Mar 02, 2017 12:53PM
By Anthony Flott
The most violent city politics has become in recent memory is perhaps when then-Mayor Mike Boyle tossed a foil-wrapped pat of butter at a county corrections official in 1985.
There was a time, though, when Omaha politics drew the scorn of the nation and nearly got a sitting mayor hung.
Omaha in 1919 seemed more like some outpost in the Wild, Wild West. It was a time rife with prostitution rings, bootlegging, and gambling. And a time of nicknames: “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman, Omaha’s longest-tenured mayor ever; Dean “Lily White” Ringer, the police commissioner; and the “The Old Gray Wolf”—political boss Tom Dennison.
Many Omahans know the most tragic part of the tale —the lynching of Will Brown, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman Sept. 25 that year (to his end, Brown maintained his innocence).
Less known, though, is that then-Omaha Mayor Edward Smith was hanged because he tried to defend Brown outside the country courthouse where Brown was being held in police custody. Smith was facing a mob of 4,000 people shattering windows and breaking doors. They grabbed files of the district court, doused them with gasoline and set them ablaze. They burned police cars and cut fire hoses.
Smith tried to reason with the angry crowd. Instead, someone smashed him over the right eye with “a blunt instrument or a brick,” reported the Omaha World-Herald. He was knocked unconscious then dragged through the street and a noose put around his neck — three times. The last time, the rope was thrown over the arm of a traffic signal tower and cinched tight. His body rose in the air.
What happened next isn’t clear. According to now-deceased UNO Political Science Professor Orville Menard in his book, River City Empire: Tom Dennison’s Omaha, it appears four lawmen played some role in cutting the rope, pulling the mayor to safety, and driving him to Ford Hospital.
“They can’t have him,” the World-Herald reported Smith saying in a delirium in the hospital, “Mob rule shall not prevail in Omaha.”
Sadly, mob rule did prevail, for at least a day. They grabbed Brown, beat him unconscious, stripped him of his clothes and hanged him an hour shy of midnight. The crowd then riddled his body with bullets, dragged it behind a car to 17th and Dodge streets, and burned it.
The mayor, however, would recover. Two years later, though, he was out of office, with Dennison's buddy Dahlman earning re-election and serving until 1930 (he’d also been mayor from 1906 to 1918).
The World-Herald would earn a Pulitzer Prize with its editorial “Law and the Jungle.”
“Omaha Sunday was disgraced and humiliated by a monstrous object lesson of what jungle rule means,” the paper wrote.
In the aftermath, some wondered if it was Dennison’s men who donned blackface to attack white women, hoping to strike a match of racial strife that would lead to chaos and unseat Smith.
Nothing was proven.
“What does seem clear is … Will Brown was the victim of political machinations,” Menard wrote.
Jean vs. Heath? Not the most colorful names.
But boring is good.
This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.