Luke L. Short
Professional Gambler
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White Elephant Saloon

Fort Worth started out as a    military  camp in 1849, named after General William Jenkins Worth, during the closure of the Mexican-American War. It was established to protect 19th century settlers from Indian attacks. The fort then became a bustling town when it was abandoned by the military and became a stop along the legendary Chisholm Trail. Fort Worth became the center of the cattle drives, and later, the ranching industry. The hey day of the cattle drives was the wild era of "Hell's Half Acre," an area of town filled with gambling parlors, saloons, and dance halls. Later, the railroad transformed the Fort Worth Stockyards into a premier livestock center. And when oil began to gush in West Texas, Fort Worth was at the center of the wheeling and dealing.

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 Now used as shops, this is the original White elephant Saloon.


Fort Worth's White Elephant, site of more than a few gunfights,was a true Western saloon. The saloon was first and foremost a men-only establishment where drinking and gambling were the main attractions, not retail sex. Most gentlemen's saloons (there were other types, too) would not serve proper ladies and frowned upon the other kind of women hanging around the premises. The origin of the name is uncertain but Fort Worth's White Elephant staked its claim to fame on offering the highest quality gambling and food service anywhere in the Southwest for three decades.

The Fort Worth establishment began as a simple eatery, opened by F.A. Borodino in 1884 in the 300 block of Main Street. The food was inferior to that at two nearby places -- the Planter's House and the Commercial Restaurant -- and the owner's profits remained anemic, so the place was seized by attachment. Within a year, the White Elephant reopened as a "Saloon and Billiard Parlor" with a small restaurant attached. The new ownership consisted of Jewish businessmen Gabriel Burgower, Nathaniel Bornstein and Samuel Berliner, who were not accepted by the local business fraternity. None of the new owners ever put down roots in the community, which did not help business either. Traditionally, saloons were home owned and home operated, and an owner was expected to greet customers and mingle with the crowd. Burgower, who was the on-site manager, split his time between the saloon and his more profitable jewelry business two doors up the block. Bornstein ran the eatery competently but without the flair that would later become a hallmark of the White Elephant's dining room, and Berliner was an absentee partner who also had part interest in San Antonio's White Elephant Saloon.

A local lawyer named John Templeton actually owned title to the Main Street property, but he tried to keep his association with the saloon quiet while he was state attorney general. He was never a saloon man. It was Bill Ward who transformed the White Elephant into a drinking, gambling and eating emporium of near legendary status by introducing the sort of improvements they don't teach at Harvard Business School. He began by screening customers to keep out the riffraff that patronized dives down in Hell's Half Acre. He put doormen at the front door, hired special policemen to circulate inside and stop trouble before it erupted, and put out the word that the sort of floozies who freelanced out of the nearby cribs and cheap boarding houses were unwelcome. He also rearranged the place, moving the pool tables into a back room on the ground floor and setting up a cigar factory in the rear that produced "Billy Ward's Choice" cheroots, on sale for 5 cents apiece. Ward turned what had been a modest short-order kitchen into an elegant restaurant that attracted its own clientele. All the improvements were accompanied by an expansion, as the White Elephant took over the space next door and added a connecting doorway. Restaurant and bar area together now comprised 4,458 square feet, making it one of the largest saloons in Texas. This was reflected in the official address, which was now listed as 308-310 Main.

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The Luke Short Bar

Ward's next move was to shake up the management by bringing in big-name partners with ties to the gambling fraternity. The first was 36-year-old Jacob G. "Jake" Johnson, a former cattleman who had found more profitable and less grubby work investing in other people's business enterprises and collecting race horses on the side. In 1882, Jake Johnson described himself as a "capitalist"; by 1886 he was a self-styled "turfman," a fancy term for a man who kept a string of race horses. Eventually his wealth approached $60,000, making him one of Fort Worth's richest men. In the mid-1880s, he also ran the clubroom at the Cattle Exchange Saloon. Such a man was a fitting partner for Bill Ward, but Ward was still on the lookout for a third partner to bring both capital and instant credibility to the gambling operations. He wanted a big-name sport to act as pit boss upstairs. Fancy saloons routinely turned over their gambling concession to high-profile practitioners, such as the arrangement at one point between Tombstone's Oriental Saloon and Wyatt Earp. Ward found his man in Luke Short, who had moved to Forth Worth in late 1883.

