Home / General / Deadwood’s Historical Accuracy

Deadwood’s Historical Accuracy



Deadwood is probably my favorite show of all time. That’s for many reasons–the story, the amazing acting of Ian McShane and Brad Dourif among many others, the language. But among the reasons is the way the show gets at the filth and nastiness of the late 19th century. Some people didn’t like it because the show seemed so over the top in language, violence, and the general portrayal of that society. But while people didn’t exactly speak like the characters of Deadwood, the overall brutality was actually quite accurate, especially considering this is a wild frontier town.

I was reminded of this when recently reading Sharon Wood’s The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City. This book is about prostitution and gendered conceptions of the streets in late 19th and early 20th century Davenport, Iowa. Wood put together the lives of women who get called prostitutes (regardless of whether they were by modern standards or not). Remember how in Deadwood women like Trixie and Joanie Stubbs were sold to pimps? That was not uncommon at all.

Josie Mitchell was a downwardly mobile woman who ended up opening a brothel. Her daughter Sevilla married a man at the age of 15. He was soon selling her out as a prostitute and living on the proceeds. Minnie Hagan was homeless at the age of 13 and working as a prostitute to eat. She came from a broken home. She remained a prostitute during her marriage, which was to a pretty violent man. He eventually shot her in the head, but she survived.

Moreover, the age of consent in Iowa until the 1890s was 10. That’s right. 10. As it was in most states. This meant that if a girl came from a house not considered “respectable,” she was open game for sexual exploitation by men without legal means to punish them. It also meant that statutory rape charges could not be issued against men who had sex with young girls. In September 1891, a 10 year old Davenport girl named Ada Ammerman disappeared from her home. After three days she and two other young girls named Dolly Hamerly and Mamie Woods were discovered. Their clothes were soaked with semen. Three men were soon arrested and charged with 8 counts of rape. But they were found not guilty. While reformers wanted to end this practice and save these girls, men, including the entire political establishment of the city, defended the sporting men’s right to sexually use women they found on the streets. Rather, the defense successfully used the argument that these girls’ families had failed the city by allowing their girls on the street where they would be irresistible to men. The girls were already prostitutes by coming from poor families and being on the street. These girls were publicly tainted with this definition of them. Soon after this, Dolly Hamerly was sold to a brothel by her family. Eventually, this trial and other similar events led Iowa to raise the age of consent. To the ripe old age of 13.

In other words, Deadwood‘s portrayal of its prostitutes was not inaccurate. Unfortunately because in knowing that you also know the brutal real stories of women in the 1890s who lacked economic options to do much of anything outside of prostitution if they were poor and who were considered open game on the streets if they did not come from respectable families.

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  • DrDick

    Yep. This is what conservatives call “the Good Old Days.”

    • Derelict

      When men were men, and women were something less than chattel.

    • timb

      That’s what Libertarians call the “the good old days.”

      Conservatives call the 1950’s the good old days (except for the tax rate, ya know)

      • SgtGymBunny

        As a woman, I’d call the wild west era “Pit of Hell”, the 1950s “The Third Ring of Hell but with Modern Appliances” and nowadays “The Porte Cochere To Hell”–we’re kinda sorta out but not quite clear of the vestibule just yet (at least in developed countries–developing countries can still be hell holes for women).

        • timb

          As a person with a conscience and a man with two daughter, I am happy for the progress we’ve made.

          Prior to my hearing today, my mid-50’s 6th grade educated client referred to our Administrative Law Judge as a “girl” and I was surprised at how many nods I received around the room when I said “you mean, woman.”

  • timb

    The story reminds me of the stories of places like New Dehli now. It is, wonderfully, a sign of progress.

    Most Americans don’t know this story, but they are unaware of common drunkenness was in those days. Per capita consumption of alcohol was at blindingly high rates (and was trending down from the turn of the 19th century). I’m know teetotaler or supporter of temperance, but it is nice to know that the doctor preparing to operate on me is not blitheringly drunk

    • DrDick

      It is also the case that up to half of the US population were addicted to opium, owing to its widespread use in patent medicines. It was the ibuprofen of the era.

      • The Dark Avenger

        Apparently, Louisa May Alcott used opium from time to time.

        it was in many of the patent medicines of the time. A good resource on that subject is online now. The Toadstool Millionaires.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Given the recent rise of Oxycontin and Hydrocodone addictions, you might even say ‘opium was the opiate of the era’.

