the Dallas County Records Building. There he found the map from 1888, and another from 1899, that clearly shows a boarding house, complete with outhouse.

A theater marked "colored variety" occupied the block directly north of Troup's dig site. It was accompanied by another boarding house and three saloons. More saloons and more boarding houses filled the surrounding blocks, all of which the maps categorized as "Negro dwellings."

Before the turn of the century, Fannie Howard showed up in city directories as residing on Austin Street, closer to the theater. But in 1904 Howard moved to Market Street, where she bought two lots.

A "c" in the city directory denoted that Howard was colored. Troup didn't know what her occupation was until a friend gave him an 1893 article from the front page of the Dallas Times Herald. It opened up a new mystery.



And There is Said to Be a Mystery Connected With His Sudden Exit from This Vale of Tears--Story of Fannie Howard, the Woman in the Case.

Those were the headlines. The story got more outrageous.

Waves of crime continue to roll over this county, and the number of people who have died with their boots on during the past twelve months, is appalling. Fanny Howard is a half-breed, a cross between Indian and African. Her father was a Cherokee and her mother a negress, and Fanny inherited all the vices and none of the virtue of both races. She is one of the noted women of town and keeps a bagnio at the foot of Austin street, where her dusky courtesans receive the attention of dissolute white men. At an early hour, yesterday morning, Fanny was shot through both thighs, and Albert W. Grant, her white lover, just above the heart. The shooting took place in an alley near the Howard residence.

Howard told the newspaper that Grant had a falling-out with his family and was down on his luck. She called his death a suicide.

I gave him a $5 bill and told him to get it changed. He did not return and I found him at a saloon, drinking. He refused to go to the house with me, and I snatched his hat from his head and ran home. He walked around the block and walked into the alley close to my house. I followed him, and he said: "Don't come near me, or I will kill you."

Howard approached him anyway.

He shot me twice and then shot himself.

Evidently, nobody bought Howard's story. Instead, they believed a "rival" in the house, perhaps another lover, shot Howard and then turned the gun on Grant. Police did find the murder weapon, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson that Mollie Cotton, "a woman of the town," later turned over.

A follow-up story reported that police officials confirmed Grant was murdered, a fact that rendered Fannie Howard a liar. Although a grand jury investigated the case, the outcome is unknown.

The shooting, however, was hardly an isolated event. Dallas was filled with people who had a strong thirst for vice: "cocaine fiends," "whiskey fiends," "morphine fiends" and "cigarette fiends," as the newspaper described them. In fact, the presence of sober people on the streets was so rare that it was news, according to the January 3, 1893, Times Herald.

Not a drunken man appeared on the streets yesterday. In the "good old days," every gentleman got drunk New Years.

Nowadays, most people trace the city's economic origins to cotton and, more important, the discovery of oil in East Texas, which in the 1930s made Dallas home to a new class of millionaires. The city's first boom, however, grew out of the sale of buffalo parts in the 1860s, followed by the arrival of the railroad in the 1870s, according to the WPA Dallas Guide and History, a book compiled in the late 1930s by the federal Work Projects Administration.

By 1869, the buffalo trade turned Dallas into a raging party town, according to the WPA.

"The Dallas of the late sixties and early seventies was no longer the peaceful settlement of antebellum days but was a booming, roistering western frontier town--crowded, noisy, uncouth and disorderly, full of strangers and bustling confusion, its unpaved streets choked with pedestrians, horsemen and wagons, and with a life as raw as the whiskey sold in the barrooms that never closed their doors."

In 1870, the federal census gave Dallas a population of just 3,000, though the WPA estimated that the number was much higher because the city was filled with transients. Dallas builders couldn't keep pace with the demand for construction.

"Gambling halls and saloons solidly occupied the whole north side of Main Street from Houston to Austin Streets, and the southwestern part of the town was thickly dotted with dance halls," the WPA reported. "These rough emporiums of frontier vice never closed and the music in them never ceased, except when it was momentarily interrupted by an exchange of pistol shots."

Despite the efforts of reformers like J.T. Upchurch, the prostitutes did not go away, and neither did the gamblers or other purveyors of vice. In fact, when Troup unearthed Fannie Howard's trash, what he found was the beginnings of a city that would evolve into a destination resort for thrill seekers of every sort. By the 1930s Dallas had become a modern city filled with local retailers, restaurateurs and white-collar professionals.

When he was a kid, Jim Gatewood loved it when his dad took him to work with him at the Mercantile Building. "It was always such an adventure going to downtown Dallas," Gatewood recalls. "I used to go up there and make airplanes and sail them out the window and watch them go for miles.

