Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen in Dead wood is one of the most memorable characters in television history, and like many characters on the show, he was based on an actual resident of the historic Frontier Town. The real Swearengen was, like his fictional counterpart, the owner of the Gem Saloon and Brothel in Deadwood. That said, series creator David Milch and the other writers made several changes to the historical figure to make him a more compelling and likable character.
Al Swearengen is often considered one of the complex anti-heroes who defined the ‘golden age’ of 2000s television alongside Tony Soprano or Walter White. It settles very early in Dead wood like an accomplice and ruthless businessman with a taste for blasphemy that borders on the poetic. The complex role made McShane a major actor and earned him a Golden Globe and Emmy nomination.
As dead wood As the story unfolds, Swearengen frequently clashes with Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock and his business rival Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe). He also acts to help bring the camp together and develop into a more organized society, holding the very first city council meeting in Gem and bribing lawmakers to legally recognize Deadwood. As the series progresses, Swearengen becomes more and more of a heroic figure, fighting to protect the city from the big pennies of George Hearst. In similar historical accounts like The aviator, Dead wood also alters some key elements of Swearengen’s life for dramatic ends. These include his background, the timeline of his years in Deadwood, and the amount of influence he had. Dead wood made similar changes to most of the characters that appeared; for example, Trixie and Doc Cochrane were both composites of several real people. Ultimately, the changes to Swearengen made him a more compelling figure.
The real life of Al Swearengen
Al Swearengen was born in 1845 alongside his twin brother Lemuel in what was then Iowa Territory. He was said to have led a housebound life until he was 30 when he moved to Deadwood and his first business was a saloon called Cricket. In 1877 he closed it down and opened the Gem Theater, which despite its name was a dance hall, saloon, and brothel. This rough nature is depicted in Dead wood, where The Gem isn’t exactly Cheers. The Gem was a successful business, sometimes making as much as $ 10,000 overnight.
Swearengen was ruthless in his quest for profit and was especially cruel to the women he employed, controlling them through physical and psychological abuse. He was frequently arrested for assault and disturbing public order. He deceived many young women about what their job would look like when they came to Deadwood, before forcing them into prostitution. Interestingly, one of Swearengen’s first dancers was Martha Jane Cannary, who would later become Calamity Jane. Jane is a major character in Dead wood portrayed by Robin Weigert, but the series doesn’t explore his connection to Al in detail. The real Swearengen has also had an eventful personal life, passing through women almost as fast as Don Draper. He married a woman named Nettie, who came with him to Deadwood in 1876 but quickly divorced, citing domestic violence. Swearengen married two more times while living in the border town, both also ending in divorce. The Gem burned down in 1879 but was rebuilt as a larger and more extravagant living room. In 1899, however, it burned down again and was not rebuilt.
After the last fire, Swearengen left Deadwood and married Odelia Turgeon. He died in 1904 in Denver at the age of 59. There are conflicting reports on his death, with some stating that he died penniless trying to jump on a train. However, recently rediscovered newspaper articles suggest that Swearengen was murdered, dying of a head injury. Yes Dead wood had continued into the 20th century, it could have had a much more violent ending than the elegiac last minutes of Deadwood: the movie.
Deadwood’s biggest changes
Al Swearengen’s life timeline is very different in Dead wood compared to the actual figure. The series changes Swearengen’s background, making him English instead of Dutch to match actor Ian McShane’s British heritage. As part of this change, in the series Al is the abbreviation of Albert instead of Alfred. The stories that Dead wood‘s Swearengen tells as part of his famous monologues suggest a much more colorful backstory than the real man – though Al perhaps shouldn’t be taken at his word. The TV series also changes the timeline of Al’s ownership of the Gem. The first season of Dead wood includes the famous events of 1876 that made the city notorious, including the murder of “Wild” Bill Hickock. This incident was portrayed several times in the movie, Everyone from Cary Grant to Jeff Bridges playing Wild Bill.
However, while Dead wood describes the Gem as being a salon established during this period, in reality it only opened in 1877. The series likely exaggerates the breadth of Swearengen’s powers and political ambitions. The real Swearengen was indeed able to navigate the hectic world of Dakota Territory, which likely included its fair share of bribes and dirty business. The Gem was one of the few establishments that could avoid Seth Bullock’s actual attempt to “clean up” the camp. There is little evidence that Al is the kind of community leader and mastermind he was in. Dead wood.
Like canceled shows such as Véronique Mars, Dead wood received a revival in the form of a TV movie. He walks away from the story, avoiding the subject of the Burning and Rebuilding Gem during the series-to-film interval, which takes place in 1889. He gives Swearengen, on the verge of death of an insufficiency hepatic, a gracious start, promising to leave the Gem to Trixie. As stated, the real Swearengen lived another fifteen years and had no feelings towards the women who worked for him. These changes show how Dead wood made Swearengen more likeable.
How Deadwood made Al Swearengen a more compelling character
The real Al Swearengen was obviously a brutal man and an abuser who took advantage of desperate women and men. The first episodes of Dead wood fear not, showing Al beating Trixie, ordering the murder of several men and encouraging attacks on local indigenous groups. However, he turns more into an antihero, a trajectory followed by many villainous characters like the MCU’s Loki. This is especially true towards the end of the series as he works to defend the community against Hearst’s financial interests.
The real Swearengen may have had their own sentimental side and their own inner issues, but that’s hard to tell from the historical records. Milch’s writing and McShane’s performance flesh out a historic tyrant into a wealthy character who is motivated as much by trauma and fear as by greed. The tension between Swearengen’s frequent brutality and rudeness and his more vulnerable care for his community make him a compelling figure. This agrees with Dead wood as a whole, which showcases the tender, upbeat moments of community-building alongside the brutality of the Old West.
Al Swearengen captivated viewers of Dead wood and helped propel Ian McShane to greater roles in John wick and American gods as well as a cameo in Game of Thrones. The character had a real historical basis but Dead wood changed many elements to make it a more compelling narrative. In the end, it was the writing of the series and McShane’s performance that made Al Swearengen so memorable.
NEXT: Mare Of Easttown: Unanswered Questions After The Finale
How the behind-the-scenes drama got Martin called off after just 5 seasons
About the Author