Omaha: the Prairie Blossoms, pp. 132-151
The United States has become known as “the black hole” for languages because
foreign languages seldom make it past the second generation. Strong memory of ethnic
culture is unlikely past three generations in our country. Most readers can provide their
own evidence of this. The writer’s Danish grandparents came to the United States and
Omaha as adults. Their native language was gone with the passing of their children and
present family members must go to a museum to learn about their heritage.
This melting pot provided a rich variety of social changes. The challenges of
responding to the variety are well illustrated in the experiences of the Roman Catholic
Church in Nebraska, which sought to respond to the needs of Germans, Polish, Belgian,
Bohemian, French and Irish immigrants.
Three of these groups can demonstrate why one plan would not work for all. The
Irish were brought here willingly, by recruitment. The Czechs [Bohemians] came on
their own from a country in which they felt abused by the church. They warily tested
the church for trust-level. The Polish immigrants felt the church could have protected
their homeland in better fashion. They were very hesitant to have someone else ~
especially a non-Polish bishop ~ help them organize anything.
Bishop James O’Connor, who came to Omaha as a vicar apostolic in 1876, became
the first bishop and stayed until his death in 1890, was in the middle of this
administrative nightmare. He was up to the challenge.
Typical of strategies for national-based churches, the Catholic Church set up
“colonies” for new recruits, to places we now know as O’Neill, Atkinson and Greeley,
as well as Omaha. An excellent example in Nebraska was the colony established by
Bishop O’Connor in Greeley County. He purchased 26,696 acres [mostly railroad land
at $1.25 per acre] and sold it to the immigrant families.
The sale of a 160-acre farm was at reasonable
price, with low interest, and included enough margin
in the sale to build a church and a supply depot for
the new community.
That was a good plan on paper, but those who
constructed the buildings in Greeley did not know
how to build with the available wood. Roofs of the
new homes and depot leaked the first year and most
of the buildings fell down the second or third year ~
especially if a good wind storm came along.
Many immigrant settlers, angry, left. But the
tough ones stayed, built soddies which were cheap to
build, were warm in the winter and cool in the
summer, and did not blow down. They re-built the
church in Greeley and formed a strong community.
Chief recruiter for the bishop was “General” O’Neill. He was only a Captain in the
Union army, but his title was not his only exaggeration. He described Nebraska free
land as an Irish paradise waiting to be developed. Those who did not read the fine print
expected to find a building when they got off the train in Holt County. No building, and
not one stick of timber in sight with which to build. It was several days’ journey to a
supply of trees which could provide timber for rafters.
The new recruits were frustrated and some were very angry. The angry ones found
their way back to Omaha, went to saloons where they met persons who were returning
from Greeley with the same story, drowned their sorrows for a while and then hit the
streets in a disruptive mood. The bishop had problems! He made the strong
recommendation at one point that Irish immigrants ought not to drink alcohol and
indicated he wished he could enforce it.
Immigrant houses were built as temporary quarters in major cities, including Omaha,
to assist in the transition to their new country.
General O’Neill, like many promoters, had some shade in his past. He had served
time in prison for participating in a failed invasion of Canada. It was an expression of
his bitter hatred of anything British. However, he never backed off his promotional
ways and toured the country to lecture the Irish farm boys ~ especially those who
foolishly chose to come to citified places like Omaha and find a non-farm job. 13c-
O’Neill stated his strong plea succinctly and emotionally:
“All along those railroads where land was given away a few years back,
beautiful cities and towns and magnificent farms are seen, but you are not the
owners. In those beautiful cities raised by your patient skill and industry you
are not the owners. You pay a landlord for the privilege of occupying some
flatroofed attic or unhealthy basement. You work for a master. You sleep
under a master’s roof. You trade at a master’s store, and are expected to vote
at a master’s bidding.
“Is this independence? You fled from beneath the shadow of the British flag
to seek independence in this land of the free but alas you have not gained it.
