Photo of the Day

Rioters on the south side of the courthouse. Rioters climb the Omaha, Nebraska courthouse trying to get to Will Brown. Brown, a black man, was being held on the fourth floor of the courthouse. He was accused of raping a white woman. Photo from Nebraska State Historical Society.

A Horrible Lynching

On Sept. 28, 1919, Omaha’s courthouse was burned, three men were killed, and Omaha’s mayor was lynched, nearly to death.

Thousands of Omahans stormed the Douglas County Courthouse, calling for the death of prisoner William (Will) Brown, a black man accused of raping a white woman Agnes Loebeck, (also spelled Lobeck) in addition to (sometimes-called Loeback)

By the end of the night, the mob got what they wanted — lynching Brown, shooting him to pieces, lighting him on fire and dragging his body through the streets of downtown Omaha. The rioters also very nearly successfully lynched Omaha’s mayor, Ed Smith, and set the courthouse on fire, causing $1 million in damages. Two other men died that day, both white, one a rioter, the other a bystander.

Not much is known about William Brown and his personal minutiae is lost to history, but the horrifying  details of his lynching have been preserved.

From May through September 1919, over 25 race riots rocked cities from Texas to Illinois, Nebraska to Georgia. In Omaha, the trouble began on September 25, when a white woman, Agnes Loebeck, reported that she was assaulted by a black man.

The next morning, the Bee reached new lows reporting the event. The headline was: “Black Beast First Stick-up Couple.”

“The most daring attack on a white woman ever perpetrated in Omaha occurred one block south of Bancroft Street near Scenic Avenue in Gibson last night.”

Coverage in the World-Herald was slightly less inflammatory:

“Pretty little Agnes Loebeck . . . was assaulted . . . by an unidentified Negro at twelve O’clock last night, while she was returning to her home in company with Milton Hoffman, a cripple.”

Will Brown, a severe rheumatic, was a 41-year old worker in one of the city’’s meatpacking plants. He was probably among the many African Americans who had migrated from the South after Reconstruction looking for a better life free from the stifling and dangerous constrictions of Jim Crow.

That evening, the police took a suspect to the Loebeck home. Agnes and her boyfriend Milton Hoffman (they were later married) identified the black packinghouse worker named Will Brown as the assailant. Brown was 41 years old and suffered from acute rheumatism.

Before the police could leave the Loebeck house, a mob gathered outside and threatened to seize Brown. After an hour’s confrontation, police reinforcements arrived and Brown was transferred to the Douglas County Courthouse. Several police officers were ordered to report at once to police headquarters in case of further trouble, and 46 policemen and a detective were kept on duty well into the night.

After the confrontation outside the Loebeck home, rumours began to fly that a mob would try to seize Brown again. On Sunday, September 28, a group of youths gathered in south Omaha and began a march to the Douglas County courthouse.

Brown had spent the previous night weeping in terror and crying from the pain in his joints.

Eventually, thousands of angry people gathered at the courthouse and by evening, the Omaha police and city officials inside the courthouse were virtual prisoners. The size of the crowd was estimated as between 5,000 and 15,000 people. By 8:00 p.m. the mob had begun firing on the courthouse with guns they looted from nearby stores. In that exchange of gunfire, one 16-year-old leader of the mob, and a 34-year-old businessman a block away were killed. By 8:30 the mob had set fire to the building and prevented fire fighters from extinguishing the flames. Inside, Will Brown moaned to Sheriff Mike Clark, “I am innocent, I never did it, My God I am innocent.”

Omaha race riot 1919. Demanding that William Brown be handed over to them, the demonstrators turned on the police and set the courthouse on fire. When firefighters appeared, their hoses were cut into pieces by rioters who had broken into nearby hardware stores and stolen axes as well as firearms. Mayor Edward P. Smith was at the scene and came out of the courthouse at about 10:30 p.m. to try to restore order. He became a target of the mob and was nearly lynched himself before being rescued.

