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)July 8, 1845
Oskaloosa, Iowa Territory, United States
Died November 15, 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 (July 8, 1845 – November 15, 1904) was an American pimp and early entertainment entrepreneur in Deadwood, South Dakota, who ran the Gem Theater, a notorious brothel, for 22 years.

Personal life[edit]

Swearengen and his twin brother, Lemuel, were the eldest two of eight children of Daniel Swearengen and Keziah (often called Katie) Swearengen of Oskaloosa.[1] 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.[2] Nettie would later divorce him on the grounds of spousal abuse.[3] Swearengen married two more times, with both subsequent marriages also ending in divorce.[1]


Swearengen owned and operated a saloon in Deadwood known as the Cricket, which featured gambling and hosted prizefights. He closed this canvas and lumber establishment down and opened a larger saloon known as the Gem Theater soon after in 1876.[4]

The Gem functioned as a saloon, dancehall and brothel. 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.[3][1] Calamity Jane, who was one of his first dancers at the Gem, procured 10 girls from Sidney, Nebraska for him on one occasion.[5]

The results were highly lucrative: the Gem earned an average of $5,000 a night, sometimes as much as $10,000 (worth between $140,000 and $280,000 when inflation-adjusted for 2009).[6][2] 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.[7]

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.[7] Swearengen left Deadwood and remarried the same year to Odelia Turgeon.[8]


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.[9]

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.[10]


  1. ^ a b c Fifer, Barbara C. (1 April 2008). Bad Boys of the Black Hills: And Some Wild Women, Too. Farcountry Press. pp. 116–119. ISBN 978-1-56037-548-7. 
  2. ^ a b Griffith, T. D. (8 December 2009). Deadwood: The Best Writings On The Most Notorious Town In The West. TwoDot. pp. 98–99. ISBN 978-1-4617-4754-3. 
  3. ^ a b Ames, John Edwards (31 August 2004). The Real Deadwood. New York: Penguin Group US. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-101-07811-2. 
  4. ^ Shadley, Mark; Wennes, Josh (2012). Haunted Deadwood: A True Wild West Ghost Town. HISTORY PressINC. pp. 48–49. ISBN 978-1-60949-325-7. 
  5. ^ Stephens, John Richard (3 October 2016). Wildest Lives of the Wild West: America through the Words of Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, and Other Famous Westerners. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 126. ISBN 978-1-4930-2444-5. 
  6. ^ Parker, Watson (1981). Deadwood: The Golden Years. U of Nebraska Press. pp. 174, 184, 193. ISBN 0-8032-8702-X. 
  7. ^ a b Johnson, Michael Schall (30 September 2015). The Bloody Road of Gold: Calamity, Wild Bill, Boone May, Courage and Romance in the Old West. Outskirts Press. p. 276. ISBN 978-1-4787-5457-2. 
  8. ^ Black Hills Nuggets. Rapid City Society for Genealogical Research, Inc. 1980. p. 2. 
  9. ^ "Swearengen likely murdered, research indicates". July 24, 2007. Retrieved September 9, 2013. 
  10. ^ Bretts, Bruce & Roush, Matt (March 25, 2013). "Baddies to the Bone: The 60 nastiest villains of all time". TV Guide. pp. 14 – 15. 

External links[edit]