SOUTH DAKOTA LEGENDS: The Painted Ladies of Deadwood Gulch

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“Working girls” in Deadwood were as prominent a fixture as that of the many miners in the bustling boom camp. Though these “ladies”most likely arrived almost as soon as the first man, the first record of prostitutes coming to Deadwood was in July, 1876.

Arriving with Charlie Utter’s wagon train, along with Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, were several “professional” women, including two madams who went by the names of Dirty Em and Madam Mustachio. The two seasoned veterans had previously worked in many of the California and Nevada mining camps. The miners were so pleased to see the women that they lined up along the street and cheered.

A thriving industry in the camp dominated almost entirely by men, in 1876, it was estimated that approximately 90% of women of the camp were “painted ladies.” Difficult for a woman to make a living in the American West during these times, many single women or those who had lost husbands or fathers to provide for them were almost forced into prostitution in order to support themselves.

In other cases, such as that of Al Swearengen and the Gem Saloon, unsuspecting women were lured to Deadwood with the promise of respectable employment, only to find themselves stranded without money or means and without other options, virtually enslaved in the dance halls or brothels.

These many women not only charged for sexual favors but also hustled drinks, sold “dances,” and were sometimes stage performers.

Largely confined to the Badlands district at the north end of town, saloons and theaters usually occupied the first floors, while the brothels operated upstairs. By the turn of the century, the Badlands occupied an entire block of two-story buildings on the west side of Main Street.

Often these women faced violence and turned to drugs and alcohol as a means of escape. Opium, laudanum, and morphine, with laudanum being the most often used. Unfortunately, doctors often started the “girls” use of the drug to reduce the number of calls he would receive. At other times, it was their employers who got them started on the drugs, in order to better control them. Suicides were common in the camp and Dr. F.S. Howe, the only doctor in Deadwood during its earliest days, always carried his stomach pump when summoned to the Badlands in the middle of the night.

Having little protection from the law or anyone else, the women were often abused by their customers and employers. On one occasion, a Gem Theatre prostitute named Tricksie, shot a man through the head after he beat her up. When Howe arrived, he was amazed that the man was still alive, even after putting a probe all the way through the his head. However, this nameless man died about thirty minutes later.

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