    • ChrisTS

      This appears to have been true throughout Europe and the U.S. for a very long time. Water was dicey; beer and hard cider were safer. I’ve hear more than one historian describe the people living in those days – including children – as operating in “an alcoholic haze” most of the time.

      • Hogan

        “Water? Fish fuck in that stuff.”

        • ThrottleJockey

          LMAO! Just sneezed my cup of water out my nose and all over my keyboard….that’ll be $65 please sir.

          • UncleEbeneezer

            Just sneezed my cup of water fish-fuck-juice out my nose…

      • timb

        Yeah, as Bill Bryson confirms in Home, bathing between the Roman times and the 19th century was just not socially acceptable. Cold water is no fun to splash around in when the temperature is already 48 defgrees

      • Karen24

        I remember touring a replica of a 19th C. warship in Halifax Harbor and suddenly understanding reason the English navy was so generous with the rum ration. No person even half sober would climb the rigging on that thing in even a mild swell. much less in the Roaring 40’s.

        • Service in the Royal Navy was once described as “Like prison with the additional chance of drowning”.

      • cpinva

        ” I’ve hear more than one historian describe the people living in those days – including children – as operating in “an alcoholic haze” most of the time.”

        this probably kept most of the population from just blowing their brains out. our “Founding Fathers” wrote the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation & the Constitution while consuming gallons of port, claret, merlot, beer, whiskey & hard cider. the water would most likely kill you.

        before evolutionary biology set the stage for modern medicine, unless you had something obvious wrong with you (gunshot/knife/ax wound, broken arm/leg, etc.), most dr’s hadn’t the slightest clue what was causing your illness, perhaps “bad humors”. the vast majority of “medicines” were designed mostly to dull the pain, rather than actually treat your bacterial infection. opium & cocaine rather neatly filled the bill.

        dr’s didn’t routinely wash their hands between patients/surgeries/deliveries, before the 1870’s. a women stood a better chance of surviving childbirth doing it at home, with/without a midwife, then they did having a dr in attendance. at least back then, if a dr killed your wife, they had the decency/shame not to bill you for it. of course, if they had, they stood a better than even chance of being shot by the angry widower.

      • Matt McIrvin

        I’m not sure about the 18th or 19th century, but the notion that drinking water was generally considered dangerous in the Middle Ages seems to be a myth:


        The reason alcohol consumption was so widespread was probably mostly that people liked it.

    • efgoldman

      Per capita consumption of alcohol was at blindingly high rates

      I see what you did there.

  • keta

    When Deadwood was still airing I remember reading an interview with the writers/producers wherein they claimed, in reaction to complaints about the harsh language, that their research of that time indicated that in fact language was worse than they scripted.

    Anyone who thinks Cormac McCarthy is more fabulist than realist in his depiction of violence in his novels is wrong. The depths of humans’ inhumanity to fellow humans is without limit, and unfathomable to most of us.

    • Manny Kant

      I’m fairly certain that the language was, in fact, quite different from depicted, and my memory was of the creators acknowledging that. It’s not so much that people in the old west didn’t swear. It’s that the kind of swearing that upset people in the 19th century was about taking God’s name in vain, and if they tried to replicate that accurate it would just seem silly to us now. By turning 19th century type swearing into 21st century type vulgarity, they allowed the viewer to have the same response that genteel nineteenth century sorts would have had to the language. But certainly that’s not how people actually talked.

      • UncleEbeneezer

        I think I read that article but my takeaway, iirc, was that the show was probably accurate in the amount of cursing one would hear in that environment, but that the curses themselves were different and substituted with more modern swears because so many of the old swears sound silly by today’s standards.

        • timb


          • ThrottleJockey

            Zounds! Gadzooks you bloody fool!!

            Yeah. This. My first trip to the UK, me and my friend are 5 minutes into our cab ride to the hotel when the cabbie says to us, “Here for a bit o’ fun, lads? I know a place where the girls will show you their fannies.” Me and my friend looked quizzically at one another and thought, ‘How cute, what a quaint old bugger.’

            It wasn’t until 2 weeks later that we learned what that meant. I made the serious mistake of pointing out to an Aussie girl I was chatting up that she was wearing a cute fanny pack. And by “pointing out” I literally mean pointing at her lap and saying, “Wow that’s a nice fanny pack!” Ouch. Talk about hearing some never heard cuss words. That comment sure unleashed them.