"The town was alive, and the streets were full," Gatewood says. "There was a Planter's peanut storefront down there. They were always roasting those peanuts down there, and it smelled so good on the street."

When he got older, Gatewood began to take note of the other forms of entertainment offered, particularly gambling and prostitution run out of glitzy downtown hotels. Gatewood's memories of these days are included in The Legend of Benny Binion, Dallas Gambler and Mob Boss, a book he published last year. It tells the story of how Benny Binion rose to the top of the city's gambling industry before he moved to Las Vegas and opened the infamous Horseshoe Casino.

People may not know it today, but back then Dallas was a destination. "It was Vegas before its time," Gatewood says. "Anything you wanted you could get in Dallas."

The death of downtown Dallas was a slow process that continued through the 1970s. At times, like during the real estate boom in the early 1980s, Dallas didn't seem sick at all. Then the Texas banking crisis hit. Like an atom bomb, it decimated the city's financial institutions.

One businessman who survived is Ken Hughes, the mastermind behind the successful Mockingbird Station development, home of the Angelika movie theater. Seated in his Highland Park office, Hughes is joined by former Neiman Marcus executive Keith Nix, who currently represents the Downtown Partnership Inc., a group of private developers busy devising plans to bring downtown back to life.

Hughes is a member of Mayor Laura Miller's Inside the Loop Committee, which is now leading the charge to reinvent downtown. The irony is not lost on Hughes: A former developer for Trammell Crow, Hughes helped kill downtown by building high-end suburban shopping malls such as NorthPark.

Nix, who did his part by opening up Neiman Marcus branch stores in some of those malls, calls it an accident. "Highland Park Village was the first self-contained shopping center in the country. And so, strangely as it seems, we were innovative in that suburban mentality," Nix says. "We sort of shot ourselves in the foot."

Well, now they're back. In December, Nix's group announced that an Austin-based restaurant, the Iron Cactus, will open a new 14,000-square-foot restaurant on Main Street. Hughes, meanwhile, is hoping to build more downtown high-end residences or "house tops," as he calls them. All great cities--Paris, New York, Chicago--have vibrant neighborhoods, and if downtown Dallas wants to be great, Hughes says, it, too, must have a neighborhood. His will look like Georgetown.

"Unless I've missed the point here in 35 years of doing shopping-center development, I'd have to say that uniformly retail follows house tops," Hughes says. "Retailers will naturally converge downtown if there are people living down there."

The problem with Dallas, Hughes says, is it's "fractured." While there are "pockets of sophistication," in which shoppers can buy the best high-end goods in the world, there is no one place that makes Dallas a destination spot. That one place, Hughes says, should be downtown.

"All of the things that we say we're doing is acting like downtown is the place to be, but when somebody comes from out of town they go down there and say, "Well, what's the deal?'" Hughes says. "And so what do they have to do? They go get in the car and go shop in Highland Park or get in the car and go to NorthPark."

Brandt Wood couldn't agree more. At noon on a Friday, diners are beginning to filter into Jeroboam, an "urban brasserie" located inside the historic Kirby Building on Main Street. When Wood and his brother Brady opened the place in September 2000, it was the first time in years that anyone had risked opening a white-tablecloth restaurant downtown.

Wood, a transplant from New Orleans, is a fan of Hughes, but he thinks Dallas suffers from a major inferiority complex. Its boosters are constantly gazing into a mirror, hopelessly praying that the image of a New Yorker or a Parisian will stare back. It is time, Wood says, for Dallas to accept itself for what it is and has been.

"The downtown renaissance is rooted in a rich past that's hard to put your finger on because we're missing so much of it," Wood says. "Where's the true grit? Where can I look that shows me what Dallas is really made of? I'm not sure Dallas has ever really seen itself in the full light of day."

The Wood brothers are not waiting around for a park. A year after Jeroboam opened, they went across the street and opened a funky underground nightclub called Umlaut. Thanks to them, people can be spotted having fun at night on the streets of downtown Dallas. Still, Wood admits that the entertainment he serves up isn't cheap (Jeroboam's menu includes three types of caviar). Will the new downtown become a playground for the rich? Wood isn't sure, but he hopes not.

But Hughes says its naïve to think that downtown can be renovated at a cost that will leave room for wage slaves.

"I don't think anybody should be so idealistic as to be unrealistic as to what drives real estate development in any city," Hughes says.

That's not to say, Nix adds, that people of all income levels won't have a good reason to go downtown. "The working people who can't afford to live there can always take public transportation down there for various forms of employment."

