Friday, December 31, 2010
Between 1870 and 1913, roughly the years which now represent the Old West, there was a certain section of Austin, Texas which was referred to as “Guy Town.” Its southern edge ran along the old banks of the Colorado River northward to what is now 4th or 5th Street, and ran east to west from Congress Avenue to Guadalupe. The old city thought of the area as its First Ward, but folks at the time merely called it the “jungles,” or just plain “Guy Town.” If people called the neighborhood by different names, they all knew what went on there. It was, in fact, Austin’s red-light district.
The community was populated with saloons, gambling houses, dance halls, and of course, brothels, where the “ladies of the evening,” of several different ethnic groups, went about their work. To be sure, the world’s oldest profession was alive and well in Austin in those days, buoyed by the steady influx of rural workers who came into town from the farms and cattle ranches to “kick up their heels.” But, the farm boys and young ranch hands weren’t the only ones sowing their wild oats. Austin was then, and is now, where the Texas State Capitol is located. When the state legislature was in session, Austin became a destination point for office seekers, businessmen, and others seeking favors or special privileges from the elected officials of Texas. Despite the illegality of it all, some legislators, lawyers, and businessmen, seemed to find their way to Guy Town in the evenings to compete for the affections of the ladies. It is not known what the regular patrons thought - those being the ranch hands, farm boys, soldiers, laborers, and drifters - about this additional competition, but it probably is a good guess that they weren’t too pleased. It’s just conjecture on my part, but I’m sure they didn’t have the same kind of money to throw around as the more “sophisticated” and wealthy clientele.
As time went on, Guy Town became Austin’s focal point for scandal, noise, loud music, fights, and disturbances of every sort imaginable. Murders were common, and during one period of time between 1884 and 1885, a serial killer, who has come to be called, the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” prowled the streets of Austin, including Guy Town, dispatching his 8 victims with his favorite weapon, an axe. As quickly as the killings had begun, they ended, and the killer disappeared. Some have speculated that he escaped and became the famous “Jack the Ripper,” who terrorized London in 1888. We’ll probably never know for sure, but it makes for an interesting theory.
It would be wrong to leave the impression that Guy Town was an area only devoted to vices, commotion, and criminal activity. Far from being the case, reputable businesses thrived in Guy Town throughout the period of its notoriety. One such business was owned by the Schneider Family, who operated a general store at the corner of Guadalupe and 2nd Streets. The store sold a wide range of items, including, clothing, wine, whiskey, meat, cheese, and other food. Remarkably, the building is still in existence today, and remains the only building left from the Guy Town era. Even more remarkable, is that it is still owned by the Schneider Family.
Eventually, all bad things, as well as good, come to an end, and Guy Town was no exception. In many ways, Guy Town is a symbol of the rise and fall of the Old West. Like the other famous red-light districts in Texas which thrived during nearly the same time frame – Houston’s “Hollow,” El Paso’s “Utah Street,” Fort Worth’s “Hell’s Half Acre,” Waco’s “Two Street,” and “Frogtown,” in Dallas – it fell victim to a rising tide of national sentiment against not only prostitution, but gambling and the abuse of alcohol as well. Led by religious leaders, and women’s groups, the end of the Old West, and all that went with it – the tacit acceptance of wanton violence in many places, the reluctance to charge or convict felons, corrupt law enforcement and judicial officials, overt prostitution, saloons, heavy drinking, legal gambling, and public hangings in and around county jails – soon disappeared from the scene.
The Old West, as we know it, was a relatively short period of time lasting from the end of the Civil War in 1865, until 1910 or so. In the grand scheme of the Mandate of Heaven, it didn’t really last that long. But the impact that this period has had upon the rest of the world’s perception of the United States, and, the perception we have of ourselves, will live on for a very long time indeed.