Days 22 & 23: Sin & Debauchery!

June 20, 2018

I am sidling, nervously, into a Town of Sin and Debauchery! A leisurely 45-minute drive through the exquisite beauty of the mystical Black Hills, shows me, once again, the flip side of the Frontier. As usual, I am the only Injun amid a horde of cowboys. I wonder if I am the only non-white in the whole of South Dakota! However, they treat me as I expect a horde of Injuns would treat the Lone Ranger - with benevolent indifference.

If ever there was a town whose foundations are built on pure, unadulterated, unabashed greed and venality, it is Deadwood. A hugely atmospheric little town, still thriving on, at least, one of its hereditary sins, gambling, it was once the heart of the Black Hills gold rush. Deadwood has seen it all. The gritty, eponymous HBO series has prepared me for the rawness of this once no-holds-barred, lawless and, indeed, completely illegal, ‘camp’, on land guaranteed 'in perpetuity' to the Lakota, by the Treaty of Laramie. Al Swearengen did run his bordello, the Gem Theatre, across the road (today the Mineral Palace Hotel), a refuge for gamblers, cardsharps, and, in the exquisite parlance of the day, 'soiled doves'. Nearby was the equally notorious Bella Union Saloon. Eleven of every 16 women were ‘soiled doves’.


Further down Main Street, witness to so much, is the infamous Saloon No 10, where a cowardly Jack McCall shot the legendary Wild Bill Hickok in the back, as he sat playing cards, holding what has come to be known as the Dead Man’s Hand - 2 aces and 2 eights. This street has known Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, allegedly Wild Bill’s girlfriend, celebrated Sheriff Seth Bullock, Charlie Utter, Sol Star, Wong Lee, all larger-than-life Wild West characters in their own right.


They all now sleep in the Mt Moriah Cemetery. Of course, Deadwood would not be Deadwood if this famous cemetery was not also home to the graves of its celebrated brothel Madams, such as Madam Moustache. The entire town was built on alcohol, prostitution and opium, riding the heady crest of the gold rush. The law was a rough and ready thing, at best, and its enforcement both sporadic and hazardous. Guns, grit and, above all, gold. The Homestead Gold Mine finally shut in 2002, after 126 years of operation. The last brothel downed its less-than-discreet shutters as recently as 1980.


Deadwood was a tough little gulch and its residents even tougher. A devastating fire destroyed the town in 1879, but it rapidly rebuilt and rose again, phoenix-like. Seth Bullock and Sol Star’s shop was one of the victims, but they reincarnated into the Bullock Hotel, still operating today - complete with tours to meet Bullock’s ghost. Almost Divine retribution, for its sins, fire and flood destroyed Deadwood several times, over the years.

But Deadwood is still here, and prospering. Today, it is no longer the town of sin, greed and lawlessness, but it does use its highly picturesque past to good effect, in promoting tourism, as a baby Las Vegas, but with history. There are regular ‘shoot-outs’ up and down Main Street, and the infamous assassination of Wild Bill Hickok is re-enacted, along with the first, sham trial of Jack McCall. Even Kevin Costner has got in on the action, after he filmed Dances with Wolves , buying up the Midnight Star Casino and a tour company.

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As the evening shades draw in, I stroll back to my hotel, the historic Silverado Franklin, just a few feet from where gold was first struck, in Deadwood Gulch. Rooms beside mine have hosted Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, John Wayne, Buffalo Bill Cody and other celebrities. Jolted by a flurry of gunshots, I realised it is the evening shootout, and hurry across the street to the Masonic Lodge, to watch the trial of Jack McCall.

Having witnessed the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, earlier, I am keen to see its conclusion. The only ticketed event of the day’s many historic entertainments, it is staged with enthusiasm, skill and great humour. Audience members are often hauled up to the stage, to participate as witnesses, and I suddenly find myself ‘volunteered’, despite having studiously avoided eye contact with the ‘recruiter’! Though I have not acted since my schooldays, I throw myself into the part with gusto! As the trial ends, and the murderer is set free, by the jury of disreputable minor miners (average age six years), I walk back on to Main Street, now draped in velvety night. Looking down the street, fairly dimly-lit, even today, it is easy to see the ghosts of horses, carts and stagecoaches, clattering about, and the rowdy, boisterous crowds that were the lifeblood of Deadwood. Rarely has a town been so inaccurately named!


On a sombre note, I just received word that the Medicine Man I interviewed on Day 14, passed away four days later. My photograph of him, in Muscat Daily , was the last of him alive. Pila maya, Catches His Enemy.