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Ellis Alfred 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.

Al Swearengen
The Gem Theater.gif
The Gem Theater circa 1878. The man in the buggy on the left is thought to be Swearengen.
BornEllis Alfred Swearengen
(1845-07-08)July 8, 1845
Oskaloosa, Iowa Territory, U.S.
DiedNovember 15, 1904(1904-11-15) (aged 59)
Denver, Colorado, U.S.
OccupationPimp, early entertainment entrepreneur in Deadwood, South Dakota
Spouse(s)Nettie Swearengen (divorced)
Two other marriages also ended in divorce


Personal lifeEdit

Swearengen and his twin brother, Lemuel, were the eldest two of eight children of Daniel Swearengen and Keziah "Katie" Swearengen of Oskaloosa, Iowa.[1] Swearengen remained at home well into his adult years, only 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 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.[4]

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.[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 a nightly average of $5,000, and sometimes as much as $10,000 (equivalent to $230,000 in 2017).[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 Deadwood, including the otherwise successful work of Seth Bullock, the town's first sheriff. The Gem burned down once again in 1899 and was not rebuilt.[7] Swearengen left Deadwood and remarried the same year to Odelia Turgeon.[8]


It is often reported that Swearengen died penniless while trying to hop a freight train, but recent research suggests he was 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 made by a knife. Less than two months earlier, his twin brother Lemuel had been shot by unknown assailants [murdered], though suspiciously not robbed.[9]

In popular cultureEdit

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 altered Swearengen to be English-born. 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.[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 978-0-8032-8702-0.
  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 linksEdit