Thursday, August 17, 2017

Al Swearengen & The Gem Theater

The Gem Theater
Dear Friends,

It seems that I'm being hit with a lot of questions pertaining to movie characters. One man recently wrote me to take me to task about Doc Holliday. Then after I posted a picture of the man who is mistaken for Holliday, a couple of readers wrote to ask what have I been smoking? One actually told me that I didn't know what I was talking about, he said he was never going to visit my site again because "the man mistaken for Doc Holliday is Doc Holliday."

Someone reading one of my older articles about all of the swearing in the HBO television series Deadwood and how language like that simply was not used in the Old West. You can find that article at The Old West vs HBO's Deadwood.

He wrote to inform me that his grandfather swore like that all the time and that I didn't know my "ass from a hole in the ground." I answered his letter to tell him that my grandfather swore only when he was angry. He was a Cowboy and reserved that sort of language for when he felt it was OK and when not around women and children. Either way, our grandfathers are not representative of the people of the Old West of the 1800.

Fact is swearing went on, but it was actually blasphemous in nature unlike today's vulgar language. In fact, even the producer of the television series Deadwood admitted that very thing in an interview. His reasoning for using modern vulgarity is that what was considered vulgarity in 1800s is too tame for today's television audiences. If someone said, "Damn you". That was considered swearing in the 1800s. He said today's television audiences would laugh at a gunfighter saying such a thing.

Producers make changes that are "historically incorrect" all the time. Take for example the movie Tombstone where the outlaw gang known as the "Cowboys" wore red sashes. The people responsible for making that movie wanted to use "gang colors" like the criminal gangs in Los Angeles, the Crips and the Bloods. The producers of Tombstone did so even though the outlaw gang, the Cowboys, did not wear red sashes.

The HBO television series Deadwood ran from 2004 to 2006, and the producers decidedly depicted the character Al Swearengen as a politically powerful and influential individual. The show depicts him as a ruthless murderer who guides the town of Deadwood through its growth. The producers decide that Al Swearengen should be English-born, and that that character should be referred to as "the slimy Limey".

As a point of interest, the term "Limey" is a derogatory term for a British person. That term is no different than calling an American black person a "Coon." Or calling a South African black person "Kaffir." Or calling a person of Mexican descent "Beaner." Or calling a white American of European decent a "Cracker."

The term "Limey" is thought to have originated in the 1850s as "lime-juicer" because of the Royal Navy's practice in 1800s of adding lemon juice to their sailors' daily ration of watered-down rum which is known as "grog." The lime juice was believed to prevent scurvy. The British Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 required all ships of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy to provide a daily lime ration to sailors to prevent scurvy. Since at the time, the terms "lemon" and "lime" were used interchangeably to refer to citrus fruits, ignorant people chose to call the Brits by the derogatory term "Limey."

If one reads about the Old West, the 1800s in general, one quickly realizes that scurvy was a real problem both at sea and on land. Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of Vitamin C. Early symptoms include weakness, feeling tired, and sore arms and legs. Without treatment, red blood cells decrease, there is noticeable tooth decay and gum disease, balding takes place, and bleeding from the skin may occur because scurvy slows wounds from healing. Scurvy is also known to create personality changes and even death from infection or bleeding.

What I find interesting is that taking their daily ration of lime, their needed Vitamin C, actually made British sailors some of the healthiest people around during that time period. Yes, all because it prevented scurvy.

Hollywood might have made Al Swearengen a British immigrant in Deadwood, in reality he was very much an American. He was born Ellis Albert Swearengen on July 8th, 1845, to Daniel Swearengen and Keziah Swearengen, in Oskaloosa in the Iowa Territory. Yes, right here in the United States.

Al had a twin brother, Lemuel, and they were the eldest of eight children. Al Swearengen is said to have remained at home living with his parents well into adulthood. It wasn't until he was 30 years old that he left home and traveled to Deadwood in May of 1876. At that time, he was married to his first wife, Nettie Swearengen. She later divorced him on the grounds of spousal abuse. Al Swearengen married two more times after Nettie, and both of those marriages also ending in divorces.

After arriving in Deadwood, South Dakota, Al Swearengen started up a tent saloon known as the Cricket. Believe it or not, that small tent saloon is said to have offered gambling and even hosted prizefights out back. It was a success, so he expanded by closing it down and opening the much larger saloon and brothel known as the Gem Theater on April 7th, 1877.

The Gem Theater provided Deadwood with comedians, singers, dancers, and prostitutes. Swearengen called it what he did, but everyone there knew that the "theater" masqueraded as a brothel. The Gem Theater was a saloon and dance hall, but its main business was that of being a brothel.

In fact, The Gem Theater was considered a notorious brothel ripe with sexually transmitted diseases, customers getting rolled, and daily violence. And fairly quickly after opening, the Gem soon gained a reputation for its horrible treatment of the women who were forced to work there. The women who worked for Swearengen were known for looking beat up because of their constant bruises and other injuries.

Yes, Al Swearengen was a pimp. Like Wyatt Earp, he was a pimp. Of course, Earp was arrested for being a pimp more than once. And yes, that fact in itself shoots down the argument that some have written me to say, "being a pimp was not seen as we do today."

