What finally closed Deadwood's last four brothels, including the famed Pam's Purple Door

While prostitution was long illegal, local law enforcement in the northern Black Hills town of Deadwood had long looked past the four brothels downtown hiding in the open behind painted doors.

Deadwood, South Dakota has held legalized gambling since 1989. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)

DEADWOOD, S.D. — The door finally shut on the brothels in Deadwood 41 years ago this October.

The ruling came from District Judge R.E. "Ed" Brandenburg in the 19th-century courthouse in the once-outlaw gold camp's downtown that the four brothels long tolerated, if at an arm's length and on the other end of annual Christmas gifts of liquor to the local police brass, would be permanently shuttered as public nuisances.

"You can pick up a girl in a bar and take her home and nothing is said,' the judge later told The Associated Press. "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."

The legal fight precipitated only almost as an afterthought to another case. A year earlier, Jeffrey Viken, who'd go onto become the federal court judge in Rapid City but was only then an attorney for the Department of Justice, investigated an assassination of a sitting federal judge in Texas, and traced the gun to a brothel in the northern Black Hills town of Deadwood.

Viken opened a grand jury inquiry into Pam's Purple Door and its owner, Betty J. Campbell, aka Pam Holliday.


And the federal team's collision course with the town's open secret was set.

When the gold camps descended in the 1870s upon Deadwood Gulch, then firmly within the Great Sioux Reservation, the long arm of the law was missing. Gambling and prostitution sprung up, as Deadwood gained a "Wild West" flavor that later biographers and HBO television series would imitate. By the 20th century, when the town settled down, the brothels went aboveground -- literally, up behind painted doorways above Deadwood's main drag.

To read accounts now, it appears a cautious peace broke out. Judge Brandenburg himself as an attorney even defended in court a madam in the 1950s. And in letters to the editor published by the Lead Daily Call, some townsfolk stuck up for the brothels. They argued gold miners in Lead and Deadwood needed the services. One pastor, Neil Moran, wrote, "The morals of our nation are gone. Condoning brothels surely is not going to bring those morals back."

The brothels had also attracted outsiders.

By the late 1960s, when Campbell (aka Holliday) moved to town, she immediately added a flare as a photogenic madam with her red hair and freckles. Arriving from San Francisco, where she'd turned to prostitution to help make money to raise her two children, Holliday adopted a west-Texas accent and catered to clientele -- whether hunters or tourists, young or old.

A team from the Argus Leader, in fact, knocked on the door in 1979 to find out about Pam's operations. Up the stairs, they found a woman in a one-piece bathing suit with loud music playing. The parlor was furnished with imitation leather furniture, $3 drinks, and -- soon -- three women approached.

"It was a lot of hard work to see that your girls looked good, that they didn't use bad words," Holliday later said.


But while she donated to local charities like the Boy Scouts and her prostitutes purchased fancy clothing from a downtown store (and even regularly underwent health checks by the county), Holliday also became friendly with motorcycle gangs and offered a safehouse for firearms trafficking.

And that grand jury, often meeting just blocks from the painted doors, kept up their work.

In May of 1980, the federal authorities ordered a raid. The night prior, they alerted South Dakota Attorney General Mark Meierhenry who passed word along to local law enforcement. Viken said he and Terry Pechota, then-U.S. attorney for South Dakota, told Meierhenry the needed "absolute secrecy." When agents arrived, they padlocked the painted doors. At one madam reported that "the last girl" had left weeks earlier because she wasn't able to meet expenses.

After the raid, a media fight ensued over the summer months. Holliday, who would face tax evasion investigation from the feds, went on late-night television. Her attorney, John Fitzgerald, father to current Lawrence County State's Attorney John Fitzgerald, traded barbs with Meierhenry in the press, saying, "I wonder when he's going to close the gambling in Winner."

In July, Fitzgerald even organized an auction of the brothel's furnishing, including tawdry paintings, suggestive figurines, and pink shower caps. During a parade, attendees sported signs that said, "Save our brothels" and "Pro Pros."

Many in the old gold town, still almost a decade prior to voters statewide allowing legal gambling in Deadwood, worried the town's remaining economic vitality was on the line. For business leaders, the town's bawdy nightlife remained one of its last draws.

But a nuanced picture of dissent emerges in newspaper clippings, too. Over the months between the raid and the judge's decision, reports reveal that hotelier Bill Walsh suggested the town focus its future on other entertainment. One Deadwood woman accused the police of being "paid off," and others balked at claims to the city's heritage.


"[W]e don't have opium dens anymore," wrote one citizen. "They don't shoot people on the streets anymore."

Moreover, while the modern movement to legalize prostitution, such as in Amsterdam or Nevada, has often argued in favor of eliminating a black market or that a legal sex trade would be healthier and safer for women, the letters-to-the-editor pages also reveal proponents of Deadwood's brothels often clung to an outdated, sexist stereotypes.

"That ladies that live here feel a heck of a lot safer walking the streets," a bartender, Judy McAmis, told a reporter.

But it's clear a lot didn't, either. Sheriff Charles Crotty admitted that the town was split "50/50" on allowing the brothels forward. One anti-brothel organizer, Thomas Blain, wrote facetiously to the paper that "If they're good for business, maybe we should franchise them like Colonel Sanders."

In the end, legal realities prevailed upon the judge. On an October morning -- noting he wouldn't be popular at the golf course -- he ended the century-old quasi-legal practice in Deadwood.

The tale for the town would move forward. By the decade's end, Deadwood had legalized gambling. Just this year, in fact, sports gambling was added to cards and dice game in the casino town. And in the early 2000s, the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis ran an obituary for Campbell, aka Pam Holliday, who made no explicit mention of her past life but "thanked all of the customers that she loved."


Downtown Deadwood, South Dakota. Christopher Vondracek, Forum News Service

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