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Omaha Magazine

Disorganized Crime: Dispelling the Myth of Omaha’s Irish Mob Ties

Feb 24, 2023 10:11AM ● By Adam Fletcher Sasse
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Say “mobster” to people in Omaha and they’ll often cite movie tropes and stereotypes. Wrapped up with romantic images of Italian immigrants whisking moonshine to hidden speakeasies in tunnels throughout Little Italy, people today imagine the Irish in Omaha had something major to do with the organized crime scene in Omaha. Envisioning Irishmen with rough brogues making violent threats and shooting loud guns, there’s a romantic idea out there today that Omaha has seen such a thing called the Irish Mob.

From the start of the city in 1854, the Irish in Omaha were a mix of sorrowful, first-generation hardscrabble immigrants fleeing famine who were huddled in a collection of dugout houses called ‘Gophertown;' ambitious second and third-generation Easterners set to build the banks and businesses that made early Omaha successful. 

While it’s true that the Irish soon controlled Omaha for a long time—making mayors, ministers, and many wealthy notable and powerful people—it’s not true that they were a mob in the traditional sense of the word.

There were indeed Irish political ringers in Omaha. Early mayor James E. Boyd was an Irish immigrant, and he boosted the city more than anyone else in his position for another 25 years. He was born in the Emerald Isle, and came to Omaha after accruing wealth laying railroad track in western Nebraska. After serving in the territorial legislature, Boyd opened an opera house, then was mayor for two terms. Becoming governor, Boyd was accused of bribing voters. Today, Boyd County, Nebraska, and Boyd Elementary School in Omaha Public Schools are named for him, as well as Boyd Street. He certainly hired his fellow countrymen in greater numbers, and maybe greased a few of their palms to get elected, but Boyd was not a member of an organized crime syndicate, Irish or otherwise.

Of course, there were infamous Irishmen in Omaha. Frank Carter, born Patrick Murphy in Cork County, Ireland, was a serial killer called the Omaha Sniper. In 1926, he murdered several people in residences and businesses in Omaha and Council Bluffs. Politicians told everyone to stay home and turn off their lights at night, since the Omaha Sniper shot people in lighted windows. Carter then shifted his strategy, shooting during the daytime after citizens heeded the warning. When he was arrested, Carter claimed he shot 43 people, but he was only tried and convicted for two murders. Nebraska executed him in 1927.

Irish businessmen made a lot of money in Omaha. Ed Creighton was the inaugural president of First National Bank of Omaha; fellow Irishmen McCormack, Murphy, McShane, Coad, and Rush started other banks. Many of the founders of the Omaha Stockyards in 1885 were Irish, too, including Creighton, McShane, Murphy, and Donnelly. The packinghouses were started by Irishmen, along with major warehouses, and even charities. All the Irish who controlled Omaha’s industries, including Gallagher, Cudahy, Flanagan, and more recently, Mulhall, inspired and inflated tales of an Irish Mob in the city.

However, smaller scale criminal enterprises were certainly active. Billy Donnelly and H.B. Kennedy were Irish leaders in the “Big Six,” a group that were the face of Omaha’s underworld activity between 1880 and 1903. These men ran the gambling, prostitution, and drug rings in Omaha between the 1870s and the beginning of the 20th century. It was their actions that led to Omaha’s reputation as a “wide open” town where anything went. Policemen were often close to criminals, and using politics as an avenue to wealth was more important than preserving democracy.

Then there's the most notorious Irishman in Omaha history, the ill-famed Tom Dennison. Dennison’s Irish parents started a farm in Iowa from which he desired to escape from. Traveling west and then coming back to Omaha, Dennison set up a massive criminal engine that involved taking over gambling throughout the city, setting up lieutenants in every community to maintain his racket, then handling politicians with bribes and threats to ensure their compliance with his interests. For decades he steered politics with ever-increasing, malign influence. Tavern owners, brothel madams, gambling sharks, and later bootleggers, all paid tribute to Dennison to stay in business; politicians paid up to guarantee re-election. 

Dennison upset a lot of people, satisfied others, and strayed far from the law without ever getting caught. Under mounting charges against his racket, a Lincoln newspaper profiled him in 1903: 
“Excuses and subterfuges are found for permitting Tom Dennison to go on as the Napoleon of the green cloth and the impresario of local politics.” 

He was the leader of the city’s criminal enterprise and the political boss of Omaha for more than two decades, but never ran a mob, per se. Instead, his machine was wholly reliant on him to keep running, and when he left Omaha, that machine fell apart almost immediately.

After Dennison left and died, the Irish continued being heavily involved in Omaha—including the police department, airport authority, city hall, and numerous facets of the entertainment industry. However, they weren’t operating as a consolidated enterprise for the benefit of their countrymen. Instead they were a loose-knit group that coincidentally identified as fellow shamrock enthusiasts.

Between 1900 and 1950, small Irish street gangs popped up in South Omaha in places called Irish Hill and Sheelytown, and the Near North Side around Cass Street. But they didn’t work in cahoots with each other and there are no signs anyone was in firm control of them. Third- and fourth-generation Irish boys with names like McDonald, O’Banion, and O’Leary had some areas of Omaha under their thumbs, but it was always individually. The Irish way in Omaha was more subtle than as presented in modern films.

Today, despite their loose-knit orientation and lack of any infrastructure, these historical forces are known as the ‘Irish Mob.’ 

But they weren’t really a mob at all—they were just the Irish in Omaha, and ‘running the show’ was just a byproduct of their industriousness and influential, albeit disorganized, collectivism.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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