Al Swearengen

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Al Swearengen
The Gem Theater.gif
The Gem Theater circa 1878. The man in the buggy at left is thought to be Swearengen.
Born Ellis Albert Swearengen
(1845-07-08)8 July 1845
Oskaloosa, Iowa Territory, United States
Died 15 November 1904(1904-11-15) (aged 59)
Denver, Colorado, United States
Occupation Pimp, early entertainment entrepreneur in Deadwood, South Dakota
Spouse(s) Nettie Swearengen (divorced)
Two other marriages also ended in divorce

Ellis Albert "Al" Swearengen (8 July 1845 – 15 November 1904) was an American pimp and early entertainment entrepreneur in Deadwood, South Dakota, who ran the Gem Theater, a notorious brothel, for 22 years. He reputedly combined a reputation for brutality with an uncanny instinct for forging political alliances.[citation needed]

Personal life[edit]

Swearengen and his twin brother, Lemuel, were two of eight children of Daniel Swearengen and Keziah (often called Katie) Swearengen of Oskaloosa. Many of Deadwood's residents had left home at a young age to make their fortunes on the wild frontier, whereas Swearengen remained at home well into his adult years, arriving in Deadwood in May, 1876 with his wife, Nettie Swearengen. Nettie would later divorce him on the grounds of spousal abuse. Swearengen married two more times, with both subsequent marriages also ending in divorce.


Swearengen lured desperate young women from far away to Deadwood, then forced them into prostitution through a combination of bullying and physical brutality, committed by himself and his henchmen. The results were highly lucrative: the Gem earned an average of $5,000 a night, sometimes as much as $10,000[citation needed] (worth between $140,000 and $280,000 when inflation-adjusted for 2009). The Gem burned down on September 26, 1879, along with much of the town, but Swearengen rebuilt it larger and more opulent than ever, to great public acclaim.

Swearengen's talent for making canny alliances and financial payoffs kept him insulated from the general drive to clean up the town, including the otherwise successful work of Seth Bullock, until the Gem burned down once again in 1899. Swearengen remarried the same year to Odelia Turgeon. It appears that the Methodist church in Deadwood - which also took a moralist crusade to clean up the town - specifically targeted the Gem Theater.[clarification needed]


According to his rediscovered obituary, Swearengen was found dead in the middle of a suburban Denver street on November 15, 1904. He apparently died of a massive head wound and was not hopping a freight train as is often reported.[1]

In popular culture[edit]

From 2004 to 2006, the HBO television series Deadwood depicted Swearengen as a powerful and influential figure in the early history of the town, ruthlessly murderous and abusive but ultimately guiding it towards its development and annexation to the Dakota Territory, once he comes to see this course as fitting his best interests. The series, however, altered Swearengen to be English-born, and his character was referred to as "the slimy Limey". English actor Ian McShane won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Drama in 2005 for his portrayal of the role; he was also nominated that year for Emmy and Screen Actors Guild Awards, and TV Guide named him #6 in their 2013 list of The 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time.[2]


  1. ^ "Swearengen likely murdered, research indicates". July 24, 2007. Retrieved September 9, 2013. 
  2. ^ Bretts, Bruce & Roush, Matt (March 25, 2013). "Baddies to the Bone: The 60 nastiest villains of all time". TV Guide. pp. 14 – 15. 

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