|Girls of the Gulch
A quarter-century ago, the door of Deadwood's last brothel closed. But you can't keep a good (or bad) girl down.
By Dustin D. Floyd
CREDIT: Adams Museum
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was published in the Dec. 2005 issue of Deadwood Magazine. It has been edited for length only, and has not otherwise been updated.
Pat Roberts was out sweeping the sidewalk in front of the Ford dealership on Deadwood’s Main Street. It was a Wednesday, just before 8 in the morning, and Roberts was getting his business ready to open for the day. That’s when he noticed a parade of white vans round the corner of Wall Street and park across from him. A detachment of men in plaid sport coats emerged and quickly fanned out along the sidewalk. Roberts stopped sweeping and surveyed the scene long enough to recognize one of the men.
“I saw a good friend of mine, Bruce Jacob, who was a federal marshal from Rapid City. So I went over to talk to him and see what was going on,” Roberts remembers. “He suggested I go back across the street.”
After a few moments, Roberts – and a growing crowd of onlookers – realized just how serious the duded-up detectives were.
“A bunch of guys climbed the stairs with sledgehammers and axes in their hands. No kidding,” says Roberts. “They were just going to break in and shut down the whorehouses. And they did.”
It was the morning of May 21, 1980 – and it was doomsday for Deadwood’s brothels. For the past 104 years, prostitution had prospered in the small Western town relatively unimpeded. But Deadwood’s take on the world’s oldest profession was brought to an end in a matter of hours, thanks to a joint raid by federal, state and county law enforcement. Local authorities weren’t involved in the investigation, although they were invited to the raid – five minutes before it took place.
Local law enforcement had always been aware of prostitution’s existence in the area. In fact, Deadwood’s sex trade predated the establishment of law and order.
“It appears there were prostitutes almost immediately in Deadwood and Lead,” says Don Toms, a regional historian and author of “Tenderloin Tales” (“None of it was written from experience,” he quips). “And that would fit in with the gold camps and the atmosphere at the time. They were here very, very early.”
The police, however, were not, and that suited the freewheeling miners and entrepreneurs of Deadwood just fine. But soon external threats from hostile Indian tribes and internal squabbles among businessmen inspired the gold camp’s residents to organize and develop government. By the summer of 1876, Deadwood had appointed its first mayor and sheriff.
As the years progressed, the city became more organized, the government more powerful and the police better-suited to deal with social problems.
Prostitution, however, was not usually regarded as a problem. In fact, the sex industry was more often seen as an economic cornerstone – even by the local government.
“It’s interesting to see how the city of Lead was using it as a real moneymaker. There was no real reason to get rid of prostitution because the fines they collected were so lucrative,” Toms says. “In Lead they’d actually collected enough funds to buy a new city hall by 1912… It was a good way for them to look like they were doing something about enforcing the law, but still profiting from it and not doing away with it altogether.”
Of course, this government-sanctioned extortion scheme wasn’t without its flaws.
“The early court records show that they were bringing in all the girls and madams and it got to be a real fiasco, a real zoo,” Toms adds. “They all started appointing each other as their own defense attorneys, and because of the types of people involved the language was pretty rough, so it was a real mess for them… Eventually they decided that instead of bringing everyone in and fining them $5 each, they’d just bring in the madams and raise the fine to $100.”
As time went on, the population of the Black Hills shifted from drifting placer miners to businessmen and engineers with established families. Prostitution in Deadwood and Lead began to decline. The brothels in Lead were the first to go, Toms says, their departure hastened by the destruction of their neighborhood due to mining-related landslides. On the other hand, prostitution continued in Deadwood - although on a smaller scale.
“There wasn’t anything to interrupt it,” Toms says. “Which is pretty amazing. It was probably more of something that wasn’t talked about a lot or made a big deal of. People locally basically knew that it was there, but it wasn’t any real big deal.”
But by the spring of 1980, Deadwood’s brothels had become a big deal. Federal and state law enforcement, motivated by rumors of drugs and violence, decided to put an end to the town’s prostitution trade on May 21.
The brothels wouldn’t die so easily, however. Business as usual might have been suspended, but the spirit embodied by Deadwood’s cathouses continued for weeks. July was especially festive, culminating in a protest parade and the auction of items from the city’s most infamous house of ill-repute: Pam’s Purple Door.
Thanks to incessant national media exposure, Pam Holliday’s auction of items from her Purple Door brothel on July 17 was attended by more than 1,000 collectors, gawkers and spectators, local newspaper accounts say. The first item hit the block at 4:30 in the afternoon, but the last gavel didn’t go down until after 1 a.m. Auctioneers recorded 624 sales that day.
July also saw protesters parade down Main Street in demonstration against the raid. Variably called the “Save Our Tail” or “Save Our Girls” Parade (after the slogans carried by participants), the event illustrated the overriding local support for Deadwood’s sex workers.
“The attitude in town was wonderful. People accepted them,” Roberts says. “They weren’t on the street and they didn’t bother anyone. They were just part of the Deadwood community.”
Although the loss of Deadwood’s brothels was a social one, it was an economic one, too. Prostitution provided an added incentive for ranchers and workers from the Wyoming oil fields to come into Deadwood for the weekends, Roberts said.
Aside from the direct impact on the local economy, the brothels were an important funding source for civic organizations. The generosity of the madams is still legendary in Deadwood, and if you talk to a resident long enough, they’ll hesitantly relay rumors of large donations that paid for playground equipment, special events and even the city’s firefighting equipment.
A quarter of a century after the collapse of Deadwood’s sex industry, the city has grown new economic feet in the form of increased tourism and legalized gaming. While no one expects any legalization efforts anytime soon, most residents maintain a positive attitude toward one of Deadwood’s oldest industries.
“I don’t think it would be in the best interest of the government,” Roberts points out. “But it sure would be good for business.”
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