The Gem Theater circa 1878. The man in the buggy at left is thought to be Swearengen.
|Born||Ellis Albert Swearengen
July 8, 1845
Oskaloosa, Iowa Territory, U.S.
|Died||November 15, 1904
Denver, Colorado, U.S.
|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 entertainment entrepreneur who ran the Gem Theater, a notorious brothel, in Deadwood, South Dakota, for 22 years during the late 19th century.
Swearengen and his twin brother, Lemuel, were the eldest two of eight children of Daniel Swearengen and Keziah (often called Katie) Swearengen of Oskaloosa, Iowa. Swearengen remained at home well into his adult years, only 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 originally owned and operated a canvas-and-lumber saloon in Deadwood known as the Cricket, which featured gambling and hosted prizefights. Shortly after, he closed it down and opened a larger saloon known as the Gem Theater.
The Gem functioned as a saloon, dance hall and brothel. Swearengen lured desperate young women to Deadwood, then forced them into prostitution through a combination of bullying and physical brutality committed by himself and his henchmen. Calamity Jane, who was one of his first dancers at the Gem, procured 10 girls from Sidney, Nebraska, for him on one occasion.
The results were highly lucrative: the Gem earned an average of $5,000, and sometimes as much as $10,000, in a single night (equivalent to $225,000 in 2016). 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 Deadwood, including the otherwise successful work of Seth Bullock, the town's first sheriff, until the Gem burned down once again in 1899. Swearengen left Deadwood and remarried the same year to Odelia Turgeon.
It is often reported that Swearengen died penniless while trying to hop a freight train, but recent research suggests he may have been murdered. According to his rediscovered obituary and contemporaneous newspaper accounts, Swearengen was found dead in the middle of a suburban Denver street on November 15, 1904, apparently of a massive head wound. Less than two months earlier, his twin brother Lemuel had been shot by unknown assailants, though suspiciously not robbed, and was perhaps mistaken for Al.
In popular culture
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 Swearengen. 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.
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