Short landed in Fort Worth carrying a reputation that stretched from Tombstone to Dodge City. Known as a gentleman gambler like his friend Bat Masterson, the dapper Short was a wizard with the cards. But lest his preference for silk top hats and elegant walking canes deceive, he was also a bearcat in a fight, having already killed one challenger in Tombstone and stood up to a gambling cabal trying to run him out of Dodge. He never went anywhere unarmed, carrying his handgun in a leather-lined inner pocket.

Short had come to the little town on the Trinity River to make a fresh start, with a satchel full of cash and a long list of gambling contacts in his pocket. His search for a home base in his new town eventually brought him and Bill Ward together. Ward sold the gambling concession to "Little Luke," which made him one-third owner in the saloon, but more important gave him free rein upstairs. Short wasted no time putting his personal stamp on his fiefdom. He had the public area redecorated with fancy rosewood and mahogany fixtures shipped in from the East, thick carpets on the floor and heavy draperies over the windows.

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Saloon Token

He set up living quarters for himself and Mrs. Short adjacent to his workplace in a custom-built, two-bedroom apartment that had a special staircase to the alley behind the saloon and a dumbwaiter to the restaurant downstairs so that they could take their meals privately. Somehow his name also became attached to the most remarkable piece of furniture ever seen in a Fort Worth saloon, the so-called Luke Short Bar. It was a genuine work of art consisting of three large pieces that took up most of an entire wall -- a front counter where customers stood, a liquor case holding the merchandise, and a mirrored backbar stretching the length of the front counter. The whole thing was made of dark-stained mahogany with onyx decorations and crystal lighting fixtures. How much it cost or how it came to be built in the White Elephant are still a mystery, but Short obviously had something to do with it. He solidified the White Elephant's reputation for honest games with first-rate players, genteel surroundings and discretion in all things. Not once during his tenure was the White Elephant raided by police or criticized by its neighbors for rowdiness. Short also introduced the duffer's game of keno, a glorified form of bingo popular with the silk-stocking crowd. By starting a keno craze in Fort Worth, Short padded the saloon's bottom line.

Luke Short's cronies, as opposed to his customers, preferred big-stakes poker. There was a clubroom at the White Elephant for such men, who generally traveled the Gamblers' Circuit from town to town. A particularly big game at the White Elephant in August 1885 featured a "Who's Who" of Western card sharks -- Luke Short, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Charlie Coe and local bad boy Timothy Isaiah Courtright. Masterson's bankroll alone was $9,000. At the end of the evening, the final hand came down to Coe versus Short. Coe's four kings beat Short's full house, and Coe left town with this victory -- the sole basis for later claims that he was "the most successful and also the most feared gambler of them all." Meanwhile, Short's presence at the White Elephant continued to attract major players like Masterson and Earp whenever they came through north Texas.

Little Luke's reign in Fort Worth as the "King of Gamblers" was cut short early in 1887. A bitter feud with Timothy Courtright, a former city marshal in Fort Worth known locally as "Long-haired Jim," climaxed in gunfire on the night of February 8. The feud, borne out of a power struggle and personal animosity, fueled by liquor and testosterone, brought Courtright to the foyer of the White Elephant that night in a typical drunken state. Long-haired Jim loudly called Short out, and the unflappable gambler agreed. The two men stepped outside onto the boardwalk, where they exchanged terse words. The next thing anybody knew, gunshots echoed up and down Main Street. When the authorities arrived moments later, the former marshal lay bleeding to death half in and half out of the doorway of a shooting gallery next door to the White Elephant. The day before the shootout, Short had sold the White Elephant gambling concession to Jake Johnson for $1,000, perhaps anticipating having to leave town in a hurry, or perhaps with the idea of providing for his widow should the worst occur. On February 9, a hastily summoned coroner's inquest called the shooting self-defense, and the town seemed to accept the verdict, with only a few do-gooders calling Short a murderer.

In the months after the shootout, Bill Ward first purchased the gambling concession from Johnson, then turned around and sold it back to Short for the same amount ($1,000) that earlier had changed hands between Johnson and Short. The slayer of Courtright was no longer a full partner in the saloon, but rather an independent contractor working for Ward. It was not an arrangement Short enjoyed, so in December 1887, he cashed out the gambling concession for the last time, cutting all ties to the White Elephant.

When Short left, he followed Johnson out the door, leaving Ward as sole proprietor of the business. Short and Johnson soon hooked up with another local saloon man, Vic Foster, to open the Palais Royal Saloon at 406 Main Street in 1888. The Palais Royal owners no doubt hoped that their establishment would replace the White Elephant as the top fancy saloon in Fort Worth. But not long after the grand opening, the Palais Royal became just another flavor of the month.