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Deadwood's brothels to be uncovered in new exhibit in August

Deadwood’s 104-year-old worst kept secret will be back in the limelight with the opening of The Brothel Deadwood on Aug. 1.

The project is three years in the making, hoping to set the record straight on misconceptions of the city’s brothels and the women who worked there, as well as the general history within Deadwood, said Deadwood History, Inc., executive director Carolyn Weber.

“It’s really a fundamental aspect of Deadwood’s unique history,” she said. “Sure it might be uncomfortable or a little uneasy to talk about at times, but you can’t just cherry pick your history. … You have to tell it all, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Weber said she never imagined working on a project about Deadwood’s brothels, which opened in 1876 and lasted until an FBI raid in May 1980, followed by Judge R.E. Brandenburg shutting the doors on the four remaining businesses.

The four brothels in Deadwood that were closed following a grand inquiry led by Jeff Viken, now the Chief United States District Judge in Rapid City, were the Beige, White, Green and Purple doors, named for the color of the door the businesses were behind on Main Street. Each could be found on the second floor of their building.

The brothels were led and owned by madams Pam Holliday, also known as Betty Campbell, who ran the Purple Door and was arrested and served time in prison for tax evasion; Dixie Fletcher, who ran both the White and Green doors; and Elsie “Tommy Cox” Irwin, who ran the Beige Door and was the last to have her business shut down by Brandenburg in 1980, according to Black Hills Weekly archives.

Brandenburg told the Associated Press in 1980 that he thought closing the brothels was pointless.

“You can pick up a girl in a bar and take her home and nothing is said,” he told the AP. “But you walk up 26 steps and pay 20 bucks and it’s a big deal. That’s not up to me. I’ve got a job to do.”

Weber said the residents of Deadwood supported the women who worked in the brothels, as well as the madams.

She said it was in part, though, due to the economic effect the women had on downtown Deadwood.

“If there was any kind of charity or fraternal organization or little league teams, Girl Scouts even, they would give generously to them,” Weber said. “Then they helped the city buy a firetruck one year. It was kind of an, ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,’ or I’ll look the other way because you’re helping us out (situation).”

She said before the brothels were shut down, they contributed an estimated $1 million to the local economy each year.

The Brothel Deadwood is housed in the same location as the Beige Door of the Shasta Rooms. Weber said other than sanding the floors and giving it a few new coats of staining, some paint, new electrics and HVAC, and knocking down walls, the interior is pretty true to what it was back in the ‘80s.

The tour will walk attendees through the parlor, where gentlemen would wait and eventually select their company; four service rooms, each set in a different time period to show how brothels changed over time and the only place services were discussed; a model bedroom where someone would have actually slept; the madam’s office and finally the madam’s bedroom.

“We’re going to talk about the human side of things and how they were really like all of us,” Weber said. “Don’t judge them because you don’t know what their circumstances are. This was a job for them and they were mothers, they were sisters, they were wives sometimes, our friends — they had hobbies, they had bills to pay, they had dogs and joy and fear and love and loss and all that.”

Weber said there will also be a room where a 15-minute video will have interviews from locals and not-so-locals who remember the brothels from the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

She said she spoke with one woman who was the cleaning lady for one of the brothels for about 15 years and still lives in town. 

Along with bed frames, clothing from the time and extravagant furniture like velvet sofas and a stuffed peacock, The Brothel Deadwood will also show Holliday’s actual desk and photos from 1876 up through 1980.

Weber said the tour will also be image heavy with historic photographs in every room and in the hallways and furniture that was donated.

“I really like that aspect too, seeing a visual is so impactful I think,” she said. “I hope they walk away with respect for history, for all history, and that this was an important part of Deadwood’s history. And I hope you walk away with a respect for these women as well.”

Weber said the project would not have been possible without property owners Wayne Morris, Rick Stone, Steve Stone and Deadwood History, as well as financial support in the form of loans from the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission and NeighborWorks.

The Brothel Deadwood will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Aug. 1 through Sept. 30. Hours are likely to change from season to season, Weber said, although nothing has been decided. 

Tickets are $15 per person, and those who attend must be 16 years or older. It is located above the Eagle Bar at 608 Main Street in Deadwood.

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