You have but changed masters.” 13c-11
The Irish came to the farms in great numbers, but they also came to Omaha, where
they took the poorest of jobs and became influential citizens.
One fifth of all “Czech” farmers in the United States settled in Nebraska. 13c-101
They did not trust the Catholic Church, because of events in the old country, and they
were insistent on receiving Bohemian-speaking priests if any were assigned to their
Bohemians were better educated than the Irish, had a “Free Thinker” tradition, and
therefore had different expectations of their new homeland. They were aware of another
meaning for “Bohemian” so preferred to be called “Czech.”
Their hero was Father Jan Hus, burned at the stake as a heretic by some officials of
the Catholic Church in 1415. Father Hus was far more independent in spirit than in
theology. They liked his spirit. Priests who came to Czech settlements at Crete, Wahoo
and Schuyler, were challenged to prove they were trustworthy ~ a most difficult task
when the group has already decided. Bohemian communities often drifted in their faith.
We have witness from Protestant pastors in recent years who found that any pastor had
to live in a Czech community for as long as ten years before he was assumed to have
integrity and could be taken at his word about Gods’ Word.
Like the Irish, some Czechs stopped in Omaha and others returned there to find
steady employment. Typically this was in a packing house at up to $1.25 per day.
The church responded by establishing St. Wenceslaus Parish at 13th and Williams.
Bohemians thought in terms of a state church, with its taxes to pay the bills, and could
not imagine placing voluntary taxes in an offering plate. To compound the problem in
Omaha, a scalawag started and nourished the rumor that Bishop O’Connor was “on the
take” and was setting up the Bohemians to finance some grand plan or other, in another
place. A very frustrated bishop paid ALL the bills of the new parish for four years.
At least the bishop did not have the Swedish Lutheran member who hid under the bed
when the pastor came to collect for the church. The story is that the man sneezed, was
discovered by his pastor, and felt obligated to share his closely-held funds.
Polish immigrants loved their church and trusted its leadership, but they were hurt
and angry. Poland was taken apart by a series of actions of neighboring countries in the
last half of the 1700’s. It was obvious to the Poles, as they called themselves in Omaha,
that if the church had really cared it could have prevented this. They presumed it had
control of the countries that did the damage. The fact that Russia was under the
Orthodox Church did not matter ~ that looked Catholic to a Pole.
To bridge the anger, and to provide ministry to a large group of potentially-strong
members, the bishop pleaded for Polish-speaking priests. He had new work in
Columbus and Howard County as well as in Omaha. Would his bishop-friend in
Pennsylvania share a few Polish priests? Evidently not.
Could he get some from the former territory of Poland? The bishop sent a priest to a
Polish seminary, with cash a suitcase full of cash, to pay personal debts or obligations
which students might have, and to pay for passage to the new world ~ specifically
Nebraska. Three came.
Meanwhile the Poles in Omaha were doing their own thing, Baptist style. They
visited the other parishes until they had a good group, then purchased some land at 29th
and Elm and built a church. Bishop O’Connor and his staff urged that this be done in
good order, which included that title to the land would be held by the diocese. The
Poles were not willing to do that, but the bishop did provide a series of four priests for
the new ‘parish.’
Evidently the priests were a bit too catholic, or more plainly put, too connected with
the bishop. So the group sent away for a priest from a dissident group back east. Their
new ‘priest’ did not have proper credentials but he did have a rebellious attitude that
related to the feelings of some members. Exasperated with the situation, diocesan
officials sued for title to the property, and won.
The ‘priest’ barricaded himself in the building and fired shots at parishioners who
were trying to remove him, wounding two. Following police and court action, which he
lost, he returned with others to burn the building, completely destroying it.
The bishop, undoubtedly wisely, chose not to rebuild on the newly-acquired land, but
to proceed with a new Polish National site which became the Immaculate Conception
Church at 24th and Bancroft. 13c-143, ff.
The Roman Catholic cathedral in this period had one of the finest demonstrations of
an integrated congregation in the city’s history. At worship in the cathedral could be
seen Indians, Chinese, Negroes, Arabians, Poles, Bohemian and Italian congregants.
