Deadwood on the Line

Major General Hugh Lenox Scott.  Image from the Library of Congress

I’m all giddied up because the third season of Deadwood came out on DVD last week. I don’t have HBO, let alone cable, so I can’t watch the episodes as they air. I guess that makes me a cable t.v. shoobie. I’ve recently been looking through some letters that relate to Deadwood, S.D., and have found some interesting parallels to the television show.

The letters were written by Hugh Lenox Scott (seen above) to his wife Mary Merrill Scott in the the late 1870s and 1880s. Scott graduated from West Point in June of 1876. The Army immediately sent him to replenish the ranks of the late General George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Calvary, decimated just days before in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He then spent the next twenty-five years in the West, learning about, working with, or fighting American Indians. Scott had quite a military career, in large part shaped by American expansion and imperialism. In addition to his work in the West, Scott served as a governor in both Cuba and the Phillipines. He later served as the Superintendent of West Point and as the Army’s Chief of Staff in the early years of World War I.

While “your loving husband, Len,” as he signed his letters home, served in the Dakota Territory, his “darling wife” Mary lived, at least for a time, just a few blocks from the Rosenbach, on the 2200 block of DeLancey Place. (This coincidence has nothing to do with the letters ending up here, but I thought I’d note it. The letters came here as part of a donation from Julia Rush Biddle Henry with the Rush-Williams-Biddle Family Papers in 1976, but I’m really not sure how the Scotts fit into that picture. ) Len’s letters are really quite sweet. There’s a period, for example, when Mary Scott takes ill and has to undergo surgery. Len’s frequent letters while waiting for word of her condition after the operation will break your heart. Fortunately, Mary’s father soon sent a telegram saying that she was doing well so Len didn’t have to agonize for too long.

One of Scott’s posts was Fort Meade, about 14 miles from the town of Deadwood. Not that I knew how close it was, but I perked up at he first mention of Deadwood. When I encountered mentions of a Jewish pawnbroker, I thought immediately of Sol Star, the hardware merchant from the t.v. show who also is Jewish. Then there was the ongoing tragedy of Bill Rowdy, a colleague of Scott’s who suffered from a life-threatening bladder infection, not unlike Al Swearengen did in Season 2 of the show (“Requiem for a Gleet“.) Swearengen fared better than poor Mr. Rowdy — Rowdy experienced a great deal of pain and made occasional turns for the better through the heroic efforts of Scott and his doctors only to ultimately die from the ailment. An autopsy revealed that Rowdy never had a chance and, according to the examining physician, should have been killed as soon as he contracted the infection to spare him the misery of dying from it. (Just like a horse, it seems. It was rough out it the Wild West. Not like this crap. You couldn’t get shot at a poker table in that place if you tried. Drunk, yeah, probably, but they wouldn’t let you make a real spectacle of yourself before they hauled you off.) Anyway, poor Rowdy. Poor Scott — Rowdy’s death was clearly a trying loss for him.

As it turns out, the television show has been pretty thoroughly researched, hence the many suprising (to me, at least) parallels. Many of the show’s characters are based on historcial figures. Like most people, I knew of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane, but it turns out Seth Bullock, Sol Star, Charlie Utter, George Hearst, and Al Swearengen among others, and even the Gem Theatre and the Bella Union saloon are based on the town’s history. (Click here for a bit of biography on some of the real figures who inspired the characters on the show.)

I confess I never really thought much about the show’s historical accuracy. Maybe I just gave it the benefit of the doubt because of all the beards. The amount of facial hair seems right, doesn’t it? The ratio of moustachioed and bearded men to clean shaven men is so high it may have subconsicously legitimated everything else in my mind. Actually, I just double-checked and every male character has facial hair. You can use this handy-dandy guide to identify the various types:

Image from Dan Germain
This wiki will help you tell the good guys from the bad simply on the basis of their facial hair. His honor, and fan of the Rosenbach, John F. Street This beard-beardy Wild West really is quite a contrast to today, huh? Incidents of fatal bladder infections are down since then I assume. Then there’s the beards. You couldn’t get elected president today with facial hair, for example. (Mayor, sure, at least in Philadelphia. Our incumbent mayor sports a beard, as does our likely next mayor.) But whoDemocratic candidate for Mayor of Philadelphia and 2007 Bloomsday reader, Michael Nutter was the last president to have whiskers of any kind? You have to go back almost one hundred years to William Howard Taft. Not only did he sport a moustache, Taft was a Unitarian, too, so he denied the divinity of Christ, a position perhaps less imaginable for a U.S President today than having a moustache. By the way, Taft, like Hugh Lenox Scott, served as a governor of Cuba and of the Phillipines. Here’s Taft in his official White House portrait, in all his bewhiskered glory:

Anyway, Deadwood is so compelling that I never really wondered about the “real” Deadwood. Even though he and his staff have done a lot of research, series-creator David Milch told HBO: “I want to make it clear that I’ve had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate.” So there you go. Maybe I had the right approach to begin with.

