Wild Women Of The West: Katie Smith

Deadwood's dancehalls were a dangerous, and sometimes deadly, place

March 26, 2019

Deadwood’s first dance hall opened May 1, 1876, with only the owner’s wife
and daughter to entertain the customers; six women of more questionable virtue
were soon added to the staff. Within a month, two more dance halls opened their
doors. These were quickly joined by the variety theaters where a customer might
be sensuously entertained by the woman of his choice in the privacy of a curtained
box. The most notorious of the dance-hall owners was Al Swearingen, of the Gem
Theater. Swearingen started out in Custer [South Dakota], then moved to the riper
fields of Deadwood Gulch. He made frequent trips back east to recruit young
women for his pleasure palace, promising them employment as waiter girls or
actresses. When they reached Deadwood, however, he forced them into a life of
shame. An ordinary night’s take at the Gem amounted to $5,000 – and on some
occasions reached twice that amount-yet Swearingen died broke. He was killed in
Denver while hitching a ride on a freight train. The Gem continued operations to
the end of the gold rush, maintaining its notorious reputation as a “defiler of youth,
a destroyer of homes, and a veritable abomination.”

To keep order in places like the Gem, the Deadwood Daily Times proposed a
monthly fine or license fee which would help replenish the city treasury, and would
have “a most salutary effect in driving women of the street out of most salutary
effect in driving women of the street out of town or into the house of a responsible
madam.” These houses frequently made the headlines. For example, a woman
named “Tricksie” was thoroughly beaten by her lover, so she snatched up a pistol
and shot him in the head just behind the eyes. Fortunately, he had no brains, at
least in that part of his skull, so he recovered in a few weeks. The newspaper also
reported the story of another Deadwood girl who wore a special dress embroidered
with the brands and initials of her lovers. Some of the initials caressed her rounded
shoulders and ample bosom; others occupied the edges of this novel attire; then
there were some she frequently sat on. Her affection for each man dictated where
she placed his brand, thus a guy could tell just where he stood with her.

The murder of young Charles Forbes by Bill Gay was headline news. Mrs. Gay
was an especially attractive young woman whom Gay had picked from among
professional ladies of Deadwood. He was naturally dubious about the constancy of
her affections, and kept a close eye on her. Forbes was rather stupid young man in
his late teens when he sent Mrs. Gay a note, via Sam “General” Fields. The notes
asked her to “meet me this evening, my darling, by moonlight at 8:00 o’clock, at
the corner of the big barn.” Mrs. Gay, who did not care much about Forbes, used
this opportunity to prove how faithful a wife she was and showed her husband,
Gay, the letter. Gay cornered Sam Fields, found out who sent the note, then went
out and killed Forbes. Tried and convicted, Gay spent three years in prison, but on
his return to Deadwood he was met by a brass band. He later committed another
murder in Montana and was greeted with a hangman’s noose, not a brass band.

Like Mrs. Gay, a few of the scarlet ladies reformed. The poor girls who
remained in harlotry did not live long. Within two or three years, drink, drugs,
crime, and disease took them from their supposedly glamorous life. Many deaths
reported as pneumonia or fever were actually due to laudanum or a lover’s bullet,
but this did not plague the conscience of Deadwood. The deaths of Emma Worth,
from an overdose of morphine, or of Katie Smith – madam of the “Hidden Treasure
Number Two” – from the same drug scarcely made a ripple among Deadwood’s
respectable citizens.

One of the most widely told stories about the Black Hills is about Phatty
Thomas’ load of cats. Thomas bought these in Cheyenne for two bits a piece,
crated them, and loaded them on his wagon. On Spring Creek, near Sheridan, the
wagon tipped over, but a group of friendly prospectors helped him recapture most
of the cargo. According to the story, Thomas sold the cats to the town’s painted
women at sundry prices, depending on the quality of the cat. Thus, we have the
name “cat houses.”

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