Deadwood’s brothels were notorious, and still are, thanks in part to HBO. Ian McShane’s portrayal of Al Swearengen more or typified the saloon and brothel keepers of Deadwood’s early years, although even the best-versed historians recognize Al as being at the top of the ‘bad dude’ scale…
But Deadwood’s brothels continued on past Al Swearengen and Deadwood’s dirty days. Long past. It wasn’t until 1980 that Deadwood’s prostitution industry came to an end, far outliving the red light districts in most frontier towns. It was a raid by the FBI and other federal agents that finally put the last brothel out of business, much to the chagrin of many local residents. The cathouses were considered a fixture of the community, so much so that a parade was held in their honor following the shutdown. Among the slogans on their posters: “Bring Back Our Girls!”
Much of that history is being preserved. The Adams Museum in downtown Deadwood has some outstanding artifacts and interpretive displays regarding the city’s sex trade, as well as several books that help put Deadwood’s prostitution industry into the broader context of brothels in South Dakota and the rest of the Wild West.
Finding details about the final years of Deadwood’s brothels – the 1970s – is a little trickier. Fortunately, some of the original brothels still exist on the upper floors of some of the city’s historic buildings, though they’re in poor shape and aren’t open to the public. At the moment, they’re being used for storage space by the buildings’ current owner. I had a chance to go poking around one of them during a little amateur urban archeology trip yesterday, and I took plenty of pictures for a photoblog.
The brothels were housed on the second level of several buildings in Deadwood’s Badlands district. Stairs led down to street level, where the doors were unmarked – though they were brightly colored. As a result, it wasn’t too difficult for a customer to find Pam’s Purple Door brothel, if he knew where to look. There were also back doors, seen in the photo below, where customers could make a hasty retreat – or a discreet entrance. The doorways on the left lead to a bathroom and a kitchen, while the doors on the right lead to the cribs – the girls’ bedrooms. The spattered paint on the walls is the result of a poorly-executed haunted house in the 1990s.
The current tenants of this building call this “the smoking room.” The faux-wood walls, bright orange curtains and couch haven’t been changed since the brothels were closed.
A view of some of the items being stored in a former crib by its current owner. The mannequin helps give the place a very creepy feel.
More faux-wood paneling, this time with hideous wallpaper and yellow trim around the window. How could this have ever been cool?
Some of the cribs were numbered, just like apartments. I’ve spoken to several people who have worked in this building over the years, and they’ve all said that number 8 is haunted. This is a vertical image, so you’ll need to click the thumbnail to bring up the full photo.
These brothels may one day be open to the public for tours. Until then, there are a number of artifacts to ogle at the Adams Museum – and a few first-hand stories from the locals, too. Try asking someone who looks like they might have been around in the 1970s. You never know what kind of an answer you’ll get.