Omaha's Riot, 1919. In Story & Picture
Omaha's Riot, 1919. In Story & Picture
Omaha's Riot, 1919. In Story & Picture
Omaha's Riot, 1919. In Story & Picture
Omaha's Riot, 1919. In Story & Picture
Omaha's Riot, 1919. In Story & Picture
Omaha's Riot, 1919. In Story & Picture
Omaha's Riot, 1919. In Story & Picture

Omaha's Riot, 1919. In Story & Picture

Omaha: Beacon Press, 1919. Wraps. This oblong, saddle-stapled, softcover photo-booklet measures 7.5” x 5.25” and is “Copiously illustrated.” It contains 26 pages of text and 14 images of the riot, its victim, and some of the perpetrators. The binding is sound; cover and several leaves have some edgewear and short splits at top of spine; otherwise the booklet is in nice shape. Very good. Item #009280

On the evening of 28 September 1919, long simmering tensions between unionized Irish meatpackers and their African-American counterparts, who had first been hired as strikebreakers two years before, exploded following the rape of a white teenager three days earlier. A black man, Will Brown, was arrested and held in the Douglas County Courthouse jail after being identified by the girl as her attacker.

At the time, Omaha had recently elected a “reform” mayor, Edward Smith, who was vehemently hated by the former political machine, its mouthpiece newspaper (the Omaha Bee), and white gangsters who controlled illegal prostitution, gambling, and other vices within the city. All three of these groups immediately went to work to discredit Smith for ignoring “black criminality” and urged the city’s white working class to take matters into its own hands. By late afternoon, a mob began to form outside the courthouse which was protected by 50 policemen who had been called in to provide guards. Apparently the mood of the mob at that time was somewhat jovial, and police officers, thinking the situation had been diffused released most of their officers.

Not long after, the situation turned ugly, and the crowd swelled to over 4,000 and attempted to storm the courthouse. The remaining police fought back with fire hoses and discharged their weapons in an attempt to disperse the mob. Their actions, instead, had the opposite effect, and the infuriated mob began to attack in earnest, overwhelming and beating officers until they sought refuge inside the building where they mounted a defense with members of the county sheriff’s office. All prisoners, including Brown, were taken to the upper floors where officers could provide better protection, however the rioters tapped a line at a nearby gas station and set the building alight after saturating much of its lower floors.

Mayor Smith, who had been inside, attempted to calm the crowd, however when he left the building to do so, he was clubbed on the head with a baseball bat, had a noose placed around his neck, and was hanged from a nearby traffic sign. At the same time, after notes from black prisoners were dropped from the upper floors of the courthouse offering to turn Brown over to the mob in exchange their safety, they then attempted to throw him from the building to the mob below. Police offers and sheriffs initially thwarted their attempt, however as smoke and fumes increased and the rioters began to break through the defenses, Brown was handed over by his fellow prisoners into the arms of the frenzied crowd. In no time, Brown was hanged from a nearby light post and rioters, who had stolen over a thousand firearms from city hardware stores and pawnshops, fired hundreds of rounds into his body after which it was soaked in kerosene, set on fire, and dragged through city streets.

Order was not restored until before dawn the next morning when soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 20th Infantry Regiment arrived and imposed unofficial martial law. Two white rioters were killed during the assault, several police officers and an untold number of rioters as well as many white and black onlookers were injured. Although subsequently hospitalized for several weeks, an unconscious Mayor Smith was saved from death by the intervention of a state agent and three detectives who drove off remnants of the mob after most had turned their attention back to the courthouse attack.

The riot was initially thought to be fomented by communist-inspired members of the Industrial Workers of the World who had actively instigated other disturbances during the “Red Summer” of 1919, but eventually it became clear, it was ignited by the city’s criminal element and the out-of-power political machine. Over 120 rioters were indicted for crimes ranging from arson to murder, however most were never successfully prosecuted. (See Wikipedia for additional information.)

Very scarce. As of 2019, OCLC shows no examples of this important work are held by institutions. None are for sale in the trade, and Rare Book Hub shows only two auction results for this title, both from Swann Galleries; in 2013, an example in considerably worse condition sold for $3,840 and the following year another sold for $768. This very nice example is priced in between.

Price: $2,250.00

See all items in Crime & Fire, Ethnic, History
See all items by