Birthday: July 8, 1845
Died At Age: 59
Sun Sign: Cancer
Also Known As: Ellis Alfred Swearengen
Born Country: United States
Born in: Oskaloosa, Iowa, United States
Famous as: Entertainment Entrepreneur
Spouse/Ex-: Nettie Swearengen
father: Daniel Swearengen
mother: Keziah Swearengen
siblings: Eldora Swearengen, Franklin P. Swearingen, John H. Swearengen, Lemuel A. Swearengen, Sarah J. Swearengen, Theodore Swearengen, William W. Swearengen, Winfield S. Swearengen
Died on: November 15, 1904
place of death: Colorado
U.S. State: Iowa
Ellis Alfred Swearengen was a pimp and entertainment entrepreneur from Iowa. During the late 19th century, he was known for running a notorious brothel called the Gem Theater in Deadwood, South Dakota, for 22 years. The Gem offered people many services, including gambling, stage shows, and prostitution. Swearengen was a criminal notorious for his brutality. He would forge alliances with influential men who would help him in running his illegal businesses. He would lure young women into prostitution and bring them to Deadwood. He committed most of the crimes himself and had a gang of henchmen to help him. His prostitution business thrived and he made a lot of money, sometimes earning as much as a nightly average of $5,000 - $10,000. After a few years of its opening, the Gem burned down due to a fire accident. However, Swearengen rebuilt his establishment on an even bigger scale. In popular culture, he was depicted in an HBO television series titled ‘Deadwood’ that ran for two years.
Childhood & Early Life
Ellis Alfred "Al" Swearengen was born on July 8, 1845, in Oskaloosa, Iowa Territory, to Daniel J. Swearingen and Keziah Montgomery. His father was a farmer.
Al Swearengen had a twin brother named Lemuel. The twins were the eldest two out of the eight siblings. The twins lived in Iowa until they were adults.
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After moving to Deadwood, Al Swearengen bought a canvas-and-lumber saloon called the Cricket. The Cricket had a gambling space and they even hosted prizefights. Shortly afterwards, he shut it down and opened a bigger saloon called the Gem Theater. The Gem operated on a larger scale and functioned as a saloon, dance hall, and brothel.
To run his brothel, he would hire women by offering them jobs at hotels as stage performers. However, on arriving at the venue they would realize that he had lied. But without any other place to go to, these women would be trapped and find themselves with no option but to work with Swearengen.
Although the Gem had comedians, singers, and dancers, it was basically a brothel masquerading for a saloon. He also hired Calamity Jane, who later scouted more girls to dance at the Gem for him. She was one of his first dancers.
He earned a lot of money at the brothel, sometimes making over $5,000 per night. In 1879, there was a fire at the Gem that spread to entire Deadwood, leaving over 300 buildings engulfed in flames. The Gem was rebuilt after this mishap.
There was another fire at the Gem in 1899 which burned it down to ashes. It was never rebuilt again.
In 1921, Deadwood’s first gas station was built in the location where the Gem was once situated. Today, the same location is the site of the Mineral Palace Casino.
Family & Personal Life
Al Swearengen moved to Deadwood with his newly-married wife Nettie Swearengen in May 1876. However, Nettie divorced him claiming he was abusive.
After the fire destroyed the Gem, he came back to Iowa and married Odelia Turgeon in 1899. This marriage also ended in divorce. He remarried once again after that but his third wife also divorced him.
His twin brother Lemuel died in the summer of 1910 in Oskaloosa. He was shot by unknown assailants. Even though he initially survived the attack, he died after a few days.
Although there is no official confirmation as to how he died, it is often believed that he passed away penniless while trying to get on a freight train. His body was found on November 15, 1904; he had apparently suffered a massive head wound. Some believe he was murdered in the middle of a suburban Denver street, while others state he died in an accident.
Interestingly, his twin brother was shot by unknown people just two months prior to Al’s death. Many believe Al was the intended target but the assailants shot his brother by mistake.
An HBO series titled ‘Deadwood’ depicted the life of Swearengen in Deadwood. It ran from 2004 to 2006, and was a huge success critically. However, the series showed Swearengen as a man from England. In 2005, Ian McShane, who played the character, bagged a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Drama for his portrayal.
According to TV Guide, the character was named #6 in their 2013 list of The 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time. McShane also played Swearengen in ‘Deadwood: The Movie’ (2019), which is set in 1889.