Horse thieves lynched

An image from an early history of Omaha shows Harvey Braden and John Daly, alleged horse thieves, lynched from opposite ends of a rope near Florence in 1859.

Editor's note: This piece originally was published on Sept 10, 2006, as part of David Harding's "Everyday History" column in The World-Herald.

I've always thought that if we could follow our ancestry back far enough, each of us might find a little bit of royalty and a horse thief dangling from the family tree.

John Braden has proved half of this theory — he's found a horse thief among his forefathers.

Braden is an engineer in Massachusetts who likes to piece together his family's history through genealogical research. One set of dates in the family record intrigued him for years.

His great-grandfather, William Braden, was born north of Council Bluffs in 1859, the same year in which William's father died at age 28. John suspected some sort of tragedy and decided to stalk this mystery for an answer.

His research led him to an early history of Nebraska, which described an 1858 incident in which two men were lynched near Omaha for stealing horses. One of them was named Harvey Braden.

John was amazed. Could this horse thief be his ancestor, who had the same name?

Not if the lynching took place a full year before his great-grandfather William was born. Mormon church records said Harvey Braden died a year later in 1859, but they placed the death in Iowa, not Nebraska.

Another book of early Omaha history had an artist's woodcut showing the unusual hanging. Stealing horses was considered a very serious crime by settlers who depended on these work animals, but local law enforcement often failed to track down the bad guys.

Farmers north of Omaha apparently got tired of the situation and did their own police work in this case. When they captured Harvey Braden and John Daly with a few extra horses in tow, they took the pair to the Douglas County Jail in Omaha.

A few days later, a man walked into the Sheriff's Office while the sheriff was absent. He grabbed the jail cell keys off their hook on the wall and walked out as the office staff protested.

More than a dozen men dragged the alleged horse thieves outside and threw them in a wagon. On their way out of the building, they returned the keys to the Sheriff's Office.

These vigilantes drove the wagon out the main road about two miles north of Florence, where they threw a rope over a sturdy branch of an oak tree. Then they hung one man from each end of the rope. The bodies were discovered there the next morning.

Harvey Braden's body offered a particularly grisly spectacle, as he had been hung with the rope passing through his mouth instead of under his chin.

This is not the sort of story you would wish on your ancestors. But at the same time, John Braden wanted to know if this tragedy belonged in his family history.

Prospect Hill Cemetery was Omaha's only burial ground at the time. John contacted the cemetery to see if there were burial records for either of these lynching victims.

Cemetery board member Louise Baumann couldn't find any such records. The story piqued her interest, so she burrowed into the newspaper files at the Douglas County Historical Society.

There she discovered a newspaper account of the hanging, which proved that it had occurred in 1859, not a year earlier as the history book had indicated.

When John combined this information with all he had learned about Harvey Braden's wife, it added up to indisputable proof of his relationship to the alleged horse thief.

"I was shocked at first, " John said, "but I was happy to learn the story. Out there on the bleeding edge of the frontier, I'm sure times were tough for everyone.

"Maybe it turned him into a horse thief. It also turned some upright churchgoers into murderers. It's a great story, and it does enrich the family history."

Now if he can just find a king or queen in his ancestry, John Braden will have proved my theory.

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