Racial bigotry, yellow journalism, and machine politics were factors that led to the Douglas County Courthouse riot.
On the evening of September 25, 1919, a young white woman, Agnes Loebeck, reported that she was assaulted by a black man while returning from a movie with her boy friend, Milton Hoffman. According to later newspaper accounts, Hoffman, an alleged cripple, was unable to ward off the attack. Within a day, Will Brown, age 41 and an itinerant packing house worker, was arrested, identified by the couple, and placed in the city jail despite an examining doctor’s declaration that Brown was probably too arthritic to have attacked anyone. Within two days, Brown was dead, the victim of a lynch mob.
The period immediately after World War I was one of intense social unrest. Returning veterans discovered that jobs were scarce, having often been filled by African-Americans who had migrated to Northern cities during the war. Resentment toward blacks grew and there was a sharp increase in lynchings nation-wide, not just in the segregated South. It was also a time of intense labor strikes and fears that the “Red Menace” (Communism) would engulf the nation. Newspapers, in an age of flamboyant journalism, helped to fuel the fears and resentments of many.
The three Omaha newspapers, particularly the Omaha Bee, were no different than papers in other parts of the country. During the summer of 1919, using inflammatory headlines and stories, they had reported of numerous attacks on white women by black males. All but one of these stories were based on unsubstantiated rumors never proven, but the papers offered no retractions. By late September, the damage had been done.
On Sunday afternoon, September 28, a crowd of youths gathered in a schoolyard and began a march to the Douglas County courthouse. (Brown had been taken there by the police after rumors circulated that an attack might be made on the less fortified city jail.) Led by Hoffman, who did have a limp but was not actually crippled, the crowd grew in size as it walked the two miles to the courthouse. By time it reached there, it numbered around a thousand – a number that would grow substantially by nightfall.
At first, there was a circus-like atmosphere to the proceedings with the mob laughing and joking with city, county and police officials, but the scene turned ugly when shots were fired. This led to the looting of nearby stores for more guns and ammunition. During the ensuing melee, two people were killed by gunfire and law enforcement and city officials retreated into the courthouse, resulting in the building being stormed and set afire. When Mayor Edward P. Smith made a plea to the crowd to let firemen into the building, he was attacked and hanged from a light pole, saved only the quick actions of a few policemen.
By 10:30 that night, Brown had been dragged from his cell, hanged from a traffic tower and his body riddled with bullets. His body was then burned and dragged through the streets. Up until his death, the victim proclaimed his innocence. Ironically, the violence could have been prevented. Four hours before the lynching, officials had asked for federal troops to be sent from the nearby army posts of Fort Omaha or Fort Crook. It took five hours for Washington to decide which troops to be sent. By the time they arrived, Will Brown was dead and the mob was dispersing.
The Courthouse Riot resulted in the deaths of three men, at least one of them, Brown, almost certainly innocent of any crime. Damage ran into the millions. The city was under martial law for several days and the predominantly black Near North Side protected by troops. Over 300 individuals, including Hoffman, were identified through photographs and eyewitness accounts as being direct participants in the crime. None ever stood trial.
In his investigation of the race riot, General Leonard Wood, commander of the troops sent to the scene, placed the blame on two primary causes: the anti-black sentiment aroused by the three Omaha papers, particularly the Bee; and, the workings of the city’s political machine led by Tom Dennison. In 1918, Omaha’s pro-Dennison city administration had been replaced by a slate of political reformers. In the year that had followed, the Dennison forces had used every means possible to discredit the administration, and, to Wood, this was just one more example. Although the political boss denied that his organization had instigated the riot and it has never been definitely proven, there are indications that Wood was correct. Hoffman, one of the mob’s leaders, was a worker for the Dennison organization. Soon after the riot, he fled to Denver. After things had cooled down, he returned to Omaha where he continued to work for the Dennison machine.