Back in his apartment, Troup says he is not an advocate for drugs and prostitution, but he doesn't think downtown will ever be vibrant until its boosters embrace people like Fannie Howard. Then maybe, Troup says, they could stop being so hypocritical about what goes in this city.

Take, for example, the WFAA-TV reports that had city leaders in a tizzy this fall: Convention-center officials took clients to a strip club on the taxpayers' dimes. What, Troup wonders, do people think is the reason conventioneers come to Dallas? To visit the grassy knoll and eat barbecue ribs in the West End?

And, Troup continues, it wouldn't hurt things one bit if Dallas residents would stop pretending that they were born into some sort of European nobility that happens to be located in Texas. They either weren't born here at all or, if they were, their ancestors were poor, backward folk. In fact, Troup theorizes they were so backward that they used to wipe their butts with rocks.

Troup disappears into a back room and returns with a tiny basket filled with rocks he excavated.

"Here's my butt rock," Troup says, offering the specimen up for inspection. "See that brown stuff there, it's kind of yellow? That's your traditional 120-year-old feces. It's harmless. I wouldn't stick it in your mouth."

The rock is not like those he usually finds in Dallas because it appears to have been handcrafted. At first he didn't pay much attention to it, or others like it, but when he realized he was digging in an old outhouse, he got to thinking. What if they didn't have toilet paper or leaves or rags handy? Wouldn't they have just used whatever was lying around? The more he thought about it, the more he was certain. His rocks, Troup says, are butt rocks.

Kathleen Wheeler is the director of Independent Archaeological Consulting, a New Hampshire-based consulting firm that specializes in urban archeology, including the excavation of outhouses. Wheeler says she has never come across any references to butt rocks.

"Everybody's heard about the Sears catalog and other perishable materials that seem to be more butt-friendly. People talk about using the left hand. People talk about using leaves. But I can't think of a one who has ever used a rock," Wheeler says. "The whole notion of butt rocks sounds odious to me."

Wheeler was, however, very interested to hear about the red light district Troup discovered. At the time she spoke with the Dallas Observer, Gangs of New York had just opened in movie theaters across the country. The movie is based, in part, on urban archeology that shed new light on the lives of poor immigrants who settled in the Five Points region of New York. The research is part of a new trend in urban archeology, Wheeler says.

"Archeologists have been guilty for a long time of studying the dead white men who were important. That has changed in the last 10, 20 years. We have begun looking at more black sites. Now we're looking at more poor, immigrant sites," Wheeler says.

The butt rocks aside, Wheeler says Troup's discovery could put him at the forefront of current urban archeological research, provided his findings could withstand peer review.

"If we have a madam who's part Cherokee and park black, the first question I ask myself is who were the clients?" Wheeler says. "Who were her prostitutes?"

Troup has the same questions and no answers. He was, however, able to find out what happened to Fannie Howard.

According to the Times Herald article about Albert Grant's death, Howard was a well-known madam, but Troup wanted to know how notorious she really was.

Very, it turns out.

Howard died on April 13, 1917. At the time, she was a relatively wealthy woman: Her estate was worth $24,500, equivalent to about $320,000 today. "For a black woman, that's a lot of money," Troup says.

The estate included a home at 3505 Griffin, in the same neighborhood that later became the Reservation. Howard, along with the rest of the city's prostitutes, had moved to the Reservation after the city designated it a red-light district. But unlike most of the prostitutes, who were evicted in 1913 when the city shut down the Reservation, Howard stayed behind.

Apparently, Howard continued to entertain until her death. Shortly before she died, she had invested in a Wurlitzer piano--a coin-operated amusement that was common in saloons and bordellos. She also had $2,200 in diamonds and jewelry.

"You know what precious stones were back then? Stolen goods, which she pawned," Troup says. "The Wurlitzer. The diamonds. She was a known criminal."

Howard was 61 years old when she died, and she went out with a bang. At her funeral, five six-passenger cars escorted Howard to her grave. In those days, at the dawn of the automobile age, hiring funeral cars was a big to-do, Troup says.

If he had the money, Troup says, he'd start a new investigation into Howard's sole survivor, Lena Howard, who unsuccessfully tried to claim the rights to her mother's estate. If he were lucky, he might be able to find a living relative. But Troup says he's broke and at the end of the trail.

He will, however, keep looking for more evidence to bolster his butt rock theory. To Troup, the butt rocks aren't just a fantastic notion about late-19th-century American toiletries: They are a symbol of the city's primitive roots, the physical incarnation of Dallas' soul--it's can do spirit.

"The butt rock," Troup explains, "is a symbol of how you came up from the earth. You try to do something more than just sit there and say, "I've got crap all over my ass.'"

Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.