“If you like history like we do, you’ll find it very fascinating,” said Rick Olesen, owner of Wild Bill’s Trading Post and co-owner of the Wild Bill Bar in Deadwood.
Olesen, who is caretaker of the space for the Texas owner, let us in at the entrance behind the bar, which revealed a staircase leading upstairs. We were about to walk into not just any historical property – it was the former site of Pam’s Purple Door. Luckily, for travelers, the formal brothel has been remodeled into a modern five bedroom, four bathroom vacation rental in the heart of downtown Deadwood.
Pam’s Purple Door was part of the May 21, 1980 FBI and South Dakota agent raid and was headed by legendary madam Pam Holliday. The second floors of buildings 610, 612, 614, and 616 on Main Street had operated as “rooming houses” (as they were listed in the telephone directories), and were more commonly identified by colors of their street-level entrances: Green, white, purple (Holliday’s), and beige.
Until that day, there had been no city ordinance passed to outlaw prostitution, despite state laws making it illegal.
“[Pam] had the girls up here, and it was illegal, but it was ‘look-the-other-way’ prostitution all the way up until 1980,” said Olesen.
From the corner of Wall Street to the end of town was dubbed “The Badlands.”
“The reason it was called The Badlands since day one is because Seth Bullock, who was an upstanding citizen and owned the hotel, became the first marshal and sheriff,” said Olesen. “After being sick of the area, he took a stick, and literally drew a line in the dirt street and said, ‘You guys keep all this down here … you come on this side and we have a problem.'”
At one point, says Olesen, there were around 75 casinos on that side of town, and if there was a second floor, it was likely there was a brothel. The rental is located directly across the street from the infamous Al Swearengen hotel, The Gem. According to Olesen, history, and many others, Swearengen was “the most ruthless saloon, brothel, stage, and entertainment guy in Deadwood,” who came to town in 1877.
“At one time, with the working ladies and the saloons, [that area of town] was turning $10,000 a night in the 1870s, which is like $100,000 in today’s money,” said Olesen. “That’s where everyone went for their vices.”
He says the town turned its head to prostitution as long as they followed “unspoken rules,” like regular doctor checkups and keeping quiet. If there were too many complaints, they would ‘handle it.'”
Olesen and his wife, Margi, went back and forth on whether to purchase the space, but ended up finding a friend to purchase the level.
“We all had to come to the table and buy all of these buildings,” he said. “We found my friend [entrepreneur] Tommy Merritt for this project, and another buyer for the other brothel, which is now Sick Boy [Motorcycles Store].”
Exposed brick, modern finishes, and new appliances are mixed with Olesen’s eclectic, antique pieces. The bar in the main room, which also has a living room, a desk, and a full kitchen, came from the Historic Bullock Hotel from 60-70 years ago (he says roughly 1910).
“We’re trying to find local pieces of interest that go with modern amenities and also work with vacation,” he explained.
Other historic items include copies of framed prostitution licenses, old gaming boards found in the walls, a shoeshine, and a cigar humidor from Henry Frawley of Frawley Ranch.
“That was Henry Frawley’s that sat on this desk,” Olesen pointed.
The modern day, “party” amenities include a full karaoke machine, a smart TV, and a controlled disco ball.
Each room has a theme, and some have heavier themes than others. The room everyone will fight for is (not surprisingly) Pam’s Room. An homage to the madam, the room has purple wallpaper, red ceiling lights, and a slipper bathtub in the bedroom.
Olesen smiled, “It’s a playful thing off of the history of the space.”
Another playful aspect of the room, and another nod to brothels, is the bidet in “Pam’s” bathroom.
Through the bedroom window, you can actually see where the FBI stakeout took place back in 1980.
“[The FBI] sat out here for part of the year and documented the number of bath towels being hung on the clothes lines,” explained Olesen. “They wondered why, if they were apartments up there with around 10-12 ladies, are they going through 40-50 towels a night, and more on the weekends? That’s how the bust all started.”
Make your trip memorable, and be a part of history by spending a few nights at the historic Pam’s Purple Door.
Said Olesen, “It’s a great party atmosphere with great views of downtown Deadwood.”
For more information, visit historicpamspurpledoor.com.
Certain rooms in Pam’s Purple Door have themes and short stories that are inspired by real people and events.
This was Susie’s work room. She had been with Dixie (the last madam of the “Green Door” brothel) for 10 years. Susie was a bit of a Dr. Jeckell and Mr. Hyde type. The room where Susie lived was done in more conservative tans, rusts, and golds. Susie was, however, an interesting personality. She had a gold star embedded in her front tooth, and she wore a diamond earring in her nose. Susie was a really fun person.
This was the Girls’ Parlor. This is where the girls could relax, read, watch television, do bead work, or anything that any woman does in her spare time. When the doorbell rang, the girls would step into the hallway and wait until Dixie had the men seated. They would then come into the Gentlemen’s Parlor and introduce themselves one at a time. The man would pick a girl, and they would go to her room to discuss business.
This was the tub room until, in the early 1940s, a girl was murdered in here. The other girls caught her stealing money and tricks, so they beat her to death in the bathtub. Since then, the tub room has been locked and never used again, except for storage.