Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods
Red-Light America
Deadwood: Al Swearengen
Deadwood: Al Swearengen
Ellis Albert "Al" Swearengen (left inset) deserves serious consideration for the title of pimp extraordinaire of the Old West. With the assassination of gunslinger-lawman Wild Bill Hickok three months after Swearengen came to Deadwood, S.D., law and order in the gold-rush boomtown collapsed. Swearengen used the seeming legitimacy of his business, the Gem Variety Theater (right inset), to advertise in papers all over the U.S. The ads lured women to travel to Deadwood for work as maids, actresses or singers at the Gem. Swearengen even bought applicants one-way tickets. Once the usually penniless women arrived, though, Swearengen beat them, broke them, got them hooked on laudanum and forced them into prostitution. Those strong enough to refuse were thrown into the street. Swearengen, in a town of rough and violent men, was considered notoriously violent with his wives and his stable. Each of his three wives left him on grounds of abuse.

The prostitutes at the Gem were virtual slaves, routinely showing bruises and other injuries, but Swearengen parlayed the revenue from his brothel into political protection and power, allegedly negotiating a deal with the town marshal giving Swearengen virtual control over the lower end of town around the Gem, an area known as "the Badlands." Swearengen's treatment of his whores was brutal, and their suicides became frequent enough for the town doctor always to take a stomach pump with him when responding to calls from the Badlands . Swearengen ran the Gem from its inception in 1877 until its destruction by fire in 1899. Once the Gem and Swearengen were gone, local papers finally came out against the Gem, calling it the "ever-lasting shame of Deadwood."
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