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Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2007 12:00 am

DEADWOOD - Al Swearengen was the "star" of HBO's "Deadwood" and his real life is the stuff of legend.

Now, new research and a recently discovered obituary have changed the perception of how Swearengen died. According to Adams Museum and House Director Mary Kopco, he was most likely murdered.

By Tom Lawrence

Jerry Bryant, who serves as the museum's historical archeologist, has discovered Swearengen's obit and spoke with Bob Harrison of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who shares his interest in the old rogue.

They have studied newspaper accounts and other documents to trace Swearengen's life and death.

That has led to his determining that Swearengen's death was almost assuredly no accident, Bryant said.

"It's groundbreaking new research," Kopco said.

As portrayed by English actor Ian McShane, Swearengen is the focal point of the HBO series. McShane's character is a vicious but charming murderer who stabs, slices and cuts his way through scores of victims.

In real life, Swearengen was a businessman and pimp who ran the Gem Variety Theater, which opened on April 7, 1877. He cheated customers and tricked and abused the women who worked as "soiled doves" for him.

Bryant said the series, which he has done research for, is far too kind to Swearengen.

"I think he was a real vicious bastard," said Bryant. "I think he had a heart of stone."

Bryant said he has "pretty much followed his entire life" and that led to his theory on Swearengen's death.

Swearengen rebuilt the Gem after the 1879 fire but he left Deadwood at the end of the 19th century. He had married for a third time; all three marriages ended with reports of spousal battery.

After he left Deadwood in 1899, he went to Oskaloosa, Iowa, several times. While he was there he visited family, including his twin brother, Lemuel.

Lemuel was brutally attacked in his home early Sunday, Oct. 2, 1904, after leaving his meat market with $200 in his pocket. He was shot five times but survived. He was not robbed.

Lemuel's attackers may have thought he was his twin, Al, Bryant said.

Al Swearengen left his Iowa home about the time his twin was attacked, Bryant said.

Less than two months later, he was found dead. Swearengen was found dead on a Denver street near his home in Nov. 15, 1904. He had suffered a massive head wound after being struck with a heavy, blunt object, according to reports at the time.

The tragic news wasn't over for the Swearengen family.

On July 5, 1910, Lemuel was found unconscious. Doctors at first thought he had suffered a stroke but later determined he had been beaten on the head with a large object. He died without regaining consciousness eight days after he was found outside his meat market.

A last bit of revenge? That's lost in the mist of time.

For years it was reported that Al Swearengen had died penniless while trying to hop a freight train, but Kopco said the new research indicates he came to a fate that seems fitting for perhaps the most brutal man in the early days of Deadwood.

Bryant said someone who wanted revenge from one of Swearengen's many suspected murders or other foul deeds was probably the killer.

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