      • SamInMpls

        Milch has said that he tinkered with using profanity that was accurate for the period but it simply comes across as cartoonish to contemporary audiences for everyone to sound like Gabby Johnson from Blazing Saddles.

      • keta

        Must have been different pieces we read, but a quick search now found this:

        On historical grounds, the swear words
        that come so readily out of the mouths of
        Deadwood’s characters did in fact exist. For
        instance, when discussing mining towns in
        Montana in the mid-nineteenth century, in his
        firsthand account Thomas J. Dimsdale states
        that “one marked feature of social intercourse,
        and (after indulgence in strong drink) the
        most fruitful source of quarrel and bloodshed,
        is the all-pervading custom of using strong language.

        And, as per your point, this:

        At first, Milch attempted to use period appropriate slang and profanity, but found that the period’s taboo language tended toward religious blasphemy rather than our contemporary attention to scatology or racial slurs. The characters’ language, instead of being crude, sounded comical. One critic summed up the dilemma as “if you put words like ‘goldarn’ into the mouths of the characters on ‘Deadwood’, they’d all wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam.”

        Milch was faced with a dilemma. Either he could use period appropriate profanity and make the show suitable for broadcast television, or he could substitute the obsolete profanity with contemporary language to demonstrate the characters’ lawlessness, but limit the audience to those with premium cable not regulated by the Federal Communication Commission’s obscenity regulations.

        I tend to think your take, and the second cite, is most accurate. I mean, I’m not the sort of cunt that would stick my prick up someone’s ass over a fucking cocksucker quibble like this.

        • ThrottleJockey

          What’s also interesting are words that were commonplace then but are now considered vulgar, for instance ‘tits’.

    • ThrottleJockey

      My hardest problem with the language was just my understanding it. It sounded cool enough, but I just could only understand about every third word. It was better than watching Master & Commander though. For that movie (again it sounded way cool) I could only understand about every fifth word. I gave up on it a half hour in.

      • UncleEbeneezer

        Yeah. Mayor Farnum can be especially difficult to understand if your stoned…so I’ve heard, from a friend.

  • UncleEbeneezer

    [Spoiler alert]

    One of the things that made that brother/sister pair that pulled the robbery/scam on one of the whorehouses (with terrible results) so creepy was the fact that the very young-looking girl was viewed by just about everyone as future or current sex worker.

    • Manny Kant

      That was Kristen Bell! She was 23 at the time.

  • JR in WV

    I was once on a grand jury, and one of the many many cases we heard was presented to by the town cop. There was an aggressive and brutal young man who would go up to a young girl who was pretty severely handicapped, mentally, and take her hand, and walk into the woods nearby, and have sex with her.

    There were several of these young girls, and he would just pick one out, take her away a little distance, and rape her. They were mostly below the age of consent, but even if they had been old enough, I’m not sure they understood what was happening well enough to give consent.

    The town only had the one guy, and he spent quite a bit of time gathering evidence against this kid. By the time it got to us, he was already in jail for something else, and the prosecutor told us that he would probably be behind bars until he was quite elderly, longer if he got into any trouble in prison, which sounded likely to me.

    Believe it or not, this was a long way from the worst case we heard that day. It was worse than the capital murder cases I sat jury on, that went on for 2 weeks each – with pictures and guns and everything. Child abuse goes on today that would appall anyone. The people who deal with it are stronger people than I am, I couldn’t do it at all for very long!

    • Karen24

      One of my former job duties was reviewing criminal history files for license applicants. It was my bad luck that for two years all I got were sexual assault cases, mostly sexual assault of a minor. By the third week of that two year period I was advocating for surgical castration as a penalty, and surgery where the victim decided if there would be anaesthesia. The worst one was the guy who preyed on his neighbor’s 8 and 11 year old sons and then argued that the older boy really wanted it.

      • Susan of Texas

        I am seeing dozens of people brag about their free range kids and it just floors me. They assume their child is perfectly safe and sneer at anyone who is cautious as “helicopter parents.” They are absolutely positive that sexual assault of children is vanishingly rare.

        • Of course, the streets of America are incredibly safe in 2015 compared to the past, even the 1980s, and helicopter parenting is a very bad thing. And the sexual assault of children–by complete strangers on the street–is indeed vanishingly rare.

          • Susan of Texas

            Since they call it helicopter parenting to accompany a six year old to the park, I am not so sure.

            It used to mean hovering over children and never letting them make a mistake. Now it seems to mean supervising any child outside the home ever.

