Justice by lynch mob was more common a part of Nebraska’s early history than you might think. Research into one of the history’s darker chapters reveals lynching was not only about hanging cattle rustlers and train robbers.
Whether your impression of the old American West comes from history classes or cowboy movies, the images many of us created of “hang ‘em high” justice in that new frontier probably involves a rope noose thrown over a tree limb in a remote place where there weren’t many judges or juries to sort out the details of the crime at hand.
New research into lynching during Nebraska’s formative years shows that popularized notion was true in only a fraction of the cases when mobs took the law into their own hands.
Jim Potter, a historian writing in the Fall issue of the magazine Nebraska History discovered lynching was more common in the state’s larger and more developed areas. Larger cities like Nebraska City and Omaha topped the list.
“More lynchings took place later and in central and eastern Nebraska communities than took place in these so-called wild towns of the West,” Potter said. “All of these cases, in the later years, were in towns that had long out-grown their frontier period.”
Sorensens' Early History of Omaha, published in 1876, included this depiction of the lynching of two suspected horse thieves, Harvey Braden and James Daley. The pair were dragged from the jail before they could stand trial.
While doing research on other topics in the late 1800s and early 1900s Potter came across stories in old Nebraska newspapers about lynchings and near-lynchings in a number of communities. Most often victims of the mob were suspected of killing one of their neighbors. Suspicions of rape or cattle rustling might enrage a community and lead to the formation of a citizens' posse.
Potter was fascinated because there were many more of these attacks than he had realized. In addition, towns where lynchings occurred were surprisingly accepting of the mob attacks. Then, as now, it was a crime to execute another person without the authority of the law.
“In effect it’s murder,” Potter said. “It’s cloaked in the guise of serving justice, punishing a crime, when in fact they are themselves committing a crime.”
Potter kept the news reports about lynching in a file until he had the time later to explore and write about these mutations of law and order. His research lead to writing the article. Vivid descriptions of the lynchings revealed they were not always spontaneous. Some mobs behaved in a surprisingly orderly, even ritualistic, fashion.
“Some of the earliest lynchings in Nebraska adopted some of the trappings of a formal court session,” Potter said. "Accounts of the attacks lay out how, in some cases, the vengeful citizens would appoint townspeople to be part of a jury.” Others would be assigned the role of defense counsel even if the person’s fate was already sealed.
“They still had no legal authority to do it that way,” Potter added.
Across the United States in the late 1800s basic legal principles like providing a fair trial and the right to an appeal were difficult to explain to average citizens. In a new state like Nebraska the courts struggled to follow proper procedure. Verdicts were reversed on appeal or the governor might step in with a pardon when it appeared the court responded too harshly or outside the rule of law. Overturning verdicts and commuting sentences outraged some citizens and a slew of newspaper editorials complained about the lax treatment of criminals.
That sort of frustration with the legal process led to one of the most notorious lynchings in the state’s history.
Barrett Scott, the former treasurer of Holt County had no idea what his angry constituents had in store for him New Year’s Eve in 1894. He was riding in a horse-drawn carriage with his family near O’Neill.
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Years earlier, while still in office, he got caught embezzling. Using the cover of his elected office, Scott took every last dollar of the county’s money for his own use or loaning it to friends. After five years the governor sprung Scott from prison and the taxpayers were furious.
Hours before the New Year, on a dark and lonely road northeast of O’Neill, a gang of heavily-armed men surrounded Scott’s horse-drawn carriage. As his family watched, Scott was blindfolded and dragged away. His body was found days later under the ice of the Niobrara River.
“It gets back to this idea that if the law isn’t going to do the job, then by golly, it’s the people’s right to take the law… into our own hand,” Potter said.
Newspaper reports from the era make clear people were skeptical, if not hostile, towards the courts ability to punish criminals. Potter discovered several examples of lynchings that occurred after the courts had already convicted and sentenced a person who was later taken out and hung. “The person was waiting to be executed, but the impatience was so great that people took it into their own hands to perform the execution, even though they didn’t have the authority to do it,” Potter said.
Potter suspects sometimes a community would get so worked up after the sheriff arranged for a legal hanging that citizen’s would accelerate the execution of another person waiting for the gallows.
In one case, reported by the Omaha Bee in 1887, a judge in Otoe County dealt quickly with the case of a man who derailed a train he hoped to rob. David Hoffman had been convicted of derailing a passenger train near the town of Dunbar, killing the engineer. Hoffman was arrested in January and his execution was carried in July. The next day the Bee’s headline read “David Hoffman Reaches The End of His Rope in Nebraska City.”
Only six months passed between crime and punishment, but that apparently was not enough to build trust in the judiciary with the citizens of Nebraska City. The day after Hoffman’s hanging, a mob of more than 200 charged the county jail to take revenge on Lee Shellenberger. He was awaiting trial for the murder of his 11-year-old daughter two months earlier. The girl’s stepmother had also been charged. The reporter who witnessed the lynching wrote Shellenberger’s last words were “I’ll haunt you (expletive) if I can!”
Pointing out this was the second case of a lynching following close on the heels of a legal execution, Potter says it made him wonder if “people’s blood was sort of up.”
One paper noted “as a sensational news center Nebraska City probably has no rival in the west.”
Potter believes the problem wasn’t a lack of a formal legal structure. Even before official statehood many Nebraska counties along the Missouri River had sheriffs and courthouses. Traveling judges held court along dirt road Main Streets in newly-settled towns like Sidney and North Platte.
The Omaha Bee hinted at its support for the lynching of Nick Foley in 1889 by mocking the incident as a suicide when eye-witness accounts reported a mob had hung the man.
The state’s newspapers sometimes sympathized with mob rule. The Omaha Bee wrote lynching “cannot be commended as a legal ceremony, but it is swift, cheap, and wholesome.” The Blair Republican, borrowing an oft-used code for illegal hanging, noted in an editorial that “Judge Lynch rarely makes a mistake.”
“In the towns where a lynching took place, they always had to kind of teeter on a line of condemning the act by saying, well we would have preferred to have let the law take its course; however, it’s pretty clear that this was what the community wanted,” Potter said.
Nebraska newspapers of the period were filled with articles of lynchings in other states as well. If lynching in Southern states came to be identified with racial hatred, Potter found evidence of only three African Americans and two Hispanics who fell victim to mobs in Nebraska.
The last lynching in the state remains one of its most horrible hate crimes. It happened in Omaha in 1919. Before Will Brown had a chance to defend himself in court against charges he raped a white woman, he was hanged on the courthouse lawn and his body set on fire. A photograph shows Brown’s burning corpse in front of a line of smiling white faces.
“Society evolved, the advocates of what you would call ‘rough justice’ gradually were overtaken by the advocates of due process,” Potter said. “These impulses gradually overwhelmed this notion that you had to take the law into your own hands. The summary justice part of it just kind of lost ground to the people that wanted to see a more sanitized humane and even a rehabilitative judicial system.”
During his research Potter collected a list of 57 people murdered by lynch mobs in the state. That is 20 more than the total number of people legally executed by the state of Nebraska in its entire history.
The locations of all known lynchings in Nebraska. Courtesy Nebraska History Magazine.