Up to this point, our religious references have been only to churches, as there were no
organized Jewish synagogues. By Jewish religious custom, ten men were required for
worship. The groups met for worship as they could, but they did not need to organize a
congregation or be consistently in one location, so early records are very sketchy.
As noted, Jewish persons were among the first settlers. For many years they were too
few in number to organize a congregation. Most clothing businesses were early Jewish
ventures. The persecution of Jews in Europe, ongoing for centuries, created a major
immigration wave in the 1880s and provided for the initiation of congregations in
Torture and death, deprivation and exile were only a part of the pressure on Jewish
populations in European countries. Often desperately poor, and always careful in
planning, Jewish families looked for ways to survive. Many impromptu organizations,
in port cities in Europe and the United States, and in destination places like Omaha
provided an amazingly-effective support system for those who made the jump.
One woman said she was told that in America dollars grow on trees. She came, did
not see any trees, much less dollars floating down like leaves. But like most, as she
looked back she felt it was a good decision to come to the new land.
The Czar of Russia was assassinated in 1881, and Jews were blamed by a few
politicians. New laws were exceedingly repressive. Omaha gained many new citizens
from this event and they quickly set up at least four worshipping congregations. The
first settlement was south of the city center, close-in, and later a large Jewish settlement
was on the near north side.
One of the charming pieces of our Omaha history is the warm relationships
established between Jewish and African-American citizens, as both groups found
themselves living in a restricted residential area. We have many stories of a trusting
relationship between two groups who had each experienced ghetto life. They helped
each other survive and they recognized each other as human beings of sacred worth,
when most other citizens did not.
The Jews came in greater numbers at first, because of the pressures in other parts of
the world, but citizens of African descent increased in numbers following the close of
the Civil War in 1865.
The residential area of Blacks was severely limited for the next 100 years. South
Omaha, near the packing plants which provided much of their employment, and the near
north side, were the only areas in which they could buy or rent. Jewish families were
able to escape these limitations more quickly after World War II because they could
“pass” more easily than their darker-skin friends. However, a “Jewish name” could stop
a sale or rental.
There is very little evidence of Christian objection to these exclusionary practices in
the next 75 years, and only modest protest in the 1950s. The demonstrations and protest
of the sixties began the change in public consensus in Nebraska.
The Nebraska Legislature passed the comprehensive liquor-control bill in 1881.
Sometimes referred to as the “high license” law, it greatly increased regulation, which
had been lax to non-existent in the earlier years. When Colonel Smith was shot and
killed outside his office door that fall, the public assumed it was because he was
aggressive in implementing the new law and the sentiment for prohibition was greatly
The public complaint increased to the point that the Legislature in 1889 called for a
vote on prohibition in the fall of 1890. All forces were out and active for the year before
the vote! Protestant churches, excluding Lutheran, joined with several other groups to
sponsor public meetings, with prominent national speakers and debates across the state.
The opposition to prohibition was headed by Ed Rosewater, editor of the Omaha Bee,
and John Webster, attorney and included churches which had a state-church background
and a formal ritual: Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran.
A ‘pro’ committee representing thirty pastors sent a letter to pastors and church
leaders which included the following comments:
“...The object of the meeting is briefly summed up in the necessity for the
immediate organization of a Gospel Temperance Union, through which could
be secured the united efforts of all Christians and moral people in opposition to
the rapidly growing power of the rum traffic. Also:
“A. That this Union work should be built upon the teachings of the Bible:
1. That we are our brother’s keeper.
2. Cursed is he that giveth his neighbor drink.
3. No drunkard shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven; and
4. I will not be with you except ye destroy the accursed thing from
“B. That this work should be upon a line that will unite all who love our Lord,
and others who, through love of humanity and our nation, desire to labor for the
protection of our youth and homes from the Great Destroyer ~ Intemperance....