            58,000 children were held against their will in 1999 (according to a department of justice study) and half of those were sexually assaulted. 25,000 child rapes makes me think twice about letting a kid roam free. And those are just the ones that people know about.

            Yes, the odds are in your favor. But people are a little eager to believe nothing will ever happen to a child of theirs.

            • Well given that kids are being picked up by the cops for playing by themselves a few blocks away from the home, I’d say parents with a reasonable understanding of letting their children roam have a lot more to complain about.

              • Susan of Texas

                Cops deal with sexual assault of children a lot. It is no surprise that they are cautious and your stereotypical white middle class parents are not.

                • Origami Isopod

                  White middle-class parents are the ones most likely to flip their shit over “stranger danger,” because they’re the demographic most likely to have the money to have isolated themselves in all-white suburbs/gated communities without much neighborly interaction… “for the sake of the children.”

            • Yes, but how many of those were by complete strangers as opposed to family members or close friends of the family? That’s the key question.

            • Susan of Texas

              Also, it is often not a complete stranger. (That 25,000 is non-family.)

              I don’t understand why it is more reassuring to know that the child often has a slight acquaintance with the person.

              • Susan of Texas

                I looked up the statistics again.

                Of non-family abductions:
                0-5 7%
                6-11 12%
                12-14 22%
                15-17 59%

                Female 65%
                Male 35% (that surprises me)

                White 35%
                Black 42%
                Hispanic 23%

                Friend 17%
                Long-term Acquaintance 21%
                Neighbor 5%
                Authority 6%
                Babysitter 4%
                Stranger 37%
                Slight Acquaintance 8%
                Other 3%

                Own Home/Yard 5%
                Other Home/Yard 18%
                Car 32%
                Park/Woods 25%
                Other Public Area 14%
                School/Daycare 5%
                Restaurant/Mall <1%

                I assume older kids are assaulted more beause they are out and about more.

                • DrDick

                  However, only 0.01% of child abductions are by strangers. That is a vanishingly small percentage and pales by comparison to the 19th century and earlier.

                • Susan of Texas

                  Hoping to reassure myself I checked out your link. I found that he was using the same number as the free range people while linking to the same study I quote above.

                  “But children taken by strangers or slight acquaintances represent only one-hundredth of 1 percent of all missing children. The last comprehensive study estimated that the number was 115 in a year.”

                  That is the percentage of “stereotypical” kidnappings out of all child abductions made by non-relatives. As we see above, the percentage of stranger abductions is 37%.

                  (Following links I also found out that thanks to the internet the amount of child pornography has soared.)

                  I am not saying that your child will be kidnapped and raped by strangers if you let her go outside. I am saying that people need the correct facts so they can make decisions that meet their family’s circumstances and needs.

          • wjts

            Of course, the streets of America are incredibly safe in 2015 compared to the past, even the 1980s…

            I’m an adjunct at Duqeusne, a small Catholic university in Pittsburgh. This afternoon I was walking from campus to the bus stop when a man stopped me on Fifth Avenue and asked if there was anywhere down the road where he could get a beer, or “if I should be as scared as I feel going down that way”.

            What I thought: “Four o’clock in the afternoon in broad daylight and you want to walk a block and a half down one of the most heavily-trafficked streets in the city where it runs past both a college and a professional hockey arena? My god, man, do you have a death wish? The Cannibal Murder Clans that rule these mean streets will make a cloak from your skin and feast on the marrow of your bones.”

            What I said: “Yeah, there’s a bar right over there.”

            • Hogan

              The password is “Kill whitey.”

        • Origami Isopod

          Most sexual abuse of children is committed by relatives, teachers, clergy, coaches, and other adults who already know the child.

          Parents who micromanage their kids’ lives and give them no chance to go off and explore on their own are doing other forms of harm to them. I’m very glad I grew up in the days before so-called “Stranger Danger” made the term overprotective obsolete.

          • KmCO

            The term “stranger danger” fills me with all kinds of annoyance. It’s classic 1980s fear-mongering and media sensationalism that targets mostly white, upper-middle class demographics.Yes, there are people out there who prey on kids they have no previous contact with. There are also plane crashes. Your kids are far more likely to be exploited or harmed by someone they know, just as car crashes are far more common than plane crashes. The fact that “stranger danger” is still bandied about freely and uncritically by a new generation of parents makes me want to shake my fist at clouds sometimes.