The lede 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.

Around midnight on September 25, 1919, Milton Hoffman and Agnes Loebeck were assaulted at Bancroft Street and Scenic Avenue as they were walking home after a late movie. They said their assailant robbed them at gunpoint, taking Hoffman’s watch, money, and billfold, plus a ruby ring from Agnes. He ordered Hoffman to move several steps away, then dragged nineteen year-old Loebeck by her hair into a nearby ravine and raped her. On Friday the 26th, an Omaha Bee headline proclaimed that a “black beast” had assaulted a white girl. Police and detectives combed the vicinity for two hours, joined by four hundred armed men under the leadership of Joseph Loebeck (Agnes’s brother) and Frank B. Raum. The group included railroad workers who knew Agnes from her job at an eatery (she also worked in a laundry). A neighbour told the searchers of a “suspicious negro” living in a house at 2418 South Fifth Street with a white woman, Virginia Jones, and a second black man, Henry Johnson. Raum and four of his men found William Brown at the house and covered him with a shotgun. Arriving on the scene, police found Brown hiding under his bed. They took him to Loeback’s home nearby, bringing with them clothes found in Brown’s room.

Left: Arrival of the police patrol at about 4:15 p.m. The patrol was later burned by the mob. From “Omaha’s Riot in Story and Picture.” Right: Mayor Ed Smith.

Loebeck and Hoffman soon identified the assailant as Will Brown, a black labourer, about 40 years old. Her description of him tallied with that of a mugger in the vicinity three weeks earlier. Agnes also identified the clothing, including a white felt hat that had been worn by a man seen in the Gibson neighbourhood. Later, however, Agnes stated that her attacker was black, but “I can’t say whether he [Brown] is the man or not.” Hoffman, arriving at the Loebeck home, identified Brown “with not the least bit of doubt but what he is the Negro who” held him at gunpoint while he raped Agnes. By then a crowd of some 250 men and women had gathered around the house, shouting that Brown should be lynched. They struggled with the police and twice succeeded in putting a rope around Brown’s neck. Despite slashing of tires and beatings, the police prevented a lynching and took Brown first to the police department’s jail, and then to the new Douglas County Courthouse jail, where they believed he would be safer. Chief of Police Marshall Eberstein said he did not know if Brown was guilty and that further investigation was necessary.

Agnes Loebeck’s charge that William Brown assaulted her seems preposterous, considering his debilitated condition. Brown was never tried, and aside from Lobeck’s identifying him as the assailant, no evidence is available to either convict or absolve him. During the lynching one of Loebeck’s female friends was reported to have pushed her way to the front of the crowd and begged desperately to be allowed to speak. It’s tempting to speculate that she might have resolved the question of Brown’s guilt once and for all, but the crowd ignored her and her words went unsaid, and we cannot know what they would have been. For Brown, it did not matter whether he was guilty or not, all that mattered was that he was another black man accused of assaulting a white woman. In all likelihood, Brown was just one more black man falsely accused on the tail end of a summer of false accusations, in a year of violence.

A riot-crazed mob stormed the burning Douglas County Courthouse and lynched an African American, Will Brown. The victim was accused of raping a white woman, had no opportunity to prove his innocence. Political boss Tom Dennison and his allies may have encouraged the lynching in order to discredit Mayor Edward P Smith, an advocate for reform.

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 Loebeck and Hoffman. There are reports that confirm his weakened condition. Whatever the case, Brown’s alleged crime was never investigated, let alone given a trial.

For almost a hundred years, Will Brown’s bullet-ridden and charred remains lay in an unmarked grave in the potter’s field of Omaha’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Accused of raping a white woman, Brown was taken from the burning Douglas County Courthouse by a riot-crazed mob. Beaten as he avowed his innocence, his bleeding body was dragged to swing at the end of a rope, and repeatedly shot. According to his death certificate, Brown died on September 28, 1919, age about forty, a labourer by trade, marital status unknown, birthplace unknown, as were the names of his parents. The cause of death was “bullet wounds through the body and lynched.” The circumstances of the riot and Brown’s death remain controversial. Was he guilty of rape or was he innocent, physically incapable of the feat? Was the riot a spontaneous eruption of fervour, reflecting a violent “spirit of the times” in a year of social and economic anxieties? Or was it a politically inspired event, designed to discredit the city’s administration?