Al Swearengen treated his "girls" no differently than pimps do today through a combination of intimidation and physical abuse. In his case, he was well known to have beat women. But the fact is that he also had henchmen who helped "keep the girls in line." 

While Dan Doherty acted as general manager, Johnny Burns was actually in charge of the women and several bouncers. Burns' men were said to have been as brutal to the women working there as Swearengen himself was. Yes, beating the women was said to be a common practice at Swearengen's Gem Theater.  

Besides those small details, what Hollywood didn't show its audience is how Al Swearengen lured young women who were down on their luck to Deadwood with promises of riches but then forced them into prostitution once they arrived. In fact, Al Swearengen is said to have recruited women from back East by advertising job openings in his hotel. Yes, all with the promise of making them stage performers at his theater. He would actually buy their one way ticket. And when they arrived, the women would find themselves stranded with no other choice but to work for Swearengen.

Fact is, they either worked for him or were thrown into the street. And yes, in case you're wondering how bad was it, some of those desperate women are said to have taken their own lives rather than being forced into a position of slavery.

Was it slavery? Well, yes it was. Of course no one talks about that slavery of women in prostitution in America. While some believe prostitution was a "chosen profession," and that being the case for some, to many it was a means to make a dollar as a last resort. Pimps are Slave Masters. And just as with other Slave Masters making a dollar off Irish and Black slaves, pimps didn't care if the women died or not. 

Al Swearengen got help from others who found down on their luck girls for him. One such person is said to be Martha Jane Canary. Yes, the woman known as Calamity Jane was one of his first dancers at the Gem and she is known to have lured at least 10 girls from Sidney, Nebraska, to Deadwood for Al Swearengen.

Though popular among miners, the Gem quickly gained a reputation as a violent saloon where shootings were commonplace. In fact, there is a story about Gem prostitute by the name Tricksie who shot a man in the head after she had been beaten by him. The rest of the story goes that the man didn’t die immediately and a doctor was called in. The doctor put a probe through the man’s head. It's said that the doctor was amazed that he survived the gunshot at all. Of course the man died about thirty minutes later. And no, Tricksie was never tried.

Swearengen wasn't ignorant to the ways of protecting his brothel from the general drive to clean up Deadwood. He made all sorts of political alliances with huge financial payoffs. This protected him from people like Seth Bullock who was Deadwood's first City Marshal.

Now if you're asking yourself where was City Marshal Seth Bullock while all this was going on at The Gem Theater, it's said that Bullock and Swearengen agreed to draw an imaginary line right down the middle of Main Street. The side with the Gem was referred to as the "Badlands". That was the side that was said to be controlled by Swearengen. Bullock controlled other side. Imagine that.

In the summer of 1879, The Gem Theater was damaged by a fire, but was quickly repaired and rebuilt. Some say that fire was caused by one of the prostitutes who wanted to see the place burned to the ground. Then just a few months later in September of 1879, the entire town of Deadwood suffered a huge fire that is said to have destroyed about 300 buildings. That included The Gem Theater which was again rebuilt, but this time from the ground up. The new Gem was said to be bigger when it opened in December of 1879.

Swearengen left Deadwood after the Gem burned down for the last time in 1899. That was the end of that pimp's 22 year run at owning and operating his whorehouse in Deadwood, South Dakota.

The newspapers were not kind to the Gem after it burned down. One newspaper stated, "Harrowing tales of iniquity, shame and wretchedness; of lives wrecked and fortunes sacrificed; of vice unhindered and esteem forfeited, have been related of the place, and it is known of a verity that they have not all been groundless." Another newspaper wrote calling the Gem Theater, "the ever-lasting shame of Deadwood," "a vicious institution," and a "defiler of youth and a destroyer of home ties."

After the Gem Theater burned in 1899, another fire took place about six months later. That fire destroyed the adjacent buildings to where the Gem was located. In 1921, the site became the location of Deadwood's first gas station. Today, the location of where the Gem Theater sat is now the site of the Mineral Palace Casino.

As for Al Swearengen, he left Deadwood right after the Gem burned to the ground in 1899. He is reported to have married Odelia Turgeon that same year. They divorced soon after. Then five years later on November 15th, 1904. at the age of 59, he was found dead near a streetcar track in Denver, Colorado. 

Around two months earlier, his twin brother Lemuel was killed when some unknown assailants shot him in the head. Some say they thought it was a robbery but he was not robbed. Others say Lemuel was shot because he was mistaken for his twin brother Al.

It is often said that Al Swearengen died destitute, penniless, alone. There were reports that he died while trying to hop a freight train in Denver. But although recent research doesn't address his being penniless of not, it does point to evidence that indicates that he may have been murdered.

The reason for some to think this is that an rediscovered obituary and period newspaper accounts of his death show he died in the middle of a street in suburban Denver no where near tracks where he would hop a freight train. Dead of a massive head wound. The obituary that was found states he died of blunt force trauma to the head. No one at the time was able to determine if it was murder or an accident of some sort.

So if you're wondering, I'm sure there are those who hoped that someone bashed his head in. After all, many would say he deserved it.

Tom Correa


  1. What is truth? -Pontius Pilate. Keep up the good work. Some people just want to remain ignorant. And so they will.


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