Vile, crude, bawdy, crowded, entertaining, and profitable – all terms which were used at one time or another to describe Deadwood’s infamous nineteenth-century Gem Theater.
As depicted HBO’s Deadwood series and in actuality, the Gem and its owner Al Swearengen became synonymous with much of what was perceived as corrupt and immoral in the early years of Deadwood’s history.
Al reportedly arrived in Deadwood Gulch in the summer of 1876 from Chicago with his first wife Nettie. His first enterprise in the fledgling gold camp was the Cricket Saloon, a small narrow saloon that featured local miners and laborers in boxing matches staged in a 5’ x 5’ ring. By the next spring Al had created the prototype by which future Deadwood “venues” would be judged.
Swearengen opened the newly constructed Gem Variety Theater on Deadwood’s lower Main Street (in the area known as The Badlands—now a parking lot next to the Celebrity Hotel) in April of 1877. The frame building featured a theater with ample seating, a bar, gaming tables, and small rooms in the rear where the Gem’s “hostesses” entertained customers.
Al’s Gem offered the wide-open region a variety of “entertainment” including the popular prizefights, booze, singers, dancers, comedians, and prostitutes. The Gem immediately flourished as the primary address of debauchery, violence, and entertainment in Deadwood. Al’s abuse of his three divorced wives, of his working girls, and of his employees is well documented in the early years of Deadwood. His right-hand men Dan Doherty and Johnny Burns were apparently no better, and were said to be as ruthless as their boss.
As notorious as The Gem became, it reportedly stayed in business in large part due to an unspoken arrangement with local law enforcement. The patronage of The Gem by certain influential clientele apparently insulated the establishment from routine interference by law enforcement officers, including Seth Bullock.
The Gem was moderately damaged by fire in June of 1879, but was quickly reopened. Several months later it and approximately 300 other buildings were destroyed by the great Deadwood fire in September of 1879. Undaunted, Swearengen rebuilt and opened the doors in December of that same year. The new Gem soon returned to its prior status as the center of evil and immorality in Deadwood. It would remain that way until 1899 when another catastrophic fire destroyed Swearengen’s grand den of iniquity.
Swearengen left Deadwood penniless soon after The Gem’s destruction, and was (depending on the source) killed by accident, murdered, or committed suicide while attempting to board or “hop” a train in Denver. After the final demise, the Deadwood Pioneer referred to The Gem as “the everlasting shame of Deadwood” and a “defiler of youth and a destroyer of home ties.” Thus ended the era of The Gem as a part of Deadwood’s colorful formative years.
Pioneer Days in the Black Hills by John S. McClintock