The 1919 Omaha Incident

America’s Red Summer reached its crescendo with the attempted lynching of Omaha mayor Edward Parsons Smith one hundred years ago this week.  While nearly all white casualties of 1919’s widespread violence occurred when their intended victims responded in self defense, Mayor Smith was attacked by other whites, who resented his interference in their vigilantism.  The incident is reported as a factual passage presented for context in Stacy Danielle Stephens’ monumental work-in-progress, tentatively titled A Citizen of London, and excerpted here.

 

Released in May of 1943, The Ox-Bow Incident opened to reviews which are striking in the consistency of their ambivalence. There could be no denying that it was a great movie, nor could there be any pretense that an audience of that time would enjoy it.
In spite of making it on the lowest possible budget, the studio nearly lost money, and never would have made The Ox-Bow Incident if Henry Fonda hadn’t been determined to star in it. The studio exacted a price for catering to Fonda’s perverse whim, tossing this single golden apple into a barrel so rotten that Fonda would ever afterward refer to the studio as “Penitentiary Fox”.

The eponymous incident is a lynching, and it is this fact which compelled Fonda to sacrifice the next several years of his career for the sake of one unpopular low budget film. As a teenager in Omaha, he had witnessed the lynching of a black man accused of a crime investigators were certain he had not committed, and the attempted lynching of the mayor, who had told the mob they must not do this thing.

* * *

Omaha Lynching 1916

In 1916, the Nebraska State Constitution was amended to allow for the statewide prohibition of beverage alcohol to begin the following year. By 1919, organized crime was already flourishing in Omaha, allegedly under the guidance of Tom Dennison.
Late in the evening of Thursday, September 25th, 1919, an employee of Dennison’s, an M. Hoffman[1] alleged that he and his girlfriend, Agnes Loebeck, had been robbed at gunpoint by a “small negro” who then took them, still at gunpoint, to a vacant lot, where he then allegedly raped Agnes, holding one hand over her mouth while keeping his gun pointed at Hoffman.

A large number of white men, most of them veterans and many of them armed, began searching for likely suspects, but found none. However, on Friday, the 26th, a concerned citizen reported “two suspicious negroes” to the police. What made the two “suspicious” was that they lived with Virginia Jones, a white woman.

The arresting officers found William Brown at the home of Miss Jones. Mister Brown and Harry Johnson, the other “suspicious negro,” said they had been at a show with Miss Jones at the time of the alleged assault. Police made no record of what Miss Jones said, or if she was questioned, and later claimed that Brown had a gun, although no gun was held as evidence, and no description of the gun was ever recorded. The officers claimed to have taken the two men into custody “for their own safety”.

Although the County Attorney felt certain that no man as arthritic as Brown could have assaulted anyone, he charged him with sexual assault, and planned to empanel a grand jury on Monday.

On Saturday morning, the 27th, The Omaha Bee ran a story, more lurid than accurate, under the headline, “Negro Assaults Young Girl While Male Escort Stands by Powerless to Aid Her.”

Having spent a night in jail, Miss Jones [2] decided that Brown had not been with her at the show after all. The prospect of prosecution as an accessory may have helped her memory. Johnson, facing a similar prospect, had a similar change of heart and clarification of memory.

That afternoon, police took Brown to Agnes Loebeck’s home [3], where they presented him to her with the question, “Is this the man?”

“Yes,” she replied, “this is the man. Take him away. The sight of him has been haunting me since he stopped me on the street and dragged me into the clump of weeds.”

“There is not the least bit of doubt,” Hoffman chimed in, “but what he is the negro that assaulted Agnes.” [4]

By this time, a crowd numbering into the hundreds had gathered outside the Loebeck residence, with hundreds more on their way. The officers phoned police headquarters; a police vehicle came to take them, and Brown, back to the courthouse.

Hoffman spent the rest of the evening preparing to incite a riot.

* * *

On Sunday, the 28th, William Fonda took his son, Henry, to the print shop he owned, because there was something he wanted him to see. Henry was puzzled. No one would be working at the shop, across the street from the courthouse, on Sunday, so nothing would be happening. But from a second story window, Henry saw everything.

* * *

Agnes Loebeck had attended Bancroft Elementary School; boys who’d been in her class then were now men. Many of them were veterans, most of them had or could quickly obtain firearms or heavy tools which could be used as assault weapons, whether against persons or structures, and almost all of them were ready to wage war.

