HBO’s Deadwood only lasted for three seasons, but it spawned one of the most memorable TV characters in history: Al Swearengen. The brothel boss was a brutal pimp, but also a shrewd businessman. And while there was much to hate about Al, his charisma almost made it hard to truly despise the man. Ian McShane’s portrayal of Al Swearengen (which you can catch on HBO NOW) was award-worthy, but it was also based on a real-life man who made his way to Deadwood, South Dakota, in the late 1800s. Here are some facts about the real Al Swearengen that you might not have been aware of.
The Gem Saloon Wasn’t His First Business
Born in Iowa in 1845, Swearengen actually had a twin brother, Lemuel. The twins were two of eight children, and before he made his ways to the Black Hills, Al and his brother Lem started a saloon that was ultimately unsuccessful. Before his time in Deadwood, Al made a stop in Custer City, a city he actually helped develop by plotting out the city lines. Not much is known about why Al didn’t stay in Custer, but the allure of gold in the South Dakota mining camp may have swayed him to move along.
He Wasn’t a Great Family Man
When Al arrived to the Deadwood mining camp in May of 1876, he came with his wife Nettie. It’s hard to believe that a man as notoriously ruthless (more on that later) as Swearengen would have married, but the relationship didn’t last. Claiming spousal abuse, Nettie divorced Al in the same year that they arrived in Deadwood. Al would marry twice more while in Deadwood, but those marriages ended with similar claims of abuse.
He Forced Women Into Prostitution
Swearengen would place ads in the papers for positions in his saloon, many described as just waiting tables and providing entertainment. But, when the women would arrive to the Gem, they would be forced into prostitution or risk being beaten and thrown out into the street. It was also common for prostitutes — who felt there was no other choice — to actually commit suicide. One story, published in the Black Hills Daily Times, told the tale of officials having to rescue almost a dozen girls who were locked inside the Gem Saloon for not complying with Al’s wishes.
The History of the Gem Saloon
Al’s first place of business in Deadwood was the Cricket Saloon, but the saloon was narrow and Al wanted to open something a bit more grand. In 1877, Al opened the Gem Saloon and Theater, which offered entertainment in the form of dancers, musicians, and comedians. But, that all masked what was going on behind the closed rooms of the saloon: prostitution. With a mix of gambling, entertainment, and prostitution, it’s been said that the Gem was raking in anywhere between $5,000-$10,000 a night.
In the summer of 1879, the Gem suffered damage from a fire, but it was quickly rebuilt. Three months later, nearly the entirety of Deadwood — including the Gem — was destroyed in an inferno. The destruction of the Gem allowed Al the opportunity to build an even bigger and more grandiose Gem Theater and Saloon, and business boomed. In 1899, the Gem suffered another fire that destroyed the building, and Al decided not to rebuild this time, soon after leaving Deadwood for good.
The Demise of Al Swearengen
Swearengen’s death is shrouded in mystery. On Oct. 2, 1904, Al’s twin brother Lemuel was attacked outside of a meat market. He was shot five times but survived. Some say that the attackers were targeting Al, but mistook his brother for him. Just two months later, on Nov. 15, 1904, Al Swearengen’s body was found near railroad tracks. Initial suspicions claimed that he died trying to board the train, but a later autopsy found that he had been beaten with a blunt object to the back of the head. Al had amassed many enemies during his time in Deadwood, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that one of his enemies extracted revenge on the former saloon owner and pimp.
Six years later, Lem Swearengen suffered a similar fate when he was found dead due to blunt force trauma to the back of his head. Al had a good run with the Gem Saloon in Deadwood, and even helped turn the mining camp into a town. Unfortunately, shady business practices — including murder — as well as a propensity for inflicting violence on his opponents and employees, might have led to the demise of Al Swearengen.
Tell us how you really feel, Al.