In part 1 of this deep dive into Deadwood—the HBO show, movie, and the Pete Dexter novel—I looked into the facts and fiction of the characters, the places, and the storylines. But part 1 only scratched the surface. In part 2, I look at several more real life characters and their stories. I also include a list of those characters that played a role in the HBO series, but who were strictly fictional.
Wyatt Earp played a small part in the HBO show. Wyatt and his brother, Morgan, arrive in camp claiming some heroic deed (the specifics escape me at the moment). When Morgan shoots one of the men Hearst has hired to create chaos among the citizenry, Bullock suggests the Earp brothers leave town. They agree and are never heard from again.
This episode never occurred, but in real life, Wyatt Earp did have two interactions with Deadwood. The first occurred in September 1876 when Wyatt and Morgan arrived in Deadwood planning to lease a mining claim. However, when they arrived, there were no claims to be leased. Morgan decided to return to Dodge City (from whence they had come, and where Wyatt had been a deputy marshal), and Wyatt stayed for the winter, hauling wood into camp with his team of horses. When no mine lease came available in the spring, Wyatt also returned to Dodge City.
Wyatt’s path crossed with Bullock’s in 1905 after President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Bullock U.S. Marshal for South Dakota. Earp was interested in becoming the sheriff in Deadwood, but Bullock was opposed to the idea. Earp, who was a deputy marshal in Dodge City with a reputation for heavy-handed enforcement of the law, traveled to Deadwood, only to be told by Bullock that they wouldn’t be needing his services. There was some fear that Earp wouldn’t react well to Bullock’s rejection, but Earp stayed calm. He simply returned to Dodge City, never to return to Deadwood again.
Although George Hearst wasn’t mentioned in Dexter’s book, the TV show and movie made him out to be one of the biggest villains in Deadwood history. So, what did they get right?
George Hearst was incredibly wealthy from his mining interests in California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Montana, as well as from the Homestake Mine near Deadwood. He also became a senator in California, as was portrayed in Deadwood: The Movie.
Hearst was known to be ruthless when it came to his mining interests, having his employees beaten and challenging anyone who stood in his way. However, there’s no reason to believe that he was as violent as he was portrayed in the TV show. For the most part, Hearst tried to get along with the locals in any of the towns where he held mining leases.
Hearst did send an agent to Deadwood to investigate the possibility of buying mine claims. However, his name was not Francis Wolcott and he did not kill a prostitute. The real-life agent’s name was L.D. Kellogg. Kellogg is the man who purchased the Homestake claim for $70,000 from Mose Manuel, Fred Manuel and Hank Harney on behalf of George Hearst.
Fun Fact: The same actor, Garrett Dillahunt, played Jack McCall and Francis Wolcott in the HBO series, Deadwood. He also played an unnamed angry drunk in Deadwood: The Movie
One person I haven’t mentioned yet is E.B Farnum. In the TV show, E.B. was portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, eccentric and endlessly greedy. He owned the Grand Central Hotel, which he eventually sold to George Hearst for $100,000. In real life, he was anything but a buffoon.
Ethan Bennett (E.B.) Farnum was born in 1826 in Massachusetts. He moved to Wisconsin and was appointed postmaster of Walworth County. In 1876, he moved his wife and three kids to Deadwood, where he was one of the first non-mining residents. Rather than a hotel, Farnum opened a general store upon arriving in Deadwood. Sensing the growth of the town, he also acquired several vacant lots on Main Street. He was instrumental in convincing the U.S. Army to locate a camp near Deadwood, and he was the driving force behind raising taxes that helped fund a pest house (to quarantine those with smallpox) and a toll road, to ensure the town would be able to get the supplies they needed. The taxes also helped Farnum in establishing a system of street cleaning, a fire department, a public school, and telegraph facilities.
Farnum was the first mayor of Deadwood, and he served as the head of the school board. He also served as justice of the peace. However, shortly after losing his bid to remain justice of the peace, he and his family moved to Chicago. It’s unclear exactly when they left, but it appears that Farnum was still in Deadwood for the big fire in September 1879. After Chicago, Farnum moved to Maury County, Tennessee, where he is believed to have died.
Fun Fact: In the HBO series, the “E.B.” in E.B. Farnum stands for Eustace Bailey.
In real life, it stands for Ethan Bennett
John Sewell (Jack) Langrishe is a fairly odd character in the TV show, the book, and in real life. Just as in real life, the book and TV show portrayed Jack as a stage actor and proprietor of a theater company. In the book, Dexter made it clear that Jack was gay. It wasn’t quite as clear in the TV show, although others claim it was obvious he was gay. In real life, Jack wasn’t gay, or at least there’s no reason to think he was gay. He was married, and he and his wife were partners in the theater company.
Before building a permanent theater, Jack’s theater company operated out of the Bella Union. They continued to entertain Deadwood residents until the great Deadwood fire in 1879. Jack and wife moved to Leadville, Colorado where they performed at the Tabor Opera House. Eventually, they moved to Idaho, where Jack gave up the stage and turned to politics, serving first as justice of the peace in Coeur d’Alene, and then as a state senator. In 1892, he founded the Wardner News newspaper in Wardner, Idaho. He died there in 1895.