Will Brown and the Mob at Omaha Courthouse

As they proceeded to the courthouse on Sunday, the 28th, they were peaceably dispersed several times, but regrouped, ever closer to the courthouse, in another few minutes. And as they went, word of where they were headed and what they intended spread, so that other groups of similar inclination were on their way to meet them. By three o’clock, the police surrounding the courthouse were themselves surrounded, and vastly outnumbered, but believed themselves to be in control of the situation. By five o’clock, the courthouse and the police protecting it had become engulfed by more than four thousand angry white men [5]. A pair of police attempted to scatter the crowd by flailing vigorously with their night sticks, charging toward the apparent ringleaders.

Unintimidated, the crowd charged back, disarming the two and flinging a third through a glass door. From inside, other officers sprayed a fire hose at the crowd, momentarily driving it back, until people from the rear of the mob moved forward, pushing through the wet and confused men in front of them, flinging rocks, and shattering windows. As the first group of police shut off the disappointing fire hose, another group fired their revolvers into an elevator shaft, hoping the sound of gunfire would frighten the mob. It did nothing of the kind.

As the mob began splintering a door to force their way in, the Chief of Police came to a window, asking to address them. In a few minutes, they were calm and listening. He asked them to allow justice to take its course. This was not what they wanted to hear. With renewed frenzy, the mob pressed forward again, overpowering and looting individual policemen before resuming their efforts to smash through the doors.
Inside, police moved prisoners to the fifth floor, then set up a defensive line on the fourth floor, where they intended to hold back the mob or die trying. They held back the mob.

By seven o’clock, members of the mob had brought gasoline, and were pouring it throughout the first and second floors. By eight o’clock, the police had an inferno beneath them, and no way of holding it back. They also had no means of escape. Anyone attempting to flee the building was shot at by several gunmen outside. Firemen arriving on the scene were kept away from the building by the mob.

It was nearly eleven that night when Mayor Ed Smith went out to address the crowd, imploring them to let the law handle this case [6], adding that “If you take him from this courthouse, it will be over my dead body.” Obligingly, someone clubbed him, someone else grabbed him, and in the course of the melée, a rope was put around his neck, then removed as he was rescued and taken to a car which was overturned. He was taken out of the overturned car, and dragged by another rope around his neck to the southwest corner of the courthouse lawn and hoisted on a street lamp. He hanged there momentarily until a car drove through the crowd to reach him, and four or five men [7] managed to cut the rope, get him into the car, and drive him to a hospital.

The fire had now moved to the third floor, where two bottles of formaldehyde were stored. When the heat broke the bottles, the burning formaldehyde rapidly filled the building with toxic fumes. The remaining police moved the prisoners to the roof.
What happened next cannot be confirmed; the least suspect of accounts say the police began attempting to negotiate the release of white prisoners while black prisoners implored Brown to give himself up; if he didn’t, they would surely all be lynched, unless they died in the fire.

It was now clear to everyone, particularly to everyone on the roof of the courthouse, that William Brown had no hope of seeing the sun rise. Beyond that, all accounts of the next few minutes are suspect. Everyone on that roof had reasons to say what they said about those few minutes, and no one had anything to gain by telling the truth. All that matters, really, is that when those next few minutes had passed, the mob had William Brown, and he was certainly dead even before they’d taken him the two blocks to the corner of Seventeenth and Dodge, where they hanged his body, and continued to shoot it as it hanged there [8] . It was later taken down, doused in kerosene, and burned. And when it had ceased burning, it was dragged through the streets.

The next week, the rope used to hang and drag him was cut into short pieces, each of which was sold for a dime [9]. Even today, one could probably locate a few of these souvenirs.

 

[1] In his original report to police, Hoffman gave Millard as his first name; however, the address he gave was a vacant lot.  Someone by the name of Milton Hoffman lived near to that vacant lot, so it was assumed that Milton had been misquoted by police and news reporters.  To assume otherwise would suggest that the whole of his allegation was a fabrication.

[2] They had also arrested her, presumably for her own safety.

[3] If Brown had been a serious suspect in a rape case, police would have brought Agnes downtown to pick him out of a lineup.  What he was actually being prosecuted for was his intimate relationship with Virginia Jones.

[4] Both of these statements appeared in the next morning’s paper.  It seems likely the editor paraphrased what was actually said, perhaps for the sake of clarity.

[5] By midnight, as many as 15,000 men and women may have gathered in the immediate area of the Douglas County Courthouse.

[6] Although the police and prosecutor were obviously aware that Brown had not committed the crime he was to be arraigned on, there can be little doubt he would have been tried and convicted, because of his intimate relationship with Virginia Jones.  However, the maximum penalty for forcible rape in Nebraska at that time was twenty years.

[7] Sources do not agree on the names or number of these men.

[8] Some sources indicate he was first hanged at 18th and Harney, from the same street lamp where the attempted lynching of the mayor had occurred.

[9]Approximately $1.25 in current dollars.

 

 

 

 

 

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