Deadwood’s ‘Soiled Doves’
It was just about inevitable; people have asked me when I would mention the ‘Soiled Doves’ of Deadwood. If you watch the HBO series they figure prominently into the day to day happenings of the frontier settlement. The historical facts around these women is often more interesting than the fictional depictions and legends that exist around them.
You can actually find a lot of scholarly material that has been written about prostitution in the old west. I’ve listed a few of these on the book list on this blog for those of you who want to follow this topic up further. In the course of my own research I’ve found even more authoritative materials that are not so easily available. If you are particularly interested in frontier era prostitution in Deadwood the best single item I’ve found is:
‘Tenderloin Tales: Prostitution, Gambling & Opium on the Gold Belt of the Northern Black Hills 1876-1915’, Don Toms, 2004, State Publishing Company, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 97-92161
This is a small paperback with only 96 pages but it is packed with historical information on some of the most sordid aspects of Black Hill’s history. The author draws heavily on newspaper accounts of the period. He also devotes a section specifically to the legendary Gem Theatre. Up until the HBO series Al Swearengen and the Gem were relatively minor notes in the history of Deadwood. Now you can’t bring up Deadwood without somebody eventually asking about Al and his nefarious activities. Let me say it now, from what I have learned from historical sources the HBO series in no way exaggerates Al Swearengen’s activities. In some ways he was far worse tha the show depicts him!
I’ve also found a number of scholars doing research on prostitution in the old west. This can be a loaded topic with many people; the way we view the past is often through perspectives colored by our contemporary lives. It can be difficult to objectively view the hardships and efforts of people in the contexts of their lives then. It is easy to conclude that prostitution was a moral evil; the lives of many of these women were short and brutal. It is also true, with substantial evidence to support it, that some of these women lived relatively comfortable and uneventful lives. Just like so much of the old west their individual experiences varied with the circumstances they confronted. Personally I would not recommend prostitution as a career or lifestyle to anybody but if you consider the career options available to women of the era it becomes a more understandable choice.
One author and scholar of frontier era prostitution who has greatly effected my thinking also is a party to an excellent website:
Professor James Moynahan has a large number of publications on the ‘Soiled Doves’ of the era. His research is based on primary sources and includes items you might not even consider. He has four cookbooks based on recipes he has gathered from the bordellos of the time! You won’t find these books on most bookstore websites but you can order them directly from him and his Paypal account. His work is worth the little bit of additional effort.
Now to the topic of prostitution in frontier era Deadwood.
In July of 1876 a wagon train known as the ‘Colorado Charlie Wagon Train’ entered Deadwood. It had the none other than Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane serving as outriders. What was more notable was that this wagon train brought the first of the ‘soiled doves’ to Deadwood. I’m not sure how many of them there were but the records of the time show they were brought there by two ‘madams’; Madam Mustachio and one known simply as ‘Dirty Em’. Now both of these madams had apparently made their money up to this time as faro dealers. Faro was the gambling game of choice for many miners and would have given a person a lucrative source of income to start any enterprise of the day. These girls on the wagon train were listed officially as ‘Dance Hall Girls’, this was a dubious title at best back then.
Eleanore Dumont, AKA ‘Madam Mustachio’, was highly experienced at this sort of operation. She had previous experience in Nevada City, Caifornia; Virginia City, Nevada; Silver City, New Mexico and all over the mining camps of Colorado. Deadwood was just the next opportunity to be exploited. One of the sources for many of the girls she brought in was the mining camps of Colorado. At the time it was just a matter of taking a train from Denver to Cheyenne, Wyoming and then catching a wagon train to Deadwood. The total time for the journey was about ten days.
Now I have heard various estimates for the number of women who were in Deadwood during its early days. The most reliable number I’ve found puts the ratio of men to women at 40 to 1 and almost all of these women were either full-time or part-time prostitutes. The majority of the population of the area was not actually in Deadwood but scattered in the numerous mining camps throughout Lawrence County. The estimated population of Lawrence County in 1877 was about 20,000 and according to one estimate in Army records the population of Deadwood was about 2000. If you accept the idea that the vast majority of the ‘soiled doves’ actually lived within Deadwood and served the population of the entire county the rough number of women would be around 500. Now these women also appear in the records of several other Black Hills mining settlements, most notably Lead. As a percentage they were only a tiny fragment of the early community but their numbers were still significant.
Many of the Deadwood prostitutes were what was known as ‘Upstairs Girls’; they plied their trade in the second story spaces of the saloons, dance halls, gambling dens and theaters of the community. They frequently worked under the ‘supervision’ and protection of a pimp. The depiction of such an operation in the HBO series is actually close to the truth. Al Swearengen’s establishment was only exceptional in its success and size. One set of records I’ve seen indicates that there were at least six establishments in Deadwood that were exclusively bordellos. There were over eighty saloons in Deadwood in the 1870’s and it was very common for them to have girls to entertain the patrons. The fact of the matter was not having girls could represent a definite competitive liability.
When Laurie and I visited Deadwood about two years ago we were in one of the buildings that had formerly been a saloon. The present owner of the first floor shop there now told us how when they were remodelling the building in the 1990’s the remodellers were shocked to find the floors between the first and second floors were filled with heavy steel plate! It took them a little research to discover that in the gold mining days the saloon was frequented by gun wielding miners. It was not uncommon for them to fire their weapons into the air during some of their drunken revelry. The girls of the establishment had insisted that if they were to work upstairs they needed to be sure they wouldn’t be shot in the back. Thus the steel plate in the floor…
Well, I think I will publish this is segments just like I did with the ‘military history’ portion of this blog. Deadwood had such an amazing bit of history in regards to its darker past. I haven’t even mentioned the opium dens, Chinese sex trade, lotteries, or all the other interesting things people did to entertain themselves. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned yet that the last bordello in Deadwood didn’t get closed until 1980!