“This is not a secret society, but an open union in which all can unite and
“The times demand a fearless ministry and people in battling with the rum
traffic, and it is within the power of the professing Christians in this State to
close every saloon, and in neglecting to do so they are and forever will be held
responsible....” 66-178, f.
A very aggressive campaign followed, with supporting funds for both sides coming
from all over the nation. The Academy of Music was dubbed “Amendment Hall” and
became the site for regular rallies, even nightly as the time for voting drew near. “Free
Grand Barbecue at Amendment Hall next Sunday afternoon” proclaimed the posters.
Emotions were high, with rhetoric to match. The Bankers and Business Men’s
Association was called the “Bummers’ and Boodlers’ Association.” Liquor
establishments offered free food to interest the voters. Women could not vote, but were
urged, in response to the ‘boodlers’ free food, to go as near to the polls as practical, with
sandwiches, coffee, song and prayer. “...furnish a buttonhole bouquet to each of those
who vote for God, and home, and native land; bring out the children in battle array, with
songs and banners....[such as] ‘Dare to do right, dare to be true; You have a work that
no other can do.’ ”
The Douglas County sheriff swore in 45 deputies to keep peace on election day.
Except for some rough treatment of pro-amendment workers who were giving out lists
of candidates who stood for prohibition, the voting went well.
Eastern papers reported rioting and bloodshed in the streets, in articles written before
[!] the election. “Men... ladies... are being insulted, mobbed and driven from the polls
by the drunken rabble. Ministers of the gospel are slugged, beaten and dragged from the
polls and compelled to flee for their lives,” according to the New York Voice. A great
number of irregularities were charged in the weeks following, but nothing like those
The amendment to require prohibition lost, by a vote of 82,390 to 112,043. In
Douglas County the vote was 1,555 for and 23,918 against. Not quite even! An
important factor in Douglas County was that Iowa had lived under prohibition for nine
years and Council Bluffs had more saloons per population than did Omaha. They
operated without the strict regulation that was boasted in Omaha. 66-178, ff.
Standing Bear Trial
The government and the Sioux Indians combined to force the small peaceful Ponca
tribe out of their northeast Nebraska location. A government inspector cruelly and
arbitrarily took their farm tools and forced them to march to Oklahoma in a terrible
winter. Since the Ponca had the right to remain in Nebraska, this was done “to protect
them from the [marauding] Sioux” neighbors.
In Oklahoma, Chief Standing Bear painfully watched as one fourth of his small tribe
died from disease. When death included his 16-year-old son, Chief Standing Bear
determined to defy the authorities and return with his son’s body to “their land” in
Nebraska, where he hoped to find a place to live out his days. 26-74 ff.
The small party suffered through the trek across frozen farm lands in the winter of
1879. Friendly settlers in Kansas gave food, and sometimes lodging, for the weary
travelers. The Ponca wondered if they could make it to the protection of their “cousins”
~ the Omaha’s.
General George Crook learned that the Chief and his party had been welcomed by the
Omaha tribe, who indeed even invited them to share their land. The Omaha in 1865 had
generously given half of their reservation to the Winnebago, who had been displaced
The general was outraged that federal authorities ordered him to arrest the chief in
order to deport him. “I’ve been forced many times by orders from Washington to do
most inhuman things in dealing with the Indians, but now I’m ordered to do a more
cruel thing than ever before.” 26-76
His troops brought the chief to the Fort Omaha prison, but General Crook shared his
anger with an assistant editor of the Omaha Herald, Thomas H. Tibbles, challenging him
Tibbles, formerly a Methodist minister, needed no encouragement to join a good
debate. He later was a Populist vice-presidential candidate. The Omaha community
was eager to support the cause.
We imagine that the citizens were fearful of or opposed to Indians. As already noted,
that was not true in Omaha. There had been positive relations. One Indian tribe had
assisted in the political struggle to have the territory established. The Indians in eastern
Nebraska were agricultural and peaceful, and had been helpful to many pioneer people.
As we have seen, they even assisted in police work.