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, one is granted first place: sensation-seeking newspapers. Stories of racial violence and lynching dominated headlines.
“Especially provocative,” 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 wrote, were reports of white women assaulted by blacks. 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.”
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.

In addition to the enmity aroused by putative rapes, racial tension was fuelled by numerous additional sources of discontent. During the second decade of the twentieth century, societal turmoil aggravated race relations as thousands of blacks migrated to the north in what was known as the Second Great Exodus. (The first was 1870-79.) Omaha’s black population doubled from 5,143 in 1910 to 10,315 in 1920.6 (Omaha’s 1920 white population was 191,601.) Wartime worker shortages in northern cities lured blacks seeking better paying jobs, better lifestyles, and the promise of freedom from Jim Crow.

“Jim Crow” was a pejorative expression meaning “Negro.” Jim Crow laws—sometimes, as in Florida, part of state constitutions—mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks.

Factory agents recruited black workers, paying railway or reduced fares and offering unskilled jobs with railroads and meat-packing plants. The 1918 armistice quieted the guns in Europe, but hostilities increased on the home front. Labour unrest was widespread. White union members striking for recognition and higher wages confronted black strike-breakers, exacerbating racial animosities.

Returning veterans seeking jobs in a tightened employment market discovered a “New Negro,” one anticipating that long-endured indignities and denial of rights would now pass into history. The war to make the world safe for democracy had been won, but black Americans found their own situation largely unchanged in their post-war world. President Woodrow Wilson had even sent a representative to France to warn black troops not to expect French democracy when they returned home.

A potent and combustible component of the racial divide was sex—the longstanding notion of black men preying on white women. A day before Brown’s lynching, U.S. Senator John Sharp Williams proclaimed that “the protection of a woman transcends all law of every description, human or divine,” legitimizing the mostly sex-related lynchings of African Americans. Fifty-four blacks were lynched in the United States in 1916; by 1920 the annual number had grown to eighty-three.

The burning of the Douglas County Courthouse on Sept. 28, 1919. The mob in the street is barely visible by the light of the flames. Photo from Nebraska State Historical Society.

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.

Adding to Omaha’s disquiet and distrust was a political battle between a recently elected city reform movement and an entrenched political machine eager to regain control by demonstrating the ineptness of the reformer “goo-goos.” In its alliance with Tom “the Old Man” Dennison, Omaha’s powerful political boss, the Omaha Bee was the primary strident voice of alleged racially shocking crimes. Alarmed at the Bee’s promotion of violence and racial prejudice, the Rev. John A. Williams—first president of the local chapter of the NAACP and publisher of the Monitor, a weekly black paper—called upon the editors of the Bee and the Daily News to stop their propaganda.

The Bee was charged with being the mouthpiece of a gang that ruled Omaha with the cooperation of behind-the-scene influentials who decided who should run for office, with Dennison’s organization electing them. In return, according to the source, Dennison received money and control of the police department, juries, and the police court to protect the cities vice interests. Dennison and Bee founder Edward Rosewater forged their political alliance around 1900; after Edward’s death in 1906, his son Victor sustained the paper’s pro-Dennison orientation. Thanks to Dennison, James Dahlman served as mayor of Omaha from 1906 to 1918, when he was defeated by reform candidate Edward P. Smith. Reform advocates—especially civic and church groups, inspired by wartime rhetoric of fighting for democracy and offended by city administrators’ tolerance of gambling, prostitution, and drinking in the Third Ward—removed Dennison’s allies from city hall. But his influence and connections with the Bee carried on. The police department commissioner, J. Dean “Lily White” Ringer, devoted to “cleaning up” the city, was stymied by a police department little interested in his puritanical ambitions. A press campaign led by the Bee attacked city government,

