The discovery of gold in the southern Black Hills in 1874 set off one of the great gold rushes in America. In 1876, miners moved into the northern Black Hills. That’s where they came across a gulch full of dead trees and a creek full of gold and Deadwood was born. Practically overnight, the tiny gold camp boomed into a town that played by its own rules and attracted outlaws, gamblers, and gunslingers along with the gold seekers.
Deadwood was comprised mostly of single men. In the beginning the ratio of men to women was as high as 8 to 1. The lack of affordable housing, the hostile environment, the high cost of travel, and the expense of living in Deadwood prevented many men from bringing their wives, girlfriends, and families to the growing town. Hordes of prostitutes and madams came to Deadwood to capitalize on the lack of women. By the mid-1880s, there were more than a hundred brothels in the mining community.
One of the most notorious cat houses in Deadwood was owned and operated by Al Swearengen. Swearengen was an entertainment entrepreneur who opened a house of ill-repute shortly after he arrived in town in the spring of 1876. Initially known as The Gem, the brothel was host to several well-known soiled doves of the Old West from Eleanora Dumont to Kitty LeRoy.
Among the many madams who ran other cat houses in and around Deadwood were Poker Alice Tubbs, Mert O’Hara, and Gertrude Bell. The names of some of the most popular brothels in Deadwood Gulch were the Shy-Ann Room, Fern’s Place, The Cozy Room, the Beige Door, and the Shasta Room. After more than a hundred years of continual operation, the brothels in Deadwood were forced to close in 1980.
In the summer of 2020, the Beige Door reopened for business. This time as a museum. The Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission, the Main Street Initiative Committee, and Deadwood History, Inc. (DHI) developed the idea of opening the only brothel tour in the Black Hills. The Brothel Deadwood has had a steady flow of visitors since the tour opened
The book An Open Secret: The Story of Deadwood’s Most Notorious Bordellos focuses on infamous cat houses like the Beige Door, those individuals who managed the businesses, their employees, their well-known clientele, the various crimes committed at the locations, and their ultimate demise.
Chris Enss is a New York Times best-selling author who has been writing about women of the Old West for more than twenty years. She has penned more than forty published books on the subject. Her work has been honored with six Will Rogers Medallion Awards, two Elmer Kelton Book Awards, the Downing Journalism Award, and an Oklahoma Center for the Book Award. Enss’s most recent works are According to Kate: The Legendary Life of Big Nose Kate, Love of Doc Holliday; No Place for a Woman: The Struggle for Suffrage in the Wild West; and Iron Women: The Ladies Who Helped Build the Railroad.