Deadwood, South Dakota

A few years ago HBO brought out a Western TV series called Deadwood, set in a small South Dakota town in the Black Hills during the goldrush boom.  The main characters of the show were: brooding, but fair, Sheriff Seth Bullock (played by Timothy Oliphant); foul-mouthed, corrupt brothel-owner Al Swearengen (played by Ian McShane), George Hearst (father of William Randolph Hearst who built the mansion I visited in California);lawman/gunman Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), frontierswoman/scout Calamity Jane; and a slew of supporting whores, doctors, saloon owners, corrupt businessmen, gold-rush miners and drunks.

With Wild Bill Hickok, and Jack McCall.

For me as a writer, the show was intelligently written, pure genius in some episodes, but many people couldn’t get their head around the graphic sex scenes, violence, swearing and style of language used, so it was canned after 3 seasons.  

The town of Deadwood and the characters listed above were real, and show caused a resurgence of interest in this historic place.  Since the events depicted in the show, including Wild Bill Hickok’s murder at the hands of Jack McCall in Nuttall & Mann’s No 10 Saloon during a poker game, the town has burned down several times.  It’s hard to tell where the spot of the original 10 Saloon was, or where Al Swearengen hired out whores by the hour in the Gem.  The town has been kept in a Western style, seems to be as popular as Vegas for hen and stag parties, has shootouts in the main street, re-enactments of the shooting of Wild Bill and the trial of Jack McCall, has a slew of casinos, old goldmines and is situated in a picturesque part of the Black Hills.

I loved the show, and realized that I would be able to visit Deadwood on my way back to New York.  It’s also only 40 mins from Mount Rushmore.  I expected a sleepy, mid-Western town, not the crazy, party tourist trap that it has become.  Jon in particular was surprised as he’d never planned on visiting this part of the world, and we both had a ball!

We went to the new Saloon No 10 to watch the re-enactment of the murder of Wild Bill Hickok.  There’s a lot of information on the internet about Hickok’s life as a lawmen and gunslinger, but had a nasty streak and a gambling habit.  Normally he would sit with his back to the wall, but on this occasion had to take the last remaining chair at a table and it ultimately meant his death.  It didn’t stop Calamity Jane from having the hots for him though, and at her request she is buried next to him in Deadwood Cemetery.  In 1876 WBH was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall, a drifter whose excuse for killing WBH was that he’d murdered Jack’s brother in cold blood.  After the fake murder everyone rushes outside to watch the capture of Jack in the street, where he is then marched down to the courthouse (or Masonic Hall), and his trial played out on stage* .  If there’s one thing you do in Deadwood, do this!  For a measly entrance fee, you are treated to some old style country music, and a hysterical re-hash of the trial where members of the audience are pulled up to play parts (I got to play Ira Ford, brilliant!).  All of the actors are local business owners or work in the bars and casinos around town, and afterwards they get changed and go to their normal jobs meaning you get to chat and know them a little bit.  Jon and I hung out with Travis who plays Wild Bill Hickok for the rest of the evening – he looks just like him!  The town becomes party central at night, a free tram operates to most of the hotels in the surrounding area, and it’s a great place to hang out, meet locals, laugh at stag/hen antics, dance to live bands and get a taste of the Wild West.

*McCall was tried in Deadwood but not convicted as he pleaded it was a revenge killing.  It turned out however that McCall had 3 sisters, no brother.  It was McCall’s big mouth which led to his death: whilst in Wyoming he was heard to brag about shooting Hickok, and the Wyoming authorities refused to listen to his pleas of double jeopardy stating that as Deadwood was still in Indian Territory and his first trial had not been in front of a lawful jury, he could be tried again.  The second trial ended with McCall’s conviction for the murder of Hickok, and he was hanged in March 1877.

A visit to Deadwood Cemetery is a must.  Not only because Wild West icons Calamity Jane and Hickok are buried here, but a short walk up the steep hillside will bring you to Seth Bullock’s grave too, and there are superb views of the town and surrounding hills.  Once you’ve visited, watch the TV series if you haven’t already done so.

My last stop before my mad dash across country was Mount Rushmore. On the way Jon and I visited a place called the Cosmos Mystery Area (  Discovered by student hippies in the ‘50’s, the area seems to be subject to some strange sort of geo-magnetic phenomenon, where forces seem to push or pull you in different directions.  Two huts have been set up where tour guides demonstrate how water can run uphill, your body defies gravity, and short people can seem the same height as someone a foot taller than they are, which I thought was bloody fantastic.  It’s not just optical illusions, my brain was buzzing here.  It was like walking in the mud at Glastonbury, with each step being an effort.

Mount Rushmore was incredible to view, but I literally snapped off a couple of shots, hugged Jon goodbye and headed off for my 3 day exodus back to New York.  I’d also contracted chronic bronchitis and a sinus infection, the only things that got me through those 3 days were copious amounts of red bull and stand up comedy which I listened to on my computer.  I am now a fan of Dane Cook and Lewis Black – listen and learn.  The landscape, which had been mind-blowing to this point, had turned into a boring and never-ending procession of cows, fields, farms, silos and wind turbines.  I can’t say anything of interest really happened, unless you are a Blues Brothers fan.  I stayed overnight in Joliet just outside Chicago – there’s a prison here from which Jake Blues was released at the beginning on the film.  The town is a scary shithole and full of people who are visiting incarcerated loved ones, who honestly look like they should be in prison themselves.  Signs on my door warned me to use both deadbolts provided, and as I was about to go to bed my phone rang.  I answered and whilst someone was on the other end they didn’t say anything so I assume it’s someone who saw me enter the room.  I was out of there at 6am the next morning.

Driving through New York back to JFK was a terrifying experience as I was used to huge open roads with very little traffic.  Luckily the weather in New York was balmy and by the time I’d checked into my hotel I was down to a t-shirt and jeans and basking at being back in one of my favourite places.  Not quite as eventful as my last visit due to a lot of people being out of town, but I got to catch up with some friends before saying a really sad goodbye and heading back to the UK.

Next stop: Glastonbury!