assailing it for rising crime and inefficiency. City commissioners were hobbled by the intramural contest between “moderate” reformers, whose goal was “good” structures for governing the city, and the radical reformers intent on cleansing it. Omahans perceived their governance and safety as unsatisfactory, and looked back to the years when Dennison “kept the lid on.” Vicious politics, racial intolerance, black migration, alarmist sex stories, labour unrest, housing, and employment shortages, dissatisfaction with city governance, all vied for redress. City elections were but two years away.

From The World-Herald archives.

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 rumours, 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 Loebeck, 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.

Chicago Race Riot 1919.

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, 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 amongst working-class whites that very often led to violence.
American history is full of examples of minorities being blamed by the majority for economic problems, historians say. 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 their history with slavery.
Thousands of blacks migrated to northern cities from the South during this time, in what was known as the Second Great Exodus. Omaha’s black population doubled from 1910 to 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 blacks 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.

The Crime rate, it was high that summer. There were a disproportionate number of murders and acts of violence.

Omaha apartment rents 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 culprits. 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 robbing them.

One group, the National Mothers’ Organization to Repeal the Daylight Law, claimed daylight savings was the problem. The group’s chairwoman explained their 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 brief, 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.”

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.

Two hundred boys gathered near Bancroft School at 2 o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday, September 28, 1919. They discussed the assault upon Agnes Loebeck, 19 years old, their former schoolmate. They began a march to the county court house, where Will Brown, was imprisoned whom Miss Loebeck had identified as her assailant. The march of the boys’ brigade from Bancroft School was intercepted by city detectives, headed by John T. Dunn, chief of the detective bureau. Dunn warned the lads to desist from their mad enterprise. They laughed at his warning and marched on.

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.

A cordon of thirty policemen was guarding the court house when the boys arrived. It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. One boy, riding a horse from whose saddle hung a long rope, was leading the lads. Most of the boys were smiling. On only a few of the boyish faces was evident that serious determination which proved such a grim foreboding of the things that followed.

Police tried to cajole the crowd from its purpose. Fifteen or twenty boys refused to be cajoled. The rest of the crowd swapped banter with the officers until the police were led to believe that nothing serious would result from the gathering.

A report to that effect was made to central police station. The police captain in charge sent to their homes fifty patrolmen whom he was holding as a reserve.

The decision proved disastrous.

Then the storm broke. Adults joined the mob. By 5 o’clock in the afternoon fully 4,000 persons thronged the street on the south side of the court house. They began to rush the policemen. They pushed one officer through the pane of glass in a door. They assaulted two patrolmen who had attempted to use their clubs on leaders of the mob.

The out of control mob had begun attacking police, storming the courthouse and breaking the windows with rocks and bricks. According to reports, two girls carrying a tin bucket furnished the mob with stones.

By this time (6 o’clock in the evening) throngs swarmed about the court house on all sides. That curious psychological phenomenon, known as “mob spirit,” was evident. The crowd wrested revolvers, badges and caps from policemen. They chased and beat every coloured person who ventured into the vicinity. White men, who attempted to rescue innocent Negroes from unmerited punishment, were subjected to physical abuse. Law-abiding citizens became maniacal anarchists.

The reign of terror had begun.

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.

By 7 o’clock most of the policemen had withdrawn to the interior of the court house. There they joined forces with Michael Clark, sheriff of Douglas County, who had summoned his deputies to the building with the hope of preventing the capture of Brown. The policemen and sheriffs formed their line of last resistance on the fourth floor of the court house. There they stood, optimistically believing that they could foil all efforts of the crowd to take its intended victim from the “mob-proof” jail on the fifth floor.

But they did not estimate correctly the desperate lunacy of the mad mob that surged beneath them. Before 8 o’clock they discovered that the crowd would resort to any means to gain its end.

