Hansen: Ruins of Omaha gangster underworld buried beneath Union Pacific - Omaha.com
Published Monday, September 23, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 11:55 am
Hansen: Ruins of Omaha gangster underworld buried beneath Union Pacific
If you go
The Bell Hotel will be one focus of a lecture, on Omaha's mysterious and murderous history, sponsored by the Douglas County Historical Society.

The lecture, titled “Mysteries of Omaha,” will also feature presentations on a forgotten ax murderer and Omaha's “Mystery Girl.”

When: 2 p.m. today

Where: Building 10 of Metropolitan Community College's Fort Omaha campus

Cost: Free for historical society members; $5 for nonmembers

Sometimes I stare out the newsroom's west windows and watch people do actual work in the glittering glass office building across the street.

I'm peering into the Union Pacific Railroad's corporate headquarters. It's a headquarters where Omahans make the trains in 23 states run on time and then eat a healthful lunch at a cafeteria featuring an 87-item salad bar.

It is an outstanding place. It is an upstanding place. It is a place where middle managers wear pressed slacks and ID badges and count calories.

Which is funny, because that glittering glass tower is built upon the ruins of a very different kind of headquarters.

For decades, this site housed a bordello, an illegal bookmaking operation, a backroom casino and at least one secret passageway for quick getaways.

It suffered countless police raids, two bombing attempts and at least one unsolved gangland-style murder.

The men who ran it and frequented it — men with nicknames like “Snorts” and “Snooks” and “Nosey” — did not count calories. They counted cash that the tax collectors would never see.

The blue sign out front once glowed in the downtown sky, beckoning to lousy husbands and degenerate gamblers and this city's big-time gangsters and small-time criminals.

The Bell Hotel. The Bell Cigar Store.

The epicenter of Omaha sin.

“If they dodged the bullets, they went there,” says Jack Atkins, a retired Omaha businessman and the son of one of Omaha's most notorious bootleggers. “Nobody's hands were clean. Nobody's.”

The Bell, which opened around the time of the Great Depression and managed to stay open through the Korean War, is one subject in a monthlong series put on by the Douglas County Historical Society and titled, quite accurately, “Murder, Mysteries and Mayhem.”

There was plenty of each at the hotel and related cigar store, owned and operated by Fred Weyerman, better known as Snorts. Snorts drove a big Cadillac, smoked big cigars and operated one of Omaha's biggest underground casinos.

In one backroom of the cigar store you could find an illegal all-night card game that attracted Vegas-connected operators such as Paul Weyerman — that would be Snorts' brother — and Kansas City mob-connected criminals like Charles “Snooks” Hutter.

Another backroom is where Snorts' bookmaker took bets on horse races, boxing matches and baseball games. That's where nervous gamblers could get inning-by-inning updates on the Yankees or the Dodgers — that would be the Brooklyn Dodgers — via telegraph wire.

And if you were connected enough, you could walk through a secret back hallway into the Bell Hotel, whose front entrance indelicately faced north onto Dodge Street.

The hotel offered cheap weekly rates on rooms. It also featured a rotating cast of prostitutes.

All of this was Omaha's worst-kept secret.

“Oh, everybody knew,” says Atkins, who remembers shoveling snow off the sidewalk at Snorts Weyerman's house and receiving $20 — a huge sum in the 1940s and '50s. “If you wanted to meet a lady of the evening, that's where you would go.”

Your safety wasn't necessarily guaranteed.

On July 11, 1938, a bomb exploded in front of the property, injuring no one but surely shaking up the various scofflaws inside.

In 1943, the aforementioned Nosey Barone, a notorious thug, assaulted a man named Henry Sorkin inside the cigar store after Sorkin refused to lend him money to open a nightclub.

Nosey also promised Sorkin, “I will beat you up every time I see you,” according to a new book about Omaha underworld history written by retired policeman and author Jon Blecha.

Sorkin responded to that threat Dec. 17, 1943. He responded by shooting Nosey dead in another downtown Omaha cigar store.