One thing I have thought about numerous times while watching the show is that I’d probably last for about twelve hours in that town before something horrible happened to me. It surely wouldn’t take long for me to end up robbed, fleeced, scalped, trampled, fed to hogs or whatever. Flora and Miles lasted a lot longer in Season 1 than I would have and they were, like, 14. It’s not that I’m a lover and not a fighter or anything, it’s just that I’m way too naïve — shucks, let’s face it, I’m too too bourgeois — to navigate an environment like that. Please don’t tell my son I’m such a lily-livered, walking target chump.

Getting back to the Scott letters, the story about the telephone really threw me — or made it clear how ignorant I am, take your pick . Scott writes his wife about a trip to Deadwood during a snow storm. The roads became impassable with a foot of snow and mud so they phoned Fort Meade for a cab, or “ambulance” as Scott puts it. Their ride came but, of course, couldn’t make it back, so they all stayed the night. I had to doublecheck to make sure I’d read it correctly. Yup, I had — telephone. No way, I thought, the telephone wasn’t even invented until, like, 1964. (Mr. Milch is undoubtedly enjoying this section.) Maybe he meant telegraph? Nope. Telephone it was. Alexander Graham Bell, bearded and moustached, patented the telephone in 1876. And, it turns out, Joseph Rewman, another Jewish Deadwood resident, set up Deadwood’s phone system in 1878, the first in South Dakota. In the t.v. show, the arrival of the telegraph is a big deal. I wonder what they’ll do when the phone shows up. I also wonder how they’ll handle the fire that consumed much of the town in 1879. See that? Do you see what’s happening? Now that I’ve picked up a couple of cheap bits of Deadwood history, it’s ruining the whole thing for me. I was wrong to ever doubt you Television. You know what’s best for me.

Here’s Scott’s letter about the phone. It’s also the first one he wrote to Mary after finally receiving a letter from her after her operation.

RUSH V:39:08.  Hugh Lenox Scott (1853-1934) ALS: Fort Meade, Dakota Territory, to Mary Merrill Scott, 29 March 1883.

Here’s page 2 of the letter:

RUSH V:39:08.  Hugh Lenox Scott (1853-1934) ALS: Fort Meade, Dakota Territory, to Mary Merrill Scott, 29 March 1883.
Sometime I’ll have to post about the exploits of Doctor Rosenbach’s uncles out West, if only to make this post seem a little less tangential.

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While researching this, um, piece (read: Googling), I learned of an rare neurological disorder called prosopagnosia, or face blindness. I’d never heard of it, but it must be very difficult to live with. This page gives you an idea of what it might be like to experience it.

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If you want to see some seriously bearded or moustachioed men, such as Jürgen Burkhardt here, look no further than the World Beard and Moustache Association, sponsors of The World Beard and Moustache Championships, held in Brighton, England, this year, and hosted by the The Handlebar Club.

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Images (top to bottom):

1. Unknown photographer. [Hugh Lenox Scott, three-quarter length portrait, seated in chair, facing front, in uniform]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

2. Facial Hair Types. Image from Dan Germain.

3. Unknown photographer. John F. Street. Photographic portrait. Permission to copy, distribute and/or modify this document granted by Dr. Hooper and Wikipeida User cmc0 from The Department of Political Science at Temple University under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

4. Unknown photographer. Michael Nutter. Photographic portrait. Entered into the public domain by Michael Nutter.

5. Unknown photographer. Official White House portrait of William Howard Taft in the Blue Room, 1911, oil on canvas by Anders Leonard Zorn (1860–1920), White House Collection. Public domain.

6. Unknown photographer. Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone. Image from Telecommunications Workers Union, Local 32, Abbotsford Mission, Chiliwack and Hope, British Columbia, Canada.

7 and 8. Hugh Lenox Scott (1853-1934) ALS: to Mary Merrill Scott. Fort Meade, Dakota Territory, 29 March 1883. RUSH V:39:08.

9. Unknown photographer. Jürgen Burkhardt. Photographic portrait. From The Handlebar Club.

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