The building was set on fire around 8 p.m. Soon they saw tongues of flame leaping up at them. The crowd had set the magnificent building on fire. Its frenzied leaders had tapped a nearby gasoline filling station and saturated the lower floors with the flammable liquid.

Bullets began to spit. Members of the mob pillaged hardware stores in the business district and entered pawnshops, seeking firearms. Police records show that more than 1,000 revolvers and shotguns were stolen that night.

Into the burning building the most brazen of the mob’s leaders rushed. They shot at any policeman who dared to show himself. Seven officers got bullets in their bodies when they tried to remonstrate with the mob. However, none of the policemen was injured seriously. Louis Young, 16 years old, a mere stripling, was killed while leading a gang up to the fourth floor of the building. Witnesses say the boy was the most intrepid of the mob’s leaders. A bullet that entered his stomach stopped the lad’s daring dash toward the elevator that led to the county jail. Pandemonium reigned outside the building. The spirit of fury had unleashed itself to the full.

It is a terrible image: William Brown’s body, burned to white coal ash. It lays in the street, tied to railroad ties, surrounded by dozens of men. Some smiling as though celebrating in front of the camera, and all but the dead seem jubilant. The throng of men and women standing next to the burned body of William Brown (not pictured) during the Omaha riot of Sept. 28, 1919. Omaha author Ted Wheeler, remembers when he first heard the story. He was in fourth grade at Lincoln’s Holmes Elementary. His teacher showed the class the photograph of a proud, smiling mob posing behind Brown’s burned body which has been cropped out in this edition of the photo.

Mayor Ed Smith, who had been at the courthouse for hours.  At about 10:30 p.m., Mayor Smith came out of the courthouse and tried to reason with the mob.

He asked them to forget the prisoner and allow the firemen to put out the flames.

He asked them 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 the man, I’m going to enforce the law even with my own life.” The crowd took his words to heart, shouting “hang him” and “string him up.” With a noose around his neck, the mayor was dragged along the street to the Sixteenth Street traffic signal tower.

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 next thing he knew, he was on Harney Street. One end of a rope was being flung over a lamp post. 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.

The rope tightened around his neck. That was the last thing he remembered until he woke up in a hospital where he remained for several days in serious condition with severe head injuries.

What happened next isn’t entirely clear, but someone, possibly police officers, saved Smith from the mob’s rope.

Mayor Smith had been rescued, but there are several versions of how the rescue happened. Some reports say police detectives were responsible for saving Smith’s life.

Others give the credit to a young man named Russell Norgaard. Whatever the true story, the mob lost interest in Smith and concentrated on getting Brown out of the courthouse.

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.

When he was taken to the county jail, Brown said he was working as a coal hustler (carrying coal from truck to cellars), and limping because of rheumatism. Other sources have him employed in a packing house or in a lumberyard, suggesting heavy labour. However, a series of comments were made attesting to Brown’s physical limitations. A physical examination showed Brown was “too twisted by rheumatism to assault anyone.” An unidentified Omaha World-Herald reporter allegedly interviewed Brown in jail and “confirmed by his observation the man’s crippled condition.” His chronic rheumatism meant Brown would be physically unable to overpower Loebeck and Hoffman.

Subsequent accounts have frequently alluded to an unnamed lawyer who commented on Brown’s physical limitations. For example, George Leighton in his 1938 Five Cities (and likely a source for others to follow), states that a lawyer examined Brown and “he found the man badly twisted with rheumatism and wondered how anyone in such a condition could have assaulted anyone.”16 During a WPA interview on November 11, 1938, Harrison J. Pinkett, a prominent African American Omaha attorney, said that he was the lawyer “that examined Will Brown and he definitely states that it would have been impossible for him to attack anyone. He states that it was merely an administration fight and Tom Dennison’s way of fighting Ed Smith and his administration” Ironically, Hoffman was repeatedly mentioned in the press as a cripple. He denied that description, saying he had a disability because of a childhood broken leg that never mended properly.

