Al Swearengen: The True Story Behind The Brutal Outlaw Bar Owner From HBO’s “Deadwood”

Ian McShane as Al Swearengen/"Deadwood" [HBO promotional image]

DENVER, CO — Yes, Al Swearengen was real. In addition, the enchantingly ranting, mega-mustached, spectacularly foul-mouthed saloonkeeper portrayed by Ian McShane on the HBO western series Deadwood really did own and operate the Gem Theater in the South Dakota outpost of the title. On top of that, the barbarous, brazen life — and death — of the real Al Swearengen more than lives up to the legend he’s become.

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Ellis Albert “Al” Swearengen and his twin brother Lemuel were born on July 8, 1845, in the territory that would become Iowa. Fifty-nine years later, an unknown assailant shot Lemuel five times. He survived. The bullets, however, were almost certainly meant for Al.

The following month, it’s largely believed that whomever had been after Al caught up to him, and fatally caved in his skull with a blunt object. On November 15, 1904, Al Swearengen’s mangled body turned up alongside a streetcar track in Denver, Colorado.

Some reports indicated that Swearengen died attempting to hop a passing trolley. Still, as the most feared and revered strongman/pimp in South Dakota, Swearengen picked up no dearth of enraged enemies en route to his gorily inglorious fate.

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Al Swearengen initially made it to Deadwood in May 1876. Within a week, he set up the Cricket Saloon, a canvas-and-lumber structure that drew customers from the nearby Black Hills mining camps with liquor, card games, and “prize fights” (i.e. — miners that Swearengen paid in booze to box each other so he could take bets).

In short order, Swearengen invested those profits into opening the Gem Variety Theater, a two-tiered entertainment complex with a large bar, a stage, a live band, comedians, plays, gambling, and “painted ladies” who performed for customers in private rooms. The place was an instant smash.

To stock his brothel, Swearengen placed ads looking for “housekeepers” and “actresses” in newspapers back east. After each hopeful young woman responded by mail, Swearengen brought her to Deadwood with a one-way ticket. Upon arrival, she’d be informed of her actual duties at the Gem and savaged without mercy if she refused or even resisted.

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Violence proved to be the Gem’s primary operational procedure. The management pummeled the staff, and the customers routinely tore into one another. Indoor shootouts became commonplace.

The Gem Theater, circa 1878; the man in the buggy at left is believed to be Al Swearengen [Wikipedia]

In one memorably gruesome incident, a drunk beat up popular prostitute “Tricksie” and she responded by shooting him point-blank in the head. Rather than die on the spot, though, he bled out of his skull for a half-hour while awaiting a doctor and cursing his fate. Then he died.

Another larger-than-life Deadwood figure also acted as a conduit for Swearengen’s sex workers: Martha Jane Canary aka “Calamity Jane.” The famous Old West scout, sharpshooter, and alcoholic reportedly once recruited 10 women from Nebraska to staff the Gem.

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As a result of all this, the Gem earned its reputation as the most exciting, if potentially lethal, spot for miles around, even as Marshal Seth Bullock (portrayed memorably on Deadwood by Timothy Olyphant) effectively “cleaned up” the town.

Recognizing both an inherent need for some vice in an area dominated by male labor and likely swayed by Swearengen’s charisma, Bullock divided Deadwood up into two factions.

An invisible line divided Main Street into two parts. Bullock controlled the upper district, and let Swearengen hold sway over the lower part, which he deemed the “Badlands.” For quite a while, it worked.

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Fire struck the Gem in 1879. Swearengen quickly refurbished the facility. After investing a mind-boggling $225,000 ($5 million today) in the upgrade, the new, bigger, even more sin-laden Gem reopened with a casino inside, and took in an average nightly profit of $5,000 ($113,000 today).

Marshal Seth Bullock [Wikipedia]

The money poured in for the next half-decade, until an inferno decimated Deadwood in 1894. Again, Swearengen rebuilt, this time from the ground up, and he continued to prosper financially — much to the anger and upset of his adversaries.

Finally, in 1899, the Gem not only burned down, but someone removed the hydrant necessary for firefighters to combat the blaze. This time, Al Swearengen emerged from the ashes and bid Deadwood adieu.

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In Swearengen’s absence, the local press celebrated the demise of the Gem. Newspapers deemed the town’s longest-running entertainment venue “a vicious institution,” and a “defiler of youth and a destroyer of home ties.”

One florid reporter cited the Gem’s “harrowing tales of iniquity, shame, and wretchedness; of lives wrecked and fortunes sacrificed; of vice unhindered and esteem forfeited,” before labeling the venue “the ever-lasting shame of Deadwood.”

Almost immediately, it seems, the Gem and the colorful, incorrigible rogue who made it happen came off as the stuff of myth. Today, the site of the Gem Theater is home to the Mineral Palace Hotel and Casino.

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Read more:
Deadwood Official Site
Legends of America
True West
Missed In History
Black Hills Pioneer
Mineral Palace

Main photo: Ian McShane as Al Swearengen/”Deadwood” [HBO promotional image]

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