Hansen: Omaha's Al Capone and the trial that changed the city's history

Tom Dennison's trial in November 1932, ostensibly about bootlegging, became a referendum on the man who had, in essence, ruled Omaha for four decades.

Eighty-one years ago, Omaha's most powerful man took the stand in a trial that changed the course of this city's history.

Tom Dennison, the dapper Irishman who strode to the witness box in November 1932, had for all intents and purposes run Omaha for nearly four decades.

He had never been mayor, and, in fact, he never ran for political office. Instead, he got mayors, city councilmen, judges and even congressmen elected — or defeated — based on how willing they were to bend to his will.

Neither was Dennison a reputable big-business man, the equivalent of a modern-day Fortune 500 CEO. It's a tad difficult to fit in with the black-tie crowd when you are dogged by accusations that you had murdered rivals, robbed trains and become the Capone of the Cornhusker State.

Not that the man on the witness stand was hurting for cash. He moved rivers of liquor during Prohibition, ran several wildly profitable illegal casinos, controlled and profited from the city's 2,500 prostitutes and collected cash from every business — both reputable and underworld — that needed his protection.

He also tampered with juries, stuffed ballot boxes, bought off the Omaha police, installed relatives and cronies into made-up city jobs, allegedly ordered the murder of one of Omaha's biggest businessmen and may have purposely inflamed the racial tension that led to the 1919 race riot and lynching of a black man.

A Chamber of Commerce stalwart he was not. But Tom Dennison was something else. He was untouchable.

Untouchable, until this day in 1932.

“People knew Tom Dennison, but until the trial there was never a deep understanding of exactly what was going on in this city,” says Orville Menard, the author of one of two new books that seek to shed light on Omaha's Dennison-connected past. “In the fall of '32, the people of Omaha found out. All these weeks of testimony ... they exposed Dennison. They exposed his machine.”

To understand just how shocking the Dennison trial was, you need to understand just how difficult it once seemed to unseat him.

In 1899, following a campaign by this very newspaper, the Douglas County attorney raided Dennison's illegal casinos and arrested him. The charges were quickly dropped on a legal technicality. It probably didn't hurt that Omaha's chief of police and its mayor were both Dennison allies.

In 1904, Dennison was arrested again, this time in Iowa, for his alleged masterminding of a train robbery during which $15,000 in diamonds disappeared. This time he stood trial.

Incredibly, Omaha Mayor Frank Moores actually appeared as a character witness on Dennison's behalf and testified that the kingpin of Omaha's underworld was in fact one swell dude.

There were numerous examples of Dennison's associates and employees being arrested. Often, they appeared before judges who had been elected or re-elected with Dennison's help. In other cases, they appeared before jury members who had been threatened, bribed or both. Suffice it to say, the trials of Tom Dennison's men usually ended with them back on the streets of the 3rd and 4th Wards, which encompassed much of Omaha's present-day downtown.

A reform movement intent on cleaning up the seedy area, and pushing Dennison from power, also repeatedly failed at the ballot box.

Dennison backed both Republicans and Democrats who had little in common save for two things. They won. And then they either actively supported Tom Dennison or at least left him alone.

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Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

His grip was strongest in the 3rd and 4th Wards. Most of the voters who lived in those wards were poor immigrants who relied on Dennison's organization for jobs when they were unemployed or groceries when they were starving. Often, they owed Dennison only one thing in return: their votes.

Similarly, Omaha's seemingly legitimate businessmen could always use help getting a new road built or a city inspector to look the other way. They went to Dennison, too, and then they owed him a single thing in return: campaign contributions.

The result? “Tom Dennison's politicians were always in the majority,” says Menard, the author of “River City Empire,” a book about Omaha's underworld history that ends with Dennison's trial.

The assassination of Omaha businessman Harry Lapidus in 1931 — an event that I'm planning to write more about — began to change things.

For one, it prompted federal agents to open a wide-ranging case and to wiretap dozens of bars, casinos, brothels and other businesses connected to Dennison.

And those wiretaps, in turn, led to the indictments of 59 people. The one that grabbed the headlines: Tom Dennison, charged with conspiracy.

During the trial, a team of prosecutors led by Edson Smith — the father of Judge Laurie Smith Camp, currently the chief judge for the U.S. District Court in Omaha — succeeded in publicizing evidence of decades of Dennison's wrongdoing. The trial, ostensibly about bootlegging, became a referendum on the man who had ruled Omaha for four decades. In some way, it became a referendum on the city itself, which had allowed it to happen.

It should surprise no one that Dennison's trial ended in a hung jury after two jurors mysteriously refused to convict despite mountains of evidence.

The truth, though, is that the verdict didn't really matter. The court case itself — the dirty laundry it aired — caused public opinion to swing sharply against the Dennison machine. Anti-Dennison reformers swept the next election. Dennison, by then 72 years old, understood that he was finished in Omaha.

Shortly after the election, he moved to California. He died in 1934, his decades-long stranglehold on power finally broken. For most of those years, they couldn't break Omaha's most powerful man at the ballot box or dent his businesses' bottom line.

“So they broke him through the courts,” Menard says.

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