At about 2:00 p.m. on September 28, Hoffman exhorted about two hundred mostly young people at Bancroft School to follow him to the courthouse and seize Brown. (Times and numbers given are approximate.) Detective John Dunn told the marchers to halt, but they ignored him, their numbers increasing as they passed. By 4:00 p.m., several hundred people had gathered at the south side of the courthouse, bantering with thirty policemen who formed a cordon around the building. Thinking there was no threat, a police captain sent home fifty officers who had been summoned to police headquarters as a reserve. The crowd grew. Sixteen-year-old William Francis, who became known as “the boy on the horse,” rode with a rope on his saddle pommel, leading part of the crowd. Policemen ordered him several times to leave, but he kept returning. Another agitator was Claude Nethaway, who urged the crowd “to get the (Redacted) and lynch him.” Within an hour police were confronted by some 4,000 to 5,000 angry people throwing rocks at the courthouse. The north doors gave way to what had become rioters, and the police chased them from the building several times.

The mob rushed back to the courthouse, and the riot escalated as more gasoline was thrown into the building. Spreading flames forced the police to retreat to the second floor. Firemen brought hoses, which the crowd soon hacked to pieces. Rioters took the firemen’s ladders and used them to enter the courthouse’s broken second-story windows. Policemen and sheriff’s deputies took to the fourth floor with flames and angry men below them. Someone shouted, “Let no one leave,” and armed men were stationed at every exit door. Sheriff Clark led Brown and his 121 fellow prisoners to the roof, but bullets fired from nearby buildings sent them back downstairs. Clark convinced the rioters on the stairs to allow female prisoners to leave. Officers and deputies began telephoning their wives with parting words.

Ten officers in Court House Court Room 1 on the fourth floor were threatened by the flames, but their call for help was refused with calls of “Let ’em burn. Bring the nigger down with you and we’ll hand you a ladder.” From the west side of the building, three slips of paper floated down. Scrawled on one of them was, “Judge says will give up Brown. He’s in the dungeon. There are 100 white prisoners on the roof. Save them.” Another message read, “Come to the fourth floor of the building and we will hand the (Redacted) over to you.”

Inside the Douglas County Courthouse after the riot.

Accounts differ on how Brown ended up in the hands of the rioters. Sheriff Clark claimed he surrendered Brown to save the lives of the police officers and deputies, fearing they would be killed if the struggle continued. In another version, the black prisoners grabbed Brown and turned him over, shouting, “Here is your man.” The day after the riot a youngster said he read the note that urged others to come to the fourth floor and “get the (Redacted)” With two friends he followed the instructions and somebody handed Brown over to the thirty men who had come up the stairs. “They tied a rope around his neck and dragged him to the south side of the building.

So, Brown ended up in the hands of the crazed mob. He was beaten into unconsciousness. His clothes were torn off by the time he reached the building’s doors. Once it had him, the crowd took him, he had no chance by then and he was dragged to a nearby lamp pole on the south side of the courthouse at 18th and Harney around 11:00 p.m. The mob roared when they saw Brown, and a rope was placed around his neck. Brown was hoisted in the air, his body spinning. He was riddled with bullets. His body was then brought down and Brown’s remains were tied to the end of a police car that the mob had seized, and dragged to Seventeenth and Dodge streets. There he was burned on a pyre with fuel taken from fire truck lanterns and also from the red signal lanterns used for street repair. Brown’s charred remains were then dragged behind an automobile through downtown streets.

Later, pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold for 10 cents each. Finally, Brown’s charred body was dragged through the city’s downtown streets.

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:
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.
Major General 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 labour for the riots. This was in keeping with the Red Scare rhetoric on which he would run for president.