Fun Fact: On the HBO series, the Bella Union was a bar, gambling hall, and brothel. In real life,
it was a grand theater that featured plays, concerts, and boxing matches.
I talked a little bit about Sol Star previously, but let’s look a little closer at the man and the character. In the TV show, Sol was in love with Trixie, a prostitute at the Gem Theater. In the book, he was in love with a Chinese prostitute. This was apparently out of character for Sol (he had a wife back in Montana). Bullock did his best to protect his friend and business partner, but that didn’t stop Sol from tracking down the prostitute’s killer and returning the favor.
Of course, none of this is true. In real life, Sol was a pillar of the community. He was a successful businessman who served Deadwood on the first town council, became town postmaster, and served for fourteen years as mayor. He was elected to the South Dakota House of Representatives in 1889, serving two years, then served as Lawrence County Clerk of Courts for twenty years. He died in 1917 in Deadwood.
Fun Fact: The fire of 1879 destroyed more than 300 buildings in Deadwood
Dan Doherty (spelled Dority in the HBO series) and Johnny Burns were both based on real people. They both worked for Al Swearengen at the Gem Theater. In real life, Johnny was known as a box herder, the person in charge of the prostitutes at a brothel. Unlike the gentle-hearted character in the HBO show, Johnny was actually quite brutal. He was known to routinely abuse his charges in order to keep them in line.
Dan Doherty worked as general manager of the Gem Theater and, like Johnny Burns, was hard on the prostitutes that worked there. However, Dan had bigger ambitions in real life than he had on the show. In 1877, after having a falling out with Swearengen, Dan quit the Gem and started his own saloon with Johnny Cooley. He later married, eventually moving with his wife to Nevada.
Calamity Jane Cannery is an unusual character, both in real life and in fiction. She worked as a scout for the U.S. Army, was an Indian fighter, as well as an occasional prostitute at several different brothels. Jane was known to be a nurse and comforter to the sick, including those suffering from smallpox in Deadwood’s pest tents. She married “Wild Bill” Hickok, and they had one child, a daughter, who was adopted by an Army captain and his wife..
What is fact and what is fiction when it comes to Calamity Jane is difficult to determine. Much of what is known about her comes from an autobiographical pamphlet she dictated for publicity purposes. Almost all of her claims are challenged, including her marriage to Wild Bill.
Those close to Bill claimed that he had no use for Jane. However, in 1941, a woman by the name of Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick applied for and was granted old age assistance by the U.S. Department of Public Welfare. At the time, she claimed that she was the biological daughter of Martha Jane “Calamity Jane” Cannery and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. To prove her assertion, she presented a family Bible that contained documentation of Jane and Bill’s 1873 marriage at Benson’s Landing, Montana Territory. The Bible was signed by two ministers and several witnesses.
McCormick published a book of letters that purportedly were written by Jane and sent to McCormick. The letters spoke of Jane’s love for Bill, their marriage, and McCormick’s adoption. However, there is reason to believe those letters were forgeries. Jane was illiterate, barely able to write her name. Because of this, many historians dispute the authenticity of McCormick’s letters.
What we do know for certain about Jane was that she was an alcoholic. There are many stories about her drinking and public drunkenness. On the final day of her life, Jane was riding on an ore train to Terry, South Dakota, drinking heavily. She took sick and had to be carried from the train to her room at the Calloway Hotel, where she died. She was just fifty-one years old. As was her dying wish, she is buried next to Wild Bill at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.
In the HBO series, Jane is portrayed as gay, entering into a relationship with Joanie Stubbs, a prostitute and brothel owner. Joanie is a fictional character, and there is little reason to believe that Jane was a lesbian in real life.
Also in the HBO series, Jane befriended an African-American man by the name of Samuel Fields, who claimed to be a General in the Union Army during the Civil War. Fields was a real person who lived in Deadwood at the same time Jane was there. However, it is unknown if their paths crossed or if they were friends.
In the show, Fields also interacts with Aunt Lou, George Hearst’s black cook. Hearst brings her with him when he settles in Deadwood. Although Aunt Lou is a real person, she didn’t work for George Hearst.
Lucretia “Aunt Lou” Marchbanks was born a slave in Tennessee. She traveled with the daughter of her master, first to Colorado, then to California, where she lived and worked in gold camps. She returned to Tennessee following the Civil War, a free woman.
Life in the gold camps appealed to her, so she traveled west once again to Deadwood, finding work as the kitchen manager at the Grand Central Hotel. Because of Aunt Lou, the Grand Central became known much more as a restaurant than a hotel. After leaving the Grand Central, Aunt Lou worked for a succession of mine superintendents before landing a job as a cook at the Golden Gate Mine in Lead, South Dakota. From there, she went to work as the manager of Rustic Hotel at the DeSmet Mine, before going to work in a boarding house owned by Harry Gregg.