The trial represents one of the proudest moments in Omaha religious response to a
community issue. The first public meeting on the subject was hosted by First
Presbyterian Church. Those gathered demanded that “the protection of the United
States law be extended to these original Americans.” Present at the meeting was Chief
Standing Bear, and Susette “Bright Eyes” La Flesche, the outstanding woman teacher
from the Omaha tribe, who was the interpreter. A graduate of the Presbyterian school
for the Omaha tribe, she said, “We ask only for our liberty, and law is liberty.”
Omaha churches sent a protest to Washington and, with support from Jewish citizens,
proceeded to receive offerings in their congregations to pay the expenses of the
attorneys, who received no professional fees. Two prominent attorneys agreed to take
up the fight: John L. Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton, chief counsel for the Union
Pacific Railroad. [Residents should live on those streets with pride!]
The trial began April 30. Chief Standing Bear appeared in the full formal dress of a
chief. General Crook, who seldom dressed like a general, came in his finest attire, to
show his respect for Chief Standing Bear. The trial proceeded in dignity and obvious
There was wide national press coverage, as the trial and decision broke new ground.
Was Chief Standing Bear a ‘savage’ or a ‘person’? An ‘alien’ confined to his country,
or an ‘immigrant’ [like many others in the courtroom!] to the United States?
The Chief spoke clearly on an important legal point. He said he desired to leave his
nation and immigrate to the U.S. He was not on a trip to visit. The defense attorneys
represented the local consensus well as they contended that an Indian is a person in the
eyes of the law and thus is entitled to seek justice in a U. S. court and to live anywhere.
Chief Standing Bear was allowed to address the court after the arguments, but he did
not make the following statement as is often indicated. A member of the community
wrote it and it obviously represented the feelings of the community:
“[My] hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you
pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be
the same color as yours. I am a man. God made us both.
“A man bars the passage [to my freedom and] I .... must obey his orders. If
he says that I cannot pass, I cannot. The long struggle will have been in vain.
You are that man.”
Judge Elmer S. Dundy agreed with the chief, his attorneys and the people in his
decision, which was set forth in a remarkably emotional statement for a presiding judge.
He also declared that Chief Standing Bear had the right to leave his Indian nation and
live wherever he chose to live. Government attorneys were alarmed at such a thought,
questioning how the government could control the native peoples if this opinion were to
hold. What if they chose to leave the reservations?! It held.
Omaha had a big celebration, with editorials and sermons joining in a shout of justice
achieved. In reviewing the many reports surrounding the trial, one gets the feeling that
Douglas County gained a measure of maturity in the process of defending Chief
Standing Bear and was now quite distant from the rowdy rough-and-tumble collection of
individuals who settled the villages twenty-five years earlier. It was a watershed event.
Self-interest was balanced with community-interest, as citizens even stood for the rights
of someone from outside the community.
La Flesche and Tibbles toured the United States, sometimes with Chief Standing
Bear, and traveled to Europe, using the circumstances of this event to educate an
international audience about respect for the Native Americans. They were well-received
by the public ~ and by each other. They chose to marry. Longfellow is reported to have
said of Bright Eyes, “She is Minnehaha.”
The following year, Judge Dundy ruled that the Poncas still held title to their Dakota
lands and congress felt obligated to take action to compensate the Poncas for their
mistreatment as well as return the Chief and his family to their tribal grounds. 26-82
To show his appreciation for their work in the trial, Chief Standing Bear presented
gifts to the attorneys. He gave Webster a tomahawk with this presentation:
“Hitherto, when we have been wronged we went to war. To assert our rights
and avenge our wrongs we took the tomahawk .... But you have found a better
way. You have gone into the court for us, and I find that our wrongs can be
righted there. Now I have no more use for the tomahawk. I want to lay it down
Chief Standing Bear gave eloquent, emotional testimony for the right to be
considered a person and to feel equal before the law.
Those who enjoy the high-energy food of the chaos created by strongly-stated
opinions ~ sometimes called ‘politics’ ~ had a feast in the last two decades of the 1800s.
