Al Swearengen & the Notorious Gem
Swearengen and his twin brother Lemuel were born in Oskaloosa, Iowa on
July 8, 1845. The twins were the oldest of eight children, raised by
parents Daniel and Keziah Swearengen until they were adults in Iowa.
Al, as he was known, arrived in
Deadwood in May, 1876 as one of the
earliest non-mining men in the area. By the end of the week he had a
temporary dance-hall up and running. Arriving with his wife Nettie, she
soon left him in September and later divorced him claiming spousal abuse. Swearengen
would marry two more times while in
Deadwood, both marriages resulting in
divorces and similar claims of abuse.
soon replaced his temporary dance-hall with a permanent building
called the Cricket
a very small tavern that the newspapers referred to as a "hall” due to
For entertainment, Swearengen
offered "prize fights” in a 5’x5’ space, though no prizes actually
existed. The non-professionals engaged in the matches were
generally normal working miners who were persuaded by Swearengen
The Gem Theater in
in 1878. The man in the buggy on the left is
thought to be
Al Swearengen. Photo courtesy Adams
On April 7, 1877, Swearengen
Gem Variety Theater that was described in the
Black Hills Daily Pioneer as
being "neat and tastefully arranged as any place of its kind in the
west.” The Gem Theater soon provided the entertainment starved camp with
comedians, singers and dancers, as well as continuing its display of
"prize fights.” However, the theater was mostly a masquerade for
its primary purpose as a brothel, which soon gained a reputation for
its debasement of the women who were pressed into service there.
Al Swearengen recruited women
from the east by advertising jobs in hotels and promising to make them
stage performers at his theater. Purchasing a one way ticket for
the women, when they arrived, the hapless ladies would find themselves
stranded with little choice other than to work for the notorious Swearengen or be thrown into
the street. Some of these desperate women took their own lives
rather than being forced into a position of virtual slavery. Those who stayed were known to sport constant bruises and other
With the entertainment provided and numerous women, the Gem prospered and soon became the camp’s chief attraction. Drawing its support from many so-called leading citizens, the
was left alone by the authorities.
In the front of the theater were a bar and many seats for spectators.
The rear of the building held several small curtained rooms where the
ladies” entertained their customers. On its balcony, the Gem band
was said to have played every night, while the girls beckoned to
potential customers to com forth. Once inside, the women charged their
customers 10˘ for a dance, 20˘ for a beer and $1 for a bottle of wine.
As to charges for the "other," it remains unknown.
In addition to the many girls, Swearengen's staff included
Dan Doherty, who acted as general manager,
Johnny Burns, who was in charge of the girls, and several
bouncers. These men were said to have been as brutal to the girls as
Swearengen, with beating of the women being a common practice.
Though a popular spot amongst the rowdy
miners of the camp, the Gem quickly gained a reputation as a violent
gunshots flying through its interior became commonplace. Sometimes aimed
between men in drunken fights, the bullets were just as often aimed at the
girls themselves. At one time a Gem prostitute named Tricksie shot a man
through the front of his skull after having taken a beating from him.
However, the man didn’t immediately die. The doctor was called in who put
a probe through the man’s head, amazed that he survived the gunshot at
all. He died about thirty minutes later.
The Interior of the Gem Theater, 1880. Photo courtesy Adams
Bullock while all this was going on at the notorious theater?
Swearengen agreed to draw an imaginary line on Main Street that marked
what was referred to as the "Badlands” and the rest of the town. From then
on, Swearengen controlled lower Main
Sheriff Bullock controlled upper
In the early summer of 1879, the Gem
suffered a fire, but the damage was quickly repaired and rebuilt. Just
three months later, in September, 1879, the entire town of
Deadwood suffered a disastrous
inferno that claimed some 300 of its buildings, including the Gem
Swearengen again rebuilt, this time from the ground
up, resulting in a bigger and better theater. When the new
Gem was opened in
December, 1879 The Daily Times touted it to be the finest theater
building ever proposed for
Continuing to prosper, the Gem averaged a nightly profit of $5,000,
sometimes even reaching as high as $10,000. But, for Swearengen, it was
not to last. In 1899, the Gem suffered its final destructive fire and
Swearengen called it quits, leaving
Deadwood for good.
After its final demise in 1899, the newspaper had this to say of the Gem:
"harrowing tales of iniquity, shame
and wretchedness; of lives wrecked and fortunes sacrificed; of vice
unhindered and esteem forfeited, have been related of the place, and it is
known of a verity that they have not all been groundless."
The Gem was one of the longest
continuously-operating entertainment venues in
Deadwood; however, after its demise, the
Gem was referred to in the press as the "ever-lasting shame of
Deadwood," "a vicious institution," and
a "defiler of youth and a destroyer of home ties."
Five years later, in 1904, Swearengen was
found dead near a streetcar track in Denver
According to an obituary found around 2007, it was determined he died of
blunt force trauma to the head. They were unable to determine whether it
was an accident or not. This is different from previous historical
accounts that said he died penniless while trying to hop a train.
After the Gem burned in 1899, another fire, six months
later, destroyed the adjacent buildings leaving a large vacant lot. In
1921, the site became the location of Deadwood's first gas station. Today,
the location of the Gem Theater is the site of the Mineral Palace Casino.
For more information on the Gem Theater,
and its notorious characters, visit the
at 54 Sherman Street,
of America, updated July, 2015.
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The Gem Theater's bar.
is the third from the right behind the bar, courtesy
Hills Mining Museum
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