The grand jury issued 189 indictments. Twelve year-old Sol Francis was the youngest to be arrested; he had urged other rioters to follow him as he climbed a ladder. Only a few of the arrested were ever prosecuted, mostly on minor charges. Two exceptions were Ralph Snyder and Claude Nethaway, both charged for Brown’s murder. They were found not guilty after brief jury deliberation. From atop a burned police car, Snyder had shouted, “We have showed the (Redacted) what a northern mob can do.” 25 Six weeks of deliberations culminated with the grand jury’s report, submitted by its foreman, John W. Towle, who lamented obstacles to their investigations, including uncooperative eyewitnesses. The report attributed the riot to multiple causes, which were similar to those cited after “Red Summer” riots in other cities: unmentionable assaults on females; contempt for authority and laws; economic conditions; strikes and lockouts; unsettled soldiers; class hatred; and social unrest. Bolsheviks, sovietism, and anarchists took advantage of these conditions to provoke a riot and bring down the city’s government. Absent from the list is racism.

73 years of lynchings.

The grand jury report said people in the mob were under the influence of liquor, but lamented it had no evidence of drinking or drunks. Rumour filled in where verification was lacking; stories spread of liquor distributed throughout the city, with unlimited quantities available at the courthouse. The courthouse gang urged the crowd to “drink up” and spur enthusiasm for the task at hand. Another story was that taxicabs were made available to bring people to the scene and to take the wounded away. Many people believed that accounts of black rapists were actually white men in blackface.

The Omaha 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 paper’s first of 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 clamouring for his blood.”

Will Brown’s guilt or innocence remain unknown. He never had the opportunity to prove what he uttered with his last words: “I am innocent.” Despite the presence of thousands of people, few cooperated with law enforcement; a conspiracy of silence protected the participants. Collective guilt prevented individuals from identifying or denouncing fellow rioters. Witnesses without recollections and jurors unwilling to convict were the riot’s progeny. Short-lived voices of condemnation were heard, but mostly a consensus of acceptance of lynching, even approval, was typical in Omaha and other cities. The violence did not evoke any initiatives to assuage racism or improve conditions for Omaha’s African American community. Instead, segregation was promoted by covenants that restricted property ownership to neighbourhoods where blacks already were in greatest number. Two years after the riot, the Ku Klux Klan formed an Omaha Klavern. Given the fuel provided by Tom Dennison and his allies, Brown may have been the victim of a politically inspired manoeuvre to restore the city officials dislodged by the 1918 election. Brown’s death was timely, if not timed, to strike hard at Mayor Ed Smith. Dennison’s machine won the next election.

Nebraska-born actor Henry Fonda was 14 years old when the lynching happened. His father owned a printing plant across the street from the courthouse. He watched the riot from the second floor window of his father’s shop.

“It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen . . . We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope.”

At the start of the 20th century in the United States, lynching was photographic sport. People sent picture postcards of lynchings they had witnessed. A writer for Time magazine noted in 2000, Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs of Auschwitz, but lynching scenes became a burgeoning sub department of the postcard industry. By 1908, the trade had grown so large, and the practice of sending postcards featuring the victims of mob murderers had become so repugnant, that the U.S. Postmaster General banned the cards from the mails.

Will Brown appears to have been the victim of political machinations as well as racial prejudice. The event has been preserved in no way, not even with a plaque. Perhaps this is unsurprising, as who besides Brown would demand something so terrible be remembered? And Brown cannot speak to make demands.

William Brown was buried in 1919, in an unmarked grave in a potter’s field at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Omaha. Ninety years later in July of 2009, a man from Riverside, California, Chris Herbert, who has no ties to the city of Omaha and has never visited before, was moved to pay $450 of his own money for a marker for Will Brown’s grave. Herbert said he watched a special on actor Henry Fonda, which mentioned the riot and how it affected his life and acting career. Herbert also said that he hopes people will stop by the headstone and reflect on what happened to Will Brown in 1919, so that we may never let ourselves sink again to this level of inhumanity.

Will Brown’s death is considered one of the “largest spectacles of violence directed towards an individual” in the United States.

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