This chaos was not the product of confusion and general malaise. It resulted from a
concoction of plainly-worded statements, strongly-held opinions and the passion of
The Populist Movement provided political excitement and produced results which
greatly affected Nebraska and Omaha. It was distinctive enough to add a new word to
the permanent political vocabulary, though the term ‘populist’ was not in the original
rally cry. The movement was energized by the collection of feelings held by the general
public, mostly in reaction to the lack of democracy in decisions that affected their lives.
They felt ‘used’ and they shouted their protest.
An exceptionally volatile labor situation, described in the next section, was another
emotional force of the Populist setting.
Some observers described a “chasm between the classes in the 1880s.” 14-120
Through the 1870s a national feeling developed that the republic now belonged to the
rich and powerful ~ persons who were becoming rich and powerful on the backs of
cheap labor and new immigrants.
Shady stock maneuvers by major wealthy players were unregulated and displayed
cold cynicism. The shakers and movers simply ignored the interests of the rest of the
population. Borderline and downright dishonest business deals were discovered. They
were perpetrated by national figures like Vanderbilt, Drew, Astor, Gould and Fisk, all of
whom appeared to have a free hand in using wealth to push others around.
The State Farmers’ Alliance was an educational organization which successfully
consolidated farm sentiments in the 1880s. The issue of individual rights was a
generating force in the emotional journey. Many recognized that the government has a
critical role in leveling the playing field when an individual’s rights and actions are
being threatened by a large corporation. Wealthy business interests were successfully
limiting the government’s protection of citizens.
These forces came together, with much editorial support,
to create the Populist Revolt of 1890. The Alliance and the
Knights of Labor decided to test the public by asking for
signatures on a “declaration of principles.” Within thirty
days they had more than 15,000 signatures! 52-231
A “People’s State Independent” convention was called
in Nebraska. “A more confident assembly of delegates
could not be imagined.” They felt they had idealism and
the right on their side, with the assured support of the
masses. 52-231 In a major switch of power, they were in
Several events, especially economic actions, fed the populist feelings. The railroad
had been a major player in attempting to block development of the stock yards in
Omaha. The railroad was charging such outrageous fees for transport of grain that
farmers could no longer sell to markets outside of their own communities. A small
group of railroad executives controlled the Republican Party in Omaha. After each
national convention, those loyal to party leaders were challenged by dissidents, who
often offered their own candidates. The protesters were without success until 1890. 38-
The ruling Republicans in Nebraska called for reduction of railroad rates, but refused
their governor’s call for a special session to implement the regulation of railroads.
Farmers pointed out that the railroads were not paying taxes on their land, but farmers
were paying taxes to help pay off the bonds held by the railroads. How can that be fair,
especially for farmers who had no cash?
The Democrat Party was weak locally, with an uncertain voice. The two parties
combined to defeat amendments which would have given women the right to vote and
would have provided prohibition. The Republicans said the Democrats swallowed the
Populist Party, giving them more brains in their stomachs than in their heads. 48-62
Hot heads and poor information added to the public turmoil.
In all of this, the Populists used local problems to focus on national issues: control of
transportation, commerce, money standards. The legislature heard its members say that
farmers did not know how good times are. The Lincoln Journal called the Populist
candidates “Hogs in the Parlor” and the Nebraska State Journal wrote of “venerable
Populist leaders [and followers!] created a good bit of poetry and songs to spread
their sentiments. None of it raised artistic standards. One song played off the ‘hayseed’
editorial and ended with the refrain: “The ticket we vote next November will be made
up of hayseeds like me.” 52-234
A Populist song: “It was hardly more than a year ago,
Goodbye my party, goodbye,
That I was in love with my party so,
Goodbye my party, goodbye.” 16-78
We also have this period to thank for the cry of the farmers, variously stated, that
“We should raise less crops and more hell.”
