A crazed mob stormed the Douglas County Courthouse on September 28, 1919, and lynched Will Brown an Black citizen of the Omaha.
It all began on three days earlier, when Agnes Loebeck, a white woman, reported that she was assaulted by a negro man.
The next morning, the headline in the Omaha Bee read: “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.”
The Omaha 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 Millard Hoffman, a cripple.”
Around midnight on September 25, 1919, Hoffman and Loeback 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 Loeback. The claimed that he ordered Hoffman to move several steps away, then dragged 19-year-old Loeback by her hair to a nearby ravine where he raped her.
Police combed the vicinity for two hours, joined by 400 armed civilian men led by Joseph Loeback (brother of Agnes) and Frank B. Raum. They included railroad workers who knew Agnes Loeback from her job at a diner. A neighbor told the group that a “suspicious negro” lived in the neighborhood with a white woman, Virginia Jones, with another Black man.
The men found William Brown at the house and held him there at gunpoint. Arriving on the scene, police found Brown hiding under his bed. They took him to Loeback’s home, bringing with them clothes found in Brown’s room. Loeback and Hoffman identified Brown as their assailant. Brown was 41 years old and suffered from acute rheumatism.
At Loebeck’s house, a mob gathered outside and threatened to take Brown. Police reinforcements arrived and Brown was transferred to the Douglas County Courthouse. Several police officers were ordered to report at once to police headquarters, and 46 policemen and a detective were kept on duty well into the night.
The next night, a mob marched to the courthouse. The police and city officials inside the courthouse were virtual prisoners. The size of the crowd grew to 15,000 people. They started shooting at the courthouse using guns they looted from nearby stores. They set fire to the building and prevented fire fighters from getting to the building. Inside, Brown cried to the Sheriff:
“I am innocent, I never did it, my God I am innocent.”
Widespread violence erupted in 25 cities during the “Red Summer of 1919”. Adding to the mix was a political battle between a recently elected city reform movement and an entrenched political establishment eager to regain control by demonstrating the ineptness of the reformers.
Tom “Old Man” Dennison, was Omaha’s powerful political boss. The daily Omaha Bee often ran front page stories of alleged shocking racial crimes. Alarmed at the newspaper’s promotion of violence and bigotry, the Reverend John A. Williams, the first president of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP and publisher of the Monitor, a weekly Black paper, called on the editors of the Bee to stop their propaganda. The Bee was revealed to be the mouthpiece of a gang of corrupt politicians that held power in Omaha who decided who should run for office and made sure the election always went their way. For his part, Dennison received money and control of the police department, juries, and the police court. He had his favorite man installed as mayor.
There was that longstanding notion that Black men preyed on white women. A day before Brown was lynched, Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams proclaimed : “…the protection of a woman transcends all law of every description, human or divine”, legitimizing the lynchings of African-Americans. 54 Black men were lynched in the United States in 1916; by 1920 it was 83.
As the courthouse was in flames, the mayor came out of the courthouse and tried to reason with the mob. He asked them to forget Brown and allow the firemen to put out the flames. The mayor was knocked out and he came to at the end of a rope that was being flung over a lamp post. The other end tightened around his neck. The mob lost interest in Smith and concentrated on getting Brown out of the courthouse.
Brown was taken from the courthouse. He was beaten unconscious. His clothes had been torn off by the time he reached the building’s doors. He was dragged to a nearby lamp post. The mob roared when they saw Brown, and a rope was placed around his neck. Brown was hoisted in the air, his body spinning. Then they burned Brown’s body with fuel taken from the fire truck lanterns. Finally, Brown’s charred body was dragged through the Omaha’s downtown streets. Later, pieces of the rope used to lynch Brown were sold for 10 cents each.
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 it all from the second floor window of his father’s shop. Fonda:
“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.”
I can think of two films starring Fonda that feature lynchings as major plot points: Young Mister Lincoln and The Ox Bow Incident.