Deadwood’s real Ellis Alfred “Al” Swearengen was every bit as evil and ill-tempered as HBO Deadwood’s reel Al Swearengen, who is played by Ian McShane.
Swearengen—a twin—was born in Mahaska, Iowa, on July 8, 1845, and moved to Deadwood in spring 1876, just a year after miner John Pearson discovered gold in the narrow Black Hills canyon, says Jerry Bryant, research curator of Deadwood, South Dakota’s Adams Museum and House. (The locale was originally called Deadwood Gulch because of the numerous dead trees lining the canyon’s sides.) Swearengen may have been one of the first non-miners in the mining town.
Seeing opportunity, Swearengen built the Cricket Saloon—a building so narrow the local newspaper called it a hall—where he staged boxing matches. He opened his first Gem Variety Theater on April 7, 1877. Although the theater had a bar in front and seats for viewing performances that varied from burlesque to Gilbert and Sullivan, far more intimate entertainment took place in the small rooms at the theater’s rear. Here, prostitutes, most hoodwinked into the skin trade by Swearengen, gave the Gem’s patrons amusement of an entirely different sort.
Notorious for luring poor, Eastern girls to Deadwood by the promise of getting them legitimate jobs in hotels or working for respectable families, Swearengen pressed his recruits into prostitution, often by beating them or threatening to throw them into the street to fend for themselves.
Just as the TV show Deadwood depicts Swearengen and town marshal Seth Bullock at each other’s throats, the real Swearengen and Bullock were also at odds with one another. Although legend says they drew a line across Main Street, dividing lower Main—the “Badlands” where the Gem Theater was located and where Swearengen reigned—from upper Main, Bryant doubts it.
Following a fire that destroyed the third Gem Theater in 1899, Swearengen left Deadwood and drifted to Denver, where he was killed while trying to hop a train. Although his theater had reportedly taken in $5,000-$10,000 per night during its heyday, the king of Deadwood’s “Badlands” died broke.