The 1890 election was an exciting contest, without parallel. When the dust settled
and the ballots were counted, voters learned that the Populist/Democrat coalition would
take over. There was almost total change in state offices, legislature, and congress,
including one young William Jennings Bryan who had received a token nomination to
congress. Omaha had voted down prohibition by nearly 14:1, but helped to handily
elect Bryan, one of the leading speakers for prohibition.
Bryan boldly pushed Populist themes in his colorful political career and transformed
the Democratic party from a Jeffersonian anti-government position to one of expecting
the government to work for the people. He was a major influence in molding public
opinion on subjects that were ‘before their time’ ~ including four stands which became
constitutional amendments: popular election of senators, income tax, women’s suffrage
and of course prohibition. Bryan was also influential in reducing tariffs and creating a
department of labor, the Federal Reserve system, the Federal Trade Commission and
anti-trust legislation. 26-172
Other Populist proposals which were considered wild ideas at the time: parcel post,
postal savings, rural mail delivery, workers’ compensation, eight-hour labor law,
regulation of corporations, initiative petition, recall petition, primary elections, civil
service reform laws [against importation of Chinese labor], regulation of transportation
and telegraph, control of banks, government loans for farmers and home owners, old-
age pensions, unemployment insurance and factory safety inspections. In retrospect, it
is a stunning, creative list that would have required great thought as well as passion.
They dreamed of a society in which individuals had rights and respect! 28-168
Governor Thayer refused to relinquish his office to the newly elected Boyd, a
conservative Democrat. The legislature affirmed the election. Thayer challenged
Boyd’s citizenship, an understandably murky subject when everyone was at least related
to an immigrant, and was reinstated in office. The United State Supreme Court ruled
that Boyd was indeed a citizen and he was reinstalled governor ~ eight months after the
Nothing much changed in Nebraska. Governor Boyd, conservative enough that he
had never bought into the coalition with the Populists, fought the Populist legislature on
its key issues. Republicans took control back in two years. W. J. Bryan, with the
World-Herald [Democrat], the Omaha Bee [Republican], the Democrats and the
Populists united to elect Holcomb governor. He stayed, but the hope of creating a truly
independent movement did not find success.
Church and Politics
Church involvement in politics in the 1900s was often direct and heavy. The
Lutheran [German Evangelical] Synod of Nebraska endorsed Boyd for governor in
1890. Pastors distributed printed material in support of him, mostly on the basis of his
stand against prohibition. Baptists and Presbyterians supported the prohibition
amendment, which caused them to lose some of their attraction to German prospective
Partly as a result of these pressures, the Populist movement dropped prohibition from
its platform in 1892 and received stronger public/church support. Churches and
synagogues were also affected in this period by the anti-foreign-born sentiments voiced
by several newspapers and politicians. The anti-Catholic “American Protective
Association” [NOT religiously based], took shots at Rosewater, Jewish and foreign-born
Luebke has done extensive research on influences on political processes and gives
interesting observations about the role of churches. 41-180 The seven denominations
that developed the basic religious life in early Nebraska were divided into two groups.
The Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians emphasized ritual, liturgy and creeds.
Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians were usually strongly
pietistic, emphasizing personal devotion and standards of behavior. They were the ones
who worried about alcohol, dancing and sometimes card-playing, to the puzzlement of
those in the first group. They in turn were puzzled by the apparent lack of interest in
The second group are the ones who sponsored reform legislation and backed the
Republicans because the Republicans were for strong government with controls and
guidelines for the people. Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians tended to support the
Democrats, who wanted as little government interference as possible. The Catholics and
Lutherans were especially vehement about keeping the government out of their schools,
their languages and their cultures.
The wild mix of political motives was evidenced in continuing disruptive local
elections in Nebraska in 1900. “Almost without exception, mayoral candidates were
publicly accused of past malfeasance, present fraud and future incompetency.” 16-83
One mayor refused to relinquish his office to the newly elected mayor. Sounds familiar.
Ed Rosewater, of the Bee, supported Gilbert Hitchcock, of the World-Herald, for
congress in 1902 and helped produce the only Democrat to win in a Republican year.
Hitchcock went on to become a distinguished senator, first elected by the legislature to
that office in 1905.
