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Deadwood Is Getting a Brothel Museum

A non-profit is telling the local history of prostitution in the Wild West town, popularized by the HBO show of the same name

The museum will be housed in a former brothel known as the Shasta Room (Richie Diesterheft via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)
smithsonian.com

Brothels operated in Deadwood, South Dakota, for more than 100 years, opening shortly after the city’s founding in 1876 and remaining in business until 1980. Now, Jonathan Ellis reports for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, a local nonprofit is telling that history through a museum opening at the site of a former bordello called the Shasta Room.

According to Deadwood History Inc., the brothel museum—expected to welcome visitors beginning in mid-2020—will draw on historic furnishings, household accessories, clothing and memorabilia to tell the story of a “difficult and uncomfortable” period that nevertheless had a “huge impact” on the South Dakota town. (Today, Deadwood is perhaps best known as the setting of a popular HBO show of the same name.)

“Instead of just sweeping it under the [rug],” the nonprofit’s executive director, Carolyn Weber, tells NewsCenter 1’s Megan Murat, “we thought let’s put it out there because it was so important to our community here.”

Speaking with Ellis, Weber explains that the group decided to launch the museum after realizing there was widespread local support for the idea. She and her colleagues have conducted extensive research in order to accurately depict life in Deadwood’s brothels, but as the museum’s website states, staffers are still hoping to acquire additional artifacts dating from the 1940s through 1980. Among other items, the list of requested objects includes rugs, bed linens, art, mirrors, clothing, costume jewelry, telephones, clocks and handbags.

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Deadwood, South Dakota, as seen in the late 19th century (Public domain)

Per Kathy Weiser of Legends of America, prostitution’s emergence coincided with the Gold Rush town’s peak during the latter half of the 1870s. The majority of individuals employed in Deadwood’s brothels were single women who were managed by madams such as Dora DuFran, the inspiration for “Deadwood” character Joanie Stubbs. In exchange for housing and—ostensibly—protection, the madams took home the lion’s share of the profit.

“They made a darn good living because of location, location, location,” Weber tells the Argus Leader’s Ellis. “You’re in the right spot here in the Black Hills. You have Ellsworth Air Force Base, colleges, you have logging, you have mining, you have everything going on. It’s a male dominated world out here then, for the most part. So, these women picked the right place.”

Although Deadwood’s mining rush ended around 1879, prostitution remained a thriving enterprise over the coming decades. During Prohibition and the Great Depression, especially, prostitution served as an important part of the local economy. “The women who worked here were very generous to the community,” as Weber tells Murat. “They donated like nobody’s business.”

According to the Argus Leader, Deadwood’s brothels briefly shuttered during the 1950s. But the sites soon reopened, operating as the “worst-kept secret in the Black Hills” until 1980, when federal authorities raided the town’s four remaining bordellos, arrested 16 employees, and closed the industry down for good. Locals, for their part, expressed disapproval of the move by holding a parade on Main Street; per a blog post published on the Black Hills & Badlands Tourism Assocation’s website, protesters wielded signs bearing such slogans as “Bring Back Our Girls.”

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