In 1883, Aunt Lou started her own hotel and restaurant near Deadwood. Her cooking and hospitality were well known, being written about in the Black Hills Mining News, and spoken about at the New York Stock Exchange. She even won a diamond ring when she was voted the most popular woman in the Black Hills.
In 1885, Aunt Lou sold her hotel and moved to Rockyford, Wyoming where she started a cattle and horse ranch. She managed the ranch until her death in 1911.
Fun Fact: As many as 400 Chinese lived in Deadwood in an area known as the “Badlands.”
They had their own mayor and city council, as well as their own police and fire departments.
Albert Walter (A.W.) Merrick was born in New York and moved to Nebraska, where he owned and published the Cuming City Star. Although records are scarce, it appears that he sold the newspaper in 1860 and went off to fight with the Union Army during the Civil War. Upon his return, he re-purchased the newspaper and continued to publish it until he moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
In the HBO series, Merrick was portrayed as a bumbling fool. Not so in real life. In 1876 he started the Black Hills Weekly Pioneer newspaper with W.A. Laughlin. He was married and had five children. His oldest, a son, died in Deadwood in 1880.
A.W. Merrick died in 1902 in Deadwood and is buried in the Mt. Moriah Cemetery. The re-named Black Hills Pioneer is still in operation today.
Fun Fact: Jack Langrishe’s theater company put on shows at the Bella Union
before building their own theater
Tom Nuttall is portrayed in the HBO series as one of Deadwood’s first residents. This is historically accurate. Nuttall co-owned Nuttall’s and Mann’s No. 10 Saloon, the bar where Wild Bill Hickok was killed. The following year, Nuttall partnered with Tom Miller, the owner of the Bella Union in Deadwood. Nuttall managed the business before following the mining boom to Leadville, Colorado, where he opened another establishment called the Bella Union. Things started to unravel for Nuttall in Leadville. His wife left him, and he moved on to New Mexico. In 1882, he was arrested for a gambling violation. Little is known about Nuttall after his arrest.
In the HBO show, Reverend Henry Weston Smith was an itinerant preacher who wandered around Deadwood preaching the gospel and doing good deeds for its citizens. When he gets sick, Doc Cochran diagnoses him with a lesion on his brain. The lesion makes the good reverend speak nonsensically and have frequent seizures. He eventually loses his ability to walk or stand. The lesion eventually kills him. However, in real life, that’s not how Reverend Smith’s life ended.
Henry Weston Smith was born in Connecticut. He was married in 1847, and in 1848, his young wife and infant son died. In his grief, he turned to religion, becoming a Methodist minister. He remarried several years later and had four children. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War and became a doctor. In 1876, Reverend Smith became the first minister in the Black Hills. He did not have a church, instead ministering to his flock in the streets. In August 1876, Reverend Smith, along with three other men, were attacked and killed by Indians between Deadwood and Crook City. Smith was forty-nine years old at the time of his death. He is buried in the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.
Fun Fact: Martha Bullock (Seth’s wife) is credited with bringing arts and culture to Deadwood
In the HBO show, Con Stapleton is partners in crime with his friend, Leon, an opium addict and sometimes dealer. They both work for Cy Tolliver, owner of the Bella Union. However, Leon and Cy are both fictional characters. Con, on the other hand, was very real (although the horrible hernia he suffered from in the show probably wasn’t).
In the show, Con is appointed the first Sheriff of Deadwood after begging Al Swearengen for the job (along with Tom Nuttall’s help). In real life, Con, who emigrated from Ireland, was elected sheriff after the previous sheriff, Isaac Brown, was killed by Indians in the same attack that killed Reverend Smith.
Stapleton was at the table playing cards when Wild Bill was killed by Jack McCall. But that wasn’t the only interesting event he was involved in while in Deadwood. As sheriff, Stapleton was in a bar when a man with a gun came running in. The man threatened several patrons before Sheriff Stapleton tried to disarm him. Stapleton grabbed the gun and wrestled it away from the man, but not before the gun discharged and struck David Lunt, a friend of Stapleton’s. The bullet entered Lunt’s forehead and exited the back of his head, knocking him to the ground. Everyone was amazed when Lunt stood up and claimed he was fine. More than two months later, Lunt was still alive. However, he began to experience terrible headaches, and eventually died, sixty-seven days after being shot in the head.
Stapleton remained sheriff for about a year, but after Seth Bullock was appointed county sheriff, many of Stapleton’s previous duties were assumed by Bullock. As a result, the town sheriff position was eliminated. Out of a job, Stapleton moved to Leadville, Colorado along with others who were following the mining rush. Sadly, Stapleton died from unknown causes eight months after arriving in Colorado. He was just thirty-one years old.
There were several characters in the HBO show that didn’t actually exist in real life. They include (in alphabetical order):
Sofia Metz (The Metz family was massacred, just like in the HBO series. However, an adult male survived the attack, not a young girl.)
Captain Joe Turner
Trixie (There was at least one prostitute in Deadwood named Trixie (or Trixsie), but it doesn’t appear the Trixie in the HBO show is based on her.)