In the annals of Wild West history, few names resonate as fiercely as that of Al Swearengen. Known for his portrayal as a ruthless businessman and brothel owner in the HBO series “Deadwood,” the real-life Al Swearengen’s story is equally intriguing, albeit with darker shades.
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Born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, Swearengen was far from a Western archetype. The son of a Dutch-American farmer, he was one of eight siblings, including a twin brother named Lemuel. His journey to infamy began when he took the helm of a bustling dance hall in Custer, South Dakota, a venture that thrived until he decided to head to the illegal gold-mining settlement of Deadwood at the age of 31.
In the late 1800s, the Black Hills region belonged to the Lakota people, protected by the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. However, when gold was discovered by General George Custer in 1874, the treaty was conveniently forgotten, triggering a gold rush that lured countless fortune seekers to Deadwood. Swearengen, a shrewd entrepreneur, was quick to seize the opportunity.
Arriving in Deadwood in May 1876, Swearengen left an indelible mark, albeit not one that painted him in a favorable light. He opened the Cricket, a modest saloon, offering patrons an opportunity to drink, gamble, and watch boxing matches. But his ambitions didn’t stop there. In 1877, he unveiled the grandiose Gem Theater, a saloon and brothel that soon became the stuff of legend. The Gem wasn’t just any establishment; it was a cultural icon, hosting boxing matches, live music, and more, solidifying its status as the heart of Wild West lore.
While the fictional Al Swearengen depicted in “Deadwood” was a foul-mouthed and violent character, the real-life figure is believed to have been even more malevolent. Historical archeologist Jerry Bryant characterized him as a “real vicious bastard” with a heart of stone. Swearengen’s three marriages ended in divorce, marred by reports of physical abuse, and his treatment of the women in his brothel was nothing short of exploitative.
Some historians even accuse him of running a “white slave operation,” luring women to the Gem with promises of legitimate employment and then coercing them into prostitution. These women, usually impoverished and desperate, were initially enticed with paid fares to Deadwood but found themselves with limited choices upon arrival.
Despite the controversy surrounding his ethics, Swearengen was an astute business manager. During its peak, The Gem reaped enormous profits, raking in between $5,000 and $10,000 nightly.
In a time before modern fire departments and electricity, fires were a common menace, and Deadwood was no exception. The Gem fell victim to flames in 1879, but Swearengen wasn’t one to back down. He rebuilt and reopened the establishment a few months later, returning bigger and better than before. In 1899, The Gem succumbed to another fire, prompting Swearengen to leave Deadwood for good.
Swearengen’s exit from Deadwood led him back to his hometown of Oskaloosa, Iowa, where he may have reconnected with family, including his twin brother Lemuel. However, tragedy soon struck. In October 1904, Lemuel was brutally assaulted, possibly as an intended attack on Al himself. This sequence of events marked the beginning of a grim chapter in Swearengen’s life.
Al fled Iowa shortly after his brother’s assault, settling in Denver, Colorado. Two months later, he met a gruesome end. His lifeless body was discovered on a Denver street, beaten to death on November 15, 1904.
The mysteries surrounding Swearengen’s death remain unsolved, and to this day, the identity of his assailants and their motives remains buried in history. The truth about the enigmatic figure’s final days wasn’t revealed until 2007, thanks to the tireless research of Jerry Bryant.
While Ian McShane’s portrayal of Swearengen in “Deadwood” continues to captivate audiences, the real Al Swearengen’s life and demise remain shrouded in intrigue, leaving us to ponder the unanswered questions surrounding this complex figure from the Wild West.