Pat Roberts was out sweeping the sidewalk in front of the Ford dealership on Deadwood’s Main Street. It was a Wednesday, just before 8 in the morning, and Roberts was getting his business ready to open for the day. That’s when he noticed a parade of white vans round the corner of Wall Street and park across from him. A detachment of men in plaid sport coats emerged and quickly fanned out along the sidewalk. Roberts stopped sweeping and surveyed the scene long enough to recognize one of the men.
“I saw a good friend of mine, Bruce Jacob, who was a federal marshal from Rapid City. So I went over to talk to him and see what was going on,” Roberts remembers. “He suggested I go back across the street.”
Thereupon ensued some light-hearted comments about a taxpayer’s right to use both sides of the sidewalk, Roberts recalls, followed by a return trip across the street.
“I crossed the street a second time to talk to him, and was told that I’d better get back and not cross over again,” Roberts says. “I knew he was serious, so that’s what I did.”
After a few moments, Roberts – and a growing crowd of onlookers – realized just how serious the duded-up detectives really were.
“A bunch of guys climbed the stairs with sledgehammers and axes in their hands. No kidding,” says Roberts. “They were just going to break in and shut down the whorehouses. And they did.”
It was the morning of May 21, 1980 – and it was doomsday for Deadwood’s brothels. For the past 104 years, prostitution had prospered in the small Western town relatively unimpeded. But Deadwood’s take on the world’s oldest profession was brought to an end in a matter of hours, thanks to a joint raid by federal, state and county law enforcement. Local authorities weren’t involved in the investigation, although they were invited to the raid – five minutes before it took place.
Deadwood’s First Professionals
Local law enforcement had always been aware of prostitution’s existence in the area. In fact, Deadwood’s sex trade predated the establishment of law and order.
“It appears there were prostitutes almost immediately in Deadwood and Lead,” says Don Toms, a regional historian and author of Tenderloin Tales (“None of it was written from experience,” he quips). “And that would fit in with the gold camps and the atmosphere at the time. They were here very, very early.”
The police, of course, were not, and that suited the freewheeling miners and entrepreneurs of Deadwood just fine. But soon external threats from hostile Indian tribes and internal squabbles among businessmen inspired the gold camp’s residents to organize and develop government. By the summer of 1876, Deadwood had appointed its first mayor and sheriff. As the years progressed, the city became more organized, the government more powerful and the police better-suited to deal with social problems.
Prostitution, however, was not usually regarded as a problem. In fact, the sex industry was more often seen as an economic cornerstone – even by the local government.
“It’s interesting to see how the city of Lead was using it as a real moneymaker. There was no real reason to get rid of prostitution because the fines they collected were so lucrative,” Toms says. “In Lead they’d actually collected enough funds to buy a new city hall by 1912… It was a good way for them to look like they were doing something about enforcing the law, but still profiting from it and not doing away with it altogether.”
Of course, this government-sanctioned extortion scheme wasn’t without its flaws.
“The early court records show that they were bringing in all the girls and madams and it got to be a real fiasco, a real zoo,” Toms adds. “They all started appointing each other as their own defense attorneys, and because of the types of people involved the language was pretty rough, so it was a real mess for them… Eventually they decided that instead of bringing everyone in and fining them $5 each, they’d just bring in the madams and raise the fine to $100.”