On Jan. 24, 1952, another bomb exploded. This one — believed to be the handiwork of a rival bookmaker —shattered the cigar store's front window.

And yet, despite blaring World-Herald headlines and frequent police raids, the Bell Hotel somehow managed to stay open. I have images of $100 handshakes dancing in my head.

But not even greased palms could prevent a crackdown — and the ultimate demise of the hotel — after what happened April 20, 1953.

That night, Eddie McDermott, the owner of a second-rate nightclub and a regular at the cigar store's card room, pulled up to the hotel, dropped off his date and went to park in a neighboring garage.

He was discovered hours later with two bullet holes in his head and $1,350 in cash still tucked safely inside his wallet.

When Omaha police showed up, the first man they saw was a fellow officer — a soon-to-be ex-officer by the nickname of Muscles — running from the scene.

Inside the card room, the police found Snooks Hutter, the man with known Kansas City mob ties. That city's organized crime outfit, as well as Omaha's gangsters, had at least one shared reason for wanting ­McDermott to disappear: He was planning to open his own rival bookmaking operation.

Snooks had an alibi. They all did.

In 1956, Omaha's police chief told The World-Herald: “Professional jobs like this are well planned. The killer skips town and the gun disappears. Gangsters, live ones, don't talk.”

By then, the Bell Hotel was no more. Police had raided it for a final time in 1955, busted up the prostitution ring, found the secret passageway between the hotel and the cigar store and shuttered the hotel's front door.

The cigar store actually operated into the 1960s, when Snorts Weyerman decided to retire and ride off into the sunset ... to Las Vegas, where his brother Paul owned a minority stake in a casino you may have heard of.

The Horseshoe.

The city of Omaha, much like Snorts, went legit. Today it's impossible to imagine a well-known brothel operating on a prime piece of downtown real estate. Hard to imagine an underground casino operating on the spot where a Fortune 500 train company chugs out profits.

But it happened, swears Creighton University senior Connor Hussein, who spent his summer internship at the Douglas County Historical Society researching the Bell Hotel. Connor, age 21, will speak about the Bell during the historical society's “Murder, Mysteries and Mayhem” event today.

It did indeed happen, Connor said, and the research was ... amazing.

“You hear about Al Capone, you hear about Prohibition, but it turns out we did something, too,” he says. “We had our organized crime! We had our gangland-style murders! Just like Chicago!”

Connor pauses.

“Not exactly like Chicago, but kind of.”

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

Firefighters battle brush fire near Fontenelle Forest
Omaha police investigate two shootings
Sioux City riverboat casino prepares to close, still hoping to be saved
Omaha high schoolers to help canvass for Heartland 2050
Mizzou alumni aim to attract veterinary students to Henry Doorly Zoo
Grant ensures that Sioux City can start building children's museum
Party looks to 'nudge' women into public office in Iowa
For birthday, Brownell-Talbot student opts to give, not get
Sole big donor to Beau McCoy says he expects nothing in return
Two taken to hospital after fire at Benson home
Grace: Pipe organ concert a tribute to couple's enduring love
Omaha-area jails and ERs new front line in battling mental illness
Convicted killer Nikko Jenkins might await his sentence in prison
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
Civil rights hearing to consider voting policies in Midwest
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
It's a pursuit of pastel at Spring Lake Park's Easter egg hunt
Financial picture improving for city-owned Mid-America Center
No injuries after fire at midtown's old Mercer Mansion
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
Explosion near 29th, Woolworth damages vehicles
Omaha police arrest man, 19, accused in March shooting
Earth gets its day in the sun at Elmwood Park
Beau McCoy strikes Obama doll in TV ad; Democrats are not happy
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
A World War II veteran from Omaha will return this week to Europe to commemorate a tragedy in the run-up to D-Day.
Dickson’s Week in Review, April 13-19
On Twitter some guy tweeted that the spring game isn’t taken as seriously as a regular-season contest. What was your first clue? When the head coach entered waving a cat aloft?
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »