The lead of the story — Omaha mob lynches man, tries to lynch mayor, burns courthouse — is startling enough, even a century later. But when you dig into the details, it's far more disturbing.
"This is about the worst incident in Omaha's history," said David Bristow, associate director for research and publications at the Nebraska State Historical Society and editor of Nebraska History magazine.
The only incidents comparable, he said, are the lynching of the black man Joe Coe in 1891 and the Omaha streetcar strike riots of 1935. But Sept. 28, 1919, Bristow said — "that's about as bad as it got; (1919) is such an interesting and really dark year in American history."
What follows is a history of the Will Brown lynching, as well as the sometimes bizarre context that surrounded the tragedy and the months leading up to it.
For our sources, we relied on our interview with Bristow and help from the Omaha Public Library. We looked through archives of Omaha World-Herald and New York Times issues from the time, and leaned heavily on the writing of the late Nebraska historian Orville Menard, who studied and wrote extensively about Tom Dennison and the 1919 riot for which his political machine was at least partly responsible.
On Sept. 25, 1919, a woman named Agnes Loeback was reportedly held at gunpoint and raped. The next day, the Omaha Bee — a peddler of yellow journalism that reportedly had close ties to political boss Tom Dennison — reported that a "black beast" had assaulted a white girl and robbed her companion, Milton Hoffman.
Loeback and Hoffman soon identified the assailant as Will Brown, a black laborer, about 40 years old. Brown was arrested and taken into custody at the Douglas County Courthouse jail, but not before nearly being lynched by a crowd of 250 men and women who had to be held at bay by Omaha police.
Brown claimed his innocence all the way up to the time of his murder. Helping his case was a physical exam showing that he had rheumatism and would have been in no state to physically overpower Loeback and Hoffman. World-Herald and Lincoln Journal reports confirmed his weakened condition. Whatever the case, Brown's alleged crime was never investigated, let alone given a trial.
THE 'RED SUMMER'
Brown's lynching came on the heels of the "Red Summer of 1919," when more than 100 black people were killed amid violence that had erupted throughout 25 U.S. cities — 36 died in Chicago alone.
"While there are several identifiable causes of the riots," Menard wrote, "one is granted first place: sensation-seeking newspapers. Stories of racial violence and lynching dominated headlines."
"Especially provocative," Menard wrote, were reports of white women assaulted by black men. These incidents were reported in "stories that condoned the lynching and mob brutalities." The result was "an atmosphere receptive to rabble rousing and tolerant of violence."
Bristow added to this: "It was just story after story of hyped-up tales of lynchings, and particularly of accusations of rape, which was always just reported as 'this black man raped a white woman.'"
THE OMAHA BEE
Long before 1919, Omaha Bee founder Edward Rosewater had forged a partnership with political boss Tom Dennison. The relationship later continued with the editor's son, Victor Rosewater.
The Bee gave Dennison headlines that aligned with their mutual political interests. And their mutual political interest that summer was sullying the administration of Mayor Ed Smith. Smith was a reformer who had recently come to power, ending the long tenure of Dennison's man, "Cowboy Jim" Dahlman, throwing a wrench in the crime boss' machine.
One of Dennison and the Bee's strategies to undercut Smith was to sensationalize crime stories, complaining that Smith and the Police Department had allowed a "carnival of crime" to consume Omaha.
The summer leading up to Brown's lynching, 21 attacks on women had been reported in the city; 16 of the alleged attackers were black. The Bee ran headlines decrying the epidemic of black men assaulting white women, but, if the accused were released due to lack of evidence, the paper did no follow-up.
The World-Herald was more restrained than the Bee, but wasn't entirely immune to the draws of sensationalism. A World Herald editorial that ran the day before the riot said, "Our women need to be protected at all costs."
There's little question that the strategy of the Bee and Dennison's agenda helped fuel the racial animus that led to the courthouse riot. But, according to the Nebraska State Historical Society, there were also rumors, never confirmed, that Dennison's role was more direct — tales of Dennison's men distributing liquor to the mob or taxicabs offering rides to the courthouse to boost the riot's numbers.
One especially troubling rumor had it that the reported black rapists of that summer were really white men wearing blackface. This claim was later asserted by John Towle, the foreman of the grand jury tasked with investigating the riot.
There was one piece of circumstantial evidence that hinted at conspiracy. Milton Hoffman — the companion and later husband of Agnes Loeback, the woman whom Brown allegedly assaulted — was Dennison's secretary.
Hoffman (whom The World-Herald first misidentified as "Millard Hoffman") was later one of the key instigators of the lynch mob that burned down the courthouse and killed Brown. When authorities later sought him for questioning, Hoffman couldn't be found. Dennison had sent him to Denver, where he'd arranged a job for him. Several years later, Hoffman returned to Omaha, where he lived the rest of his life.
He later held various positions with the city; he was actually appointed to one of these jobs by mayor James Dworak. Hoffman also ran an unsuccessful bid for City Council in 1961.
He never faced any legal consequences for his role in the riot.
THE POWDER KEG
There were many factors that fed the toxic atmosphere of that summer in advance of the riot: horrid racism being a big one, lack of legal repercussions for killing black people being another.
But there were cultural shifts at play in both Omaha and the country at large that helped light the fuse.
"Once you're aware of all those things," Bristow said, "then the fact that this sort of thing happened doesn't seem so surprising."
The Red Summer was one of economic hardship, anti-immigration sentiment, battles over voting rights for women and spikes in rent and food prices.
More than 20,000 Omahans enlisted during World War I, creating a labor shortage. When many of them returned they found their old jobs filled, often at lower pay.
In 1919 more than 4 million workers participated in strikes in the U.S., thousands of them in Omaha. Throughout the summer, the city's tailors, teamsters, truck drivers, bricklayers, boilermakers and livestock handlers had gone on strike.
Unions generally did not admit black people and, given no other choice, black laborers worked as strikebreakers at lower wages, sowing racial animosity among the white working class that very often led to violence.
American history is full of examples of minorities being blamed by the majority for economic problems, historians say.
Said Bristow: "That does seem like that's kind of our default. Blame the outsider. The outsider can be an immigrant. It can be somebody who doesn't look like you, it can be somebody who has a different religion. In different societies those fault lines differ, depending on the composition of society. In American history, race is absolutely huge because of our history with slavery.
"I unfortunately do see a lot of parallels to today."
THE BLACK MIGRATION
During this time thousands of black people migrated to Northern cities from the South in what was known as the Second Great Exodus. Omaha's black population doubled between 1910 and 1920 to more than 10,000, about 5 percent of the city's population in 1919. Black workers were recruited by Northern factories, where they were often used as strikebreakers. In the first week of August 1919, hundreds of black workers arrived in Omaha from St. Louis and Chicago, cities that had recently endured violent race riots.
Racially motivated lynchings in Northern cities became common and were encouraged by press and politicians alike. In 1916, 54 black people were lynched in the U.S. By 1920, the number was 83.
The Omaha Bee's efforts to undermine Ed Smith's administration during the summer of 1919 were later blamed for stoking racial animosity.
The Monitor, Omaha's African-American newspaper, held the Bee's sensationalized reports responsible for the tension and for the violence to come.
Before we address the event itself, it should be noted just how rotten it was to be alive and in Omaha in 1919.
THE CRIME RATE
It was high that summer. There was a disproportionate number of murders and other acts of violence.
THE HIGH COST OF LIVING
Omaha apartment rent prices had risen 50 percent over the 1918 cost. This was in part due to rapid population growth. Landlords blamed a 20 percent increase in property taxes.
Food prices were also a problem in Omaha. They had gone up 18 percent over those of 1918. The U.S. Labor Bureau reported that summer that food prices had risen more in Omaha than any other major city in America.
People's reasons for the local price spike ran the gamut. The consumers, retailers, suppliers, farmers and the government pointed fingers at each other as the culprit. Retailers blamed consumers for buying more than they needed and creating a shortage. The government blamed food profiteers for hoarding goods. The World Herald blamed organized labor for being lazy. Farmers blamed robbers for stealing from them.
One group, the National Mothers' Organization to Repeal the Daylight Law, claimed daylight saving time was the problem. The group's chairwoman explained the rationale:
"Supper is now being served earlier, by bedtime the family is again hungry and they go into the kitchen and eat the food which would be served for lunch the next day ... thereby increasing the grocery bill 10 to 15 percent."
The tensions of the high cost of living often resulted in violence. A few weeks before the courthouse riot, a landlord penned up the flock of geese his tenant was raising to reduce his meat bill. This led to an argument, which led to the tenant shooting at the landlord three times. But the bullets did no bodily harm. According to a World-Herald news story, the tenant merely shot off the buttons on the left side of the landlord's overalls "as clear as if they had been cut with a knife."
INTERLUDE: A HISTORIAN'S VIEW
Why is it important for a city to reconcile itself with the worst parts of its history?
Bristow: "We have to acknowledge the past. The past influences everything that came after it. The underlying idea that some people have fewer rights than others, that some people aren't worthy of the presumption of innocence, hasn't entirely gone away."
The afternoon of the riot, Hoffman took a crowd of 200 young people from Bancroft School to the courthouse to call for Brown's head. He picked up another 600 followers on the way. A few hours later, a mob of 4,000 surrounded the courthouse, with 100 police officers trying to hold them back.
The mood was initially described as "bantering," and police were confident in their abilities to quiet the mob before things got out of hand. Fifty officers in reserve at the police station were sent home. The decision proved disastrous.
By 5 p.m. the mob had begun attacking police, storming the courthouse and breaking the windows with rocks and bricks. According to World-Herald reports, two girls carrying a tin bucket furnished the mob with stones.
Fire hoses were turned on the mob, but the mob cut the hoses to pieces.
Police, who retreated to the upper floors, fired their revolvers down elevator shafts, but that only made the mob angrier.
The building was set on fire around 8 p.m.
About 10:30 p.m., Ed Smith, who had been at the courthouse for hours, came out to try to reason with the crowd. He asked the people to disperse, to let the law handle Brown. Then someone hit him in the head with a baseball bat.
Smith was then dragged out to 16th and Harney Streets, where he reportedly shouted, "No, I will not give up this man."
Bristow: "Whatever else you can say about Mayor Smith's effectiveness, the fact that he walked out into that crowd, that took a great deal of courage."
The rioters threw a rope over the arm of a traffic signal tower, tightened the noose around Smith's neck and lifted the mayor off the ground. What happened next isn't entirely clear, but someone, possibly police officers, saved Smith from the mob's rope. Police then took him to the hospital. Smith recovered from his injuries, but he would go on to lose re-election in 1921 to his predecessor, Dennison's man, "Cowboy Jim" Dahlman.
Nearly killing the mayor wasn't enough for the crowd. They still wanted Brown.
There are differing accounts as to how Brown ended up in the hands of the mob. Shortly before he was turned over, Brown reportedly told the authorities, "I am innocent, I never did it, my God, I am innocent."
Once it had him, the crowd took him to a pole at 18th and Harney Streets.
Bristow: "He's hanged, and then shot while hanging, and then they cut him down, burn his body on a bonfire and then drag that body through the streets on an automobile."
The next day, The World-Herald reported that "a commercially inclined youth sold bits of the lynchers' rope for 10 cents each."
THE MORNING AFTER
The World-Herald headline read:
"MOB IN OMAHA LYNCHES NEGRO; ATTEMPTS TO HANG MAYOR SMITH." Within the pages of coverage, next to the stories, were ads for riot insurance and for building sprinklers ("the automatic firemen").
In addition to Brown, two men, both white, died: Louis Young, a 16-year-old riot leader; and James Hykell, a 34-year-old businessman.
Damage to the courthouse was estimated at $1 million.
Omaha effectively went into martial law, with Army troops patrolling the streets by the early morning of Sept. 29. The day after was relatively quiet, due in part to a heavy thunderstorm that sent people back indoors.
Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood arrived the following day, placing three company-size units to protect the courthouse, City Hall and two black neighborhoods. At 24th and Lake Streets, machine guns were trained at adjoining streets. Police in the basket of an observation balloon looked over Omaha to watch for fires. Federal troops remained on riot duty for several weeks.
The following year, Wood ran for the Republican nomination for president, losing to Warren G. Harding.
Before leaving Omaha, Wood blamed not racism but organized labor for the riots. This was in keeping with the Red Scare rhetoric on which he would run for president.
A few days later, The World-Herald wrote an editorial about the lynching titled "Law and the Jungle." The piece — which included the line "We have felt, however briefly, the fetid breath of anarchy on our cheeks" — went on to win the 1920 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, the first of the paper's three Pulitzers.
The riot also made the front page of the New York Times, which wrote that the majority of Omahans were "not only not ashamed but actually pleased by the work of the mob. ... They are proud that Omaha lynched a negro, burned his body, wrecked a million dollar courthouse and jail, burned thousands of invaluable records and strung the mayor of the city up to a trolley pole because he refused to order the police to throw the negro Brown into the hands of thousands who were clamoring for his blood."
The grand jury later issued 189 indictments. Only a few were prosecuted, and mostly on minor charges.