HBO’s Deadwood – Fact & Fiction

Fictional Characters: 

There are several characters on HBO’s Deadwood series that never actually existed in the real-life mining camp of DeadwoodSouth Dakota, such as Alma Garrett, Joanie Stubbs, Silas Adams, and more.

Sometimes these figures are pure fictional accounts to make the show more interesting. In other cases, they may be very loosely based on a real character of Deadwood’s early days. Yet, in other instances, a name is merely borrowed from a real person without even closely resembling the historical figure. This would be the case with E.B. Farnum.

In general, however, these characters often personify the types of people who arrived in and lived at the camp during its early years when Deadwood was, in fact, a violent, wild, and bawdy town.

Silas Adams – Played by Titus Welliver, Silas Adams is one of Al Swearengen’s henchmen in the HBO Deadwood series. Though Swearengen did employ several “ugly” characters to work for him during his days at the Gem Theatre, there is no record of a Silas Adams in Deadwood’s early history.

William Bullock – Played by Josh Eriksson, this character did not exist in actual life, as Martha Bullock was never married to Seth’s brother. The character, however, may be loosely based on Douglas Kislingbury, Seth’s seven-year-old nephew. Douglas’ mother, Agnes (Seth’s sister), had already died when Lieutenant Frederick F. Kislingbury was sent on the Greeley Polar Seas Expedition in 1881. While his father was gone, Douglas was sent to stay with Seth; however, the Lieutenant died on the expedition. Seth later returned Douglas to family members in New York in 1885.

Doc Cochran – There is no record of a Doctor Cochran in Deadwood. In 1876, there was a doctor named Lyman F. Babcock who served the town until after the turn of the century. In the 1880 census, there also appears a 27-year-old surgeon by the name of Thomas Franks, who was housed right next to the Gem Theatre. Another doctor named F.S. Howe set up shop in 1901 and was known to administer to the prostitutes, many of whom escaped their lives through alcoholism, laudanum, and opium use. Dr. Howe was always known to take his stomach pump when summoned to one of the brothels in the middle of the night.

Whitney Ellsworth – Played by Jim Beaver, there is no known man in Deadwood’s real history by this name. However, Ellsworth is typical of many men in the camp who spent most of their time prospecting in the various camps of the west.

Alma Garrett – Alma and her deceased husband, Brom, are fictional characters, typical of many of the naive city slickers who came to the camp in search of their fortunes. As such, Alma didn’t own the Homestake Mine, have an affair with Seth Bullock, or capitalize the Deadwood Bank. Molly Parker plays Alma Garrett on the HBO Deadwood series.

Sophia Metz – On April 24, 1876, there was a Metz Massacre that was attributed to Indians but was most likely led by a white man. Charles Metz was a baker in Custer, South Dakota, but when the strike was made at Deadwood, most of Custer’s residents moved to the new gold rush. Metz decided to go to Laramie, Wyoming. Loading up with his wife and a colored maid, Metz hired a teamster named Simpson to lead them. All four were found murdered, their bodies horribly mutilated about 12 miles south of Custer the next morning. There were no children in the Metz party.

Joanie Stubbs – Though there was a theatre called the Bella Union in Deadwood, there is no record that a Joanie Stubbs worked there or anywhere else in the mining camp. While several other madams worked in the camp, including Dora Dufran and Mollie Johnson, the character of Joanie does not closely follow what is known about these to madams. Additionally, the Bella Union was not owned by Cy Tolliver but by a gentleman named Tom Miller. Though very grand, like the building in the series, the Bella Union was not a gambling saloon but a theatre that provided entertainment mild enough for “proper” ladies and family members. Kim Dickens plays Joanie Stubbs on the HBO Deadwood series.

Cy Tolliver – There is no record of a Cy Tolliver in Deadwood’s history. The Bella Union was built and owned by a man named Tom Miller in 1876 and indeed was the grandest place in town. The reception room quickly became the central meeting place of Deadwood. However, the Bella Union didn’t last very long. In November 1878, the whole place was dismantled, and the furniture and fixtures were sold. The lower floor became a grocery store, and the upper floor, a meeting room called Mechanics Hall. Powers Boothe plays Cy Toliver on the HBO Deadwood series.

Francis Wolcott – Though George Hearst and other investors would eventually buy the Homestake Mine in 1877, there is no evidence that a man named Francis Wolcott ever existed in Deadwood. Though there was a man named Major Francis “Frank” Wolcott who led the Regulators during the Johnson County War in Wyoming in April 1892, it is very unlikely that the two were one and the same. Hearst did, however, send agents to Deadwood to investigate the claims before his arrival, one of which was a man named L.D. Kellogg, an experienced practical miner. After a brief investigation, Kellogg optioned the Homestake and Golden Star Claims for $70,000. George Hearst and his partners incorporated their holdings as The Homestake Mining Company in California on November 5, 1877. P.S. I assume everyone noticed that the actor who plays Wolcott, Garret Dillahunt, is the same man that played that dastardly Jack McCall?

Mr. Wu and Other Chinese Characters – Though Wu is representative of Tong leaders in the camp, there is no record for anyone by that name in actual Deadwood history in the 1870s. That being said, Wu is representative of the many Chinese people who formed a large community in Deadwood during its early days, including two men who owned gambling and opium dens named Quong Lee and Wing Tsue. Though the series shows a Chinese City within the city in 1876, the bulk of the Chinese didn’t arrive in Deadwood until the early 1880s, and there are no mentions of the Chinese in Deadwood newspapers during 1876. In fact, when 50 Chinese men showed up in 1877, the white miners were in an uproar. As to the Chinese opium sales to the white settlers, this is true. There were several opium dens in the camp by 1880, and though an effort was made to get them to leave, they were running very prosperously by 1883.

Foul Language

Did they really use that much foul language in the Old West? This is a little fictional and a little factual. They did use foul language in Deadwood’s early days when the camp was primarily filled with rowdy men and rough characters. It was so bad, in fact, that the newspaper headlines reported, in 1879, that residents were organizing to suppress the profanity. However, in those days, such words as crap, shit, damn, and bitch were considered to be very foul language. Today, these words are used in common everyday language, and we hear them all the time, usually taking minor offense. Therefore, the show uses the “worst” words (of today) to get the point across.

The original intention of the series was to use period slang and swear words; however, according to David Milch, the series creator, the results sounded downright comical. Utilizing current profanity, the words have a much greater impact on modern audiences, sending the message of how lawless and “barbaric” the camp was during its early days.