Farmers’ rocky economics, a national depression, plus dramatic changes in local
development and unpredictable politics, combined to provide an interesting and volatile
setting for congregational life from 1880 on past 1900.
Racial and Ethnic Reactions
The quick lynching of George Smith, a Negro, on Friday, October 9, 1891 further
documents the passions of the time. He was accused of assaulting five-year-old Lizzie
Yeates two days earlier. That is about all we can be sure of as fact.
The Bee reported on Friday that the girl had died from her injuries and that she had
made positive identification of her attacker. Neither assertion was true. The girl’s
grandmother said Mr. Smith looked like a man she had seen nearby thirty minutes
earlier. She could not be sure. That was the only identification of a man who was a
A separate emotional event came at the same time and probably affected public
actions. A legal hanging took place that Friday morning, drawing a large crowd.
Citizens coming to view Ed Neal’s body: 23,425. The World-Herald and a few local
religious leaders objected to death as entertainment: “The morbid folk who are not
ashamed to confess their vulture-like appetites, have been feasting their souls to gluttony
on the hideous fact of Neal’s fate.” 8-234, f.
The paper, reporting on the alleged Smith assault, said that Omahans had reason to
believe that a dangerous black fiend was prowling the city, house to house, in search of
victims. Until he was caught, Omaha’s wives and daughters would not be safe. Such a
threat, the World-Herald stated, required swift and brutal justice of a kind which could
not be entrusted to the judicial system. 8-230 On Thursday, the paper suggested he
could be hung the next day.
Whipped into anger by the two stories in the Bee and agreeing with the call for a
hanging, the crowd began to gather after dark and soon became a mob intent on a
hanging. The sheriff was weak, telling the crowd which was gathering that if he were
not the sheriff he would bring the rope.
The fire department was called out, to quiet the crowd with streams of water. The
rioters cut the hoses. The Sheriff refused entry to the building. He was forcibly
removed and transported to the west yard of the high school where a few men kept
watch over him for the remainder of the time.
During the evening, the crowd was also addressed by Governor James Boyd, and
Judge George Doane. Each called for a quieting of passions and support for the court
system which would determine the merits of the evidence and mete out punishment if
that was warranted. It was reported that one of them was thrown to the ground and
feared for his life. The mob did not disperse as requested. 66-138
A battering ram was brought in [which did not work], plus crowbars, sledge
hammers, and steel saws. The milling crowd worked for hours to get to the man. The
police mustered a force of 100, to try to deal with a crowd of about 10,000. At one point
the police were able to get him into a police wagon, which the crowd upset and smashed
The jeering crowd, passion-filled, drinking, shouting – drug the prisoner so roughly
across the rocks that he was dead before they put the rope on his neck. As was the case
with Neal, citizens were able to go to the mortuary to “view the remains.”
The governor, the editor of the World-Herald, a pastor and a city councilman stood
together in the middle of the scene, watching helplessly and in horror as the crowd
dragged the man down the street. 48-45
The community deplored the violence, though comment was limited and a few
historians ignore the event entirely. Many citizens assumed he could be guilty but they
felt the matter should be handled through the courts. Complaints were filed against the
leaders, but nothing more happened.
The World-Herald gave additional disquieting evidence of the local racial attitude in
an editorial six months later:
“It is not in the nature of Americans to be law breakers except when they are
confronted with terrible situations. When it comes to a question of defending
his home, no man pauses to reflect much about code and statute. That is the
whole of the matter.”
About the same time as the riot, a white man accused of murdering an older couple
was hanged. A large group of men, including black citizens, kidnapped the Sheriff as
other members of the crowd broke into the jail. They removed the suspect and hanged
him in the street. Local reaction to the two hangings was strong and a reporter stated
“the good people of town” would not let this happen again.
Later, when the mayor committed suicide, members of the American Protective
Association forced officials to exhume the body so they could show he was murdered by
Irish Catholics. They could not show it, but considerable passions were stirred. 48-44