HBO’s Deadwood – Fact & Fiction

Wild Bill Hickok – Born in Troy Grove, Illinois, on May 27, 1837, Hickok was an excellent marksman even in his youth. Always enamored of the frontier west, Hickok joined the pioneers when he was just 17 years old. Soon, he worked as a freighter on the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails, where he perpetuated his reputation with his gunfighting skills. He also served as a marshal in several Old West settlements and as an Army scout. During his travels, he became a proficient gambler. Touring with Buffalo Bill Cody in his Wild West Show, Hickok was well known when he arrived in Deadwood in 1876. However, his stay in the rough and tumble camp would be a short one, as he was murdered by Jack McCall while playing poker in a Deadwood saloon on August 2, 1876.

Jack (John) Langrishe-Langrishe, the gay stage promoter and friend of Al Swearengen who tries to bring culture to the mean streets of Deadwood, was a real character during Deadwood’s booming mining days. Though not gay and doubtful to have been a friend of Swearengen’s, Langrishewas an actual theatre owner and promoter who preferred working in the Old West to New York’s Broadway stages. Married to a wife named Jenette, the pair opened several theatres during their careers, including one in Denver, Colorado, another in Helena, Montana, and the one in Deadwood. Before erecting a permanent building for his theatre, Langrishe temporarily operated out of the Bella Union.

Lucretia “Aunt Lou” Marchbanks – Except for “Aunt Sally” Campbell, who came with the Custer Expedition in 1874, most believe that Lucretia Marchbanks was the first black woman in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Born a slave in Tennessee, Lucretia began to travel the west once she was freed, working in the gold camps of Colorado before being lured by the reports of gold in the Black Hills. Arriving in Deadwood on June 1, 1876, she soon found work as the Kitchen Manager in the Grand Central Hotel. In no time, the hotel, which wasn’t so grand, was better known for the great food served in its restaurant, and Lucretia became better known as “Aunt Lou.” Aunt Lou went on to own a boarding house before retiring to a life of ranching in Wyoming. Though she may have met George Hearst as she worked for the DeSmet Mine for a period, she never worked directly for him.

Jack McCall – Unfortunately, this cowardly and drunken figure was real. Born around 1851 in Jefferson County, Kentucky, he was raised there with his three sisters. McCall drifted west as a young adult, joining a group of buffalo hunters. By the time he arrived in Deadwood in 1876, he was going by the name of Bill Sutherland. McCall felt insulted when Wild Bill gave him money to buy himself something to eat after losing at a poker game and shot him from behind the next day. In the first trial, found illegal later, McCall claimed that Hickok had shot his brother in Abilene, Kansas, and was found innocent. McCall hung about Deadwood for several days until a man called California Joe strongly suggested the air might be bad for McCall’s health. McCall got the message and, believing he’d escaped punishment for his crime, headed to Wyoming, bragging to anyone who would listen that he had killed the famous Wild Bill Hickok. Less than a month later, the trial held in Deadwood was found to have had no legal basis, Deadwood being located in Indian Territory. McCall was arrested in Laramie, Wyoming, on August 29, 1876, charged with the murder, and taken to Yankton, South Dakota, to stand trial. On March 1, 1877, Jack McCall was put to death by hanging. As to McCall’s earlier claim of having shot Hickok out of revenge for his brother, it was discovered that Jack McCall never had a brother.

Albert W. Merrick – Born about 1839 in New York, Merrick worked in Denver, Colorado, before he and another man named W.A. Laughlin set up the Pioneer newspaper in Deadwood. The first edition was published on June 8, 1876. However, Merrick didn’t own the paper for long, as he sold it to R.O. Adams in 1879. Historically known as the first newspaper west of the Missouri River, the newspaper is still in publication today. However, it is located in Spearfish, South Dakota. Merrick was married to Ray and had three children. Unfortunately for the Merrick’s, they lost their 8-year-old son, Walter, on October 8, 1880, when he died of inflammation of the bowels. They also lost an infant daughter in 1884. Daughter,

Tom Nuttall – Played by actor Leon Rippy, Tom is based on an actual Deadwood figure named William “Billy” Nuttall. Billy was one of the proprietors of Nuttall & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 when Jack McCall shot Wild Bill Hickok on August 2, 1876. However, history next finds him involved in a partnership with Tom Miller, the owner of the Bella Union Theatre, in the summer of 1877. Securing several talents to the Bella Union, Nuttall managed the property when it was purchased by Mr. McDaniels in 1878 and leased to Billy Nuttall soon after that. The following year finds Nuttall in Leadville, Colorado, along with a score of other Black Hillers who had followed the mining rush. There, he opened another “Bella Union” in the summer of 1879, utilizing many of the actors he had previously hired in Deadwood. While in Leadville, his wife left him in 1880, and by 1882 he was in a New Mexico jail for a gambling violation.

Reverend Henry Weston Smith – Born in Ellington, Connecticut, on January 10, 1827, Smith first married in 1847, but his wife and infant son died a year later. In 1850, he became a Methodist preacher. In 1859, he remarried Lydia Ann Joslin, and the couple had four children. Smith served in the Civil War and became a doctor. In 1876 he followed the gold rush to Deadwood, becoming the first preacher of any denomination in the Black Hills. Smith never had a church in Deadwood but used the dirty streets of the mining camp as his sermon mount. To make ends meet, the preacher did a little prospecting and worked at odd jobs. On August 20, 1876, Smith, along with Sheriff Isaac Brown, Charles Mason, and Charles Holland, were all killed on the road between Crook City and Deadwood. The men were thought to have been killed by Indians. The Reverend Smith was 49 years old. His body now lies at Mount Moriah Cemetery, among the other notable characters of Deadwood.

Sol Star – Born into a Jewish family in Bavaria, Germany, on December 20, 1840, Star migrated and was sent to live with his uncle in Ohio when he was about ten years old. As he grew into a young man, he moved to Helena, Montana, where he soon began a hardware business with Seth Bullock. The pair followed the Deadwood gold rush in August 1876. Star and Bullock expanded their business interests by purchasing a ranch, where they raised livestock and partnered in the Deadwood Flouring Mill in 1880. Star was one of the first town councilmen elected in 1876, served as postmaster in 1878, and was elected mayor in 1884, a position he held for 14 years. Sol Star never married. John Hawkes plays the character on the HBO Deadwood Series. 

Con Stapleton – Though the series shows Stapleton as a dim-witted card dealer at the Number 10 Saloon, who gained his short-lived marshal’s position by begging Al Swearengen to appoint him, Stapleton actually was elected marshal by the miners on September 16, 1876. The first marshal elected by the Miner’s Court was Isaac Brown, an event that occurred after the trial of Jack McCall on August 5, 1876. But for Marshal Isaac Brown, being a lawman would be a short-lived career. When he, along with the Reverend Smith and two other men named Charles Mason and Charles Holland, were traveling between Crook City and Deadwood, they were ambushed and killed on August 20, 1876. Leaving an open position, the miner’s court soon met again, electing Stapleton as the new marshal. Seth Bullock was never the City of Deadwood’s marshal but was actually the Lawrence County Sheriff, a position he didn’t hold until March 1877. After becoming the Deadwood Marshal, one of Stapleton’s favorite past times was organizing wrestling matches, most often at the Gem Theatre. Sometimes he acted as a referee and at others as a participant. Con Stapleton died in Denver, Colorado, on September 10, 1879. Peter Jason plays Stapleton’s character on the HBO Series. More…

In real life, Al Swearengen – Al Swearengen was every bit as ugly as the character played in the Deadwood series. What they don’t tell you is that the man lured dozens of women to the camp by falsely promising good jobs in local hotels and promising to make them stage performers in his popular Gem Theatre. Once they arrived, the women were virtually forced into white slavery or thrown into the street. The man was married three times and was brutal to his wives and the women who worked for him. The Gem Theatre caught fire twice in 1879, the second time burning it to the ground. On both occasions, Swearengen rebuilt. Twenty years later, it was demolished again by a third inferno. By this time, Swearengen called it quits and left Deadwood for good. The drunk and penniless Swearengen was killed not long after while trying to hitch a ride on a Colorado train like a common tramp.

Trixie – This is more than a little “iffy.” Reportedly, there were several “Trixies” who came and went during the Gem Theatre’s twenty-two years of operation. Potentially based on any one of the many women, one woman with the name spelled “Tricksie” shot a man at the Gem Theatre after he had beaten her. Though she shot him in the head, he didn’t immediately die. The doctor was quickly called in, who put a probe through the man’s skull, amazed that he survived the gunshot at all. However, this nameless man did die about thirty minutes later.

Charlie Utter – Though Charlie Utter was very real; his real-life persona was much different than that portrayed on the HBO series by Dayton Callie. The show depicts Utter as an unkempt man who is often uncomfortable around others. He took a lot of pride in his appearance in real life, often dressing in hand-tailored suits and keeping his long blonde hair and mustache meticulously groomed. Even more unusual for the times, he insisted on taking a daily bath. Utter was born near Niagra Falls in New York in 1838 and spent his childhood in Illinois. When he grew up, he moved west, and in the 1860s, he earned a living as a trapper and a prospector in Colorado. Over the years, Charlie was a hunter, trapper, gold prospector, mine owner, express rider, and transportation businessman. Long before arriving in Deadwood, he had become a true friend to Wild Bill Hickok. Out of the most genuine respect for his friend, he claimed Bill’s body when he was killed, arranged a proper funeral, and placed a marker at his gravesite.