    • chris y

      When I was about 13, our history teacher disappeared for a few days on jury duty. When he came back we asked him how it had gone and he said “We had eight cases and five of them were incest.” That shut us up.

  • brewmn

    Thanks for confirming that Deadwood is the best TV show of all time. The profound nature of that show (how do you build a society when threatened by the base nature of the reprobates originally found in DW and later by the amoral, irresistible force of capital arriving later in the form of George Hearst?), and making dramatization of those themes compelling television while remaining pretty “truthy” to the historical reality, was just an awesome achievement.

    • wjts

      Thanks for confirming that Deadwood is the best TV show of all time.

      I think I’d give the nod to either The Simpsons or I, Claudius.

      • Lee Rudolph

        I haven’t liked the Simpsons the three or four times I’ve seen part of a show. But I’d pay to watch a Simpsons I, Claudius parody with Deadwood-style dialogue.

        • wjts

          Lucius Aelius Sejanus: What does the Emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero look like?

          Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso: What?

          Sejanus: What province are you from?

          Piso: What? What? Wh – ?

          Sejanus: “What” ain’t no province I’ve ever heard of. They speak Latin in What?

          Piso: What?

          Sejanus: Latin, motherfucker, do you speak it?

          Piso: Yes! Yes!

          Sejanus: Then you know what I’m sayin’!

          Piso: Yes!

          Sejanus: Describe what the Emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero looks like!

          Piso: What?

          Sejanus: Say ‘what’ again. Say ‘what’ again, I dare you, I double dare you motherfucker, say what one more Goddamn time!

          Piso: He… he’s tall…

          Sejanus: Go on…

          Piso: He has dark hair…

          Sejanus: Does he look like a bitch?

          Piso: What?

          Sejanus: [Stabs Brett in the shoulder] DOES HE LOOK LIKE A BITCH?

          Piso: No!

          Sejanus: Then why you try to fuck him like a bitch?

          Piso: I didn’t…

          Sejanus: Yes you did. Yes you did! You tried to fuck him. And the Emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero don’t like to be fucked by anybody except his harem on Capri.

          • Manny Kant

            Although his birth name was Tiberius Claudius Nero, as emperor Tiberius was known as Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, thanks to his adoption by Augustus.[/uberpedantry]

            • rea

              Only problem is, pretty much all the Julio-Claudians were Tiberius Claudius Nero/Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus

              • wjts

                You forgot “Germanicus”.

          • Barry Freed

            + MDCCCLXXVI

            I, Claudius and Deadwood are my two favorite TV shows of all time and I’m making sure to bring the DVDs with me when I move overseas to where such pickings will be slim (those two, Buffy and BSG, of course).

  • ringtail

    I tried to watch DW but I just couldn’t get into it. I prefer Hell on Wheels. (Which I’m sure it probably less historical but awfully grisly too.)

  • Denverite

    Have you ever been to Deadwood? The museum is small but interesting. The town itself is pretty if you look past all the depressing casinos.

    In general, I think the Black Hills area is pretty cool. Plus it’s only about 5.5 hours from Denver.

    • Yes, but many years ago. Before the show. Now I would go to Wild Bill’s grave.

    • KmCO

      The Black Hills/Badlands are one of the most underrated areas of natural scenery in the country. I really need to visit them again before I head east later this year.

  • This was before Deadwood, but I used to work with a woman who hated Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” She said it was historically inaccurate because no man would ever treat a woman, even a prostitute poorly in the Old West. She believed John Wayne movies were much more historical.

    • BubbaDave

      Did she eventually die of forgetting to breathe?

  • Malaclypse

    This book is about prostitution and gendered conceptions of the streets in late 19th and early 20th century Davenport, Iowa.

    If you read fiction, let me recommend Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, who is awesome.

  • On our way from Syracuse to Indiana so my daddy could try farming, my momma got cholera and died. He didn’t make any better a farmer than a milenary clerk, but, he had a way enough with words to get me believing that my momma in heaven wanted me to see to his needs, and then to add to the egg money by seeing to the men he brought. And she wanted me talking my sisters into seeing to his needs, and then to the men, . . . till he sold me to Cy Tolliver. If he was here, I’d wish a beating, mornings and evenings on my daddy, like your pa took today.

    The worst thing HBO has ever done was tell that show that they were going to get four seasons and then shitcan them after three.

    • Manny Kant

      Yes. If they’d just told them before Season 3 that it was the last season, I’ve no doubt they could have come up with an amazing conclusion.

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