These days, all of Omaha seems to know about the lynching of Will Brown. Almost 30 years earlier though, Omaha yanked another African American man from his cell at the Douglas County Courthouse, hung him from a telegraph post and celebrated the lynching when they were done.
No reparations have been made by the City government that let this happen to either George Smith or Will Brown. No monuments have been placed by City leaders abhorring violence by calling for a more civil today. This is a history of the lynching of George Smith.
Forgetting George Smith
Omaha had a long history of mob violence going back to the decade after the city was founded. Adding fuel to the fire, one month before he was lynched, George Smith was accused of raping a girl. Smith was a waiter at the Murray Hotel, and the Omaha Bee said his alias was Joe Coe.
Apparently, on September 7, 1891, there was a dance for African Americans held near Courtland Beach in the present-day city of Carter Lake. At the dance, a girl named Dot Gannley, also referred to as Dollie Gunn, said George Smith had assaulted her. He escaped before he could be lynched there, but was arrested the next morning in Omaha. Smith was released from custody though.
Within two weeks of being released, on October 8, 1891, George Smith was arrested again and held at the city jail on $2,000 bail. This time he was accused of raping at 5-year-old girl named Lizzie Yeates who lived at 1712 North 18th Street.
An account in the Omaha World-Herald said Smith lived at North 10th and Izard Streets. According to the Omaha Bee account from October 10, 1891, “Coe, the man who was lynched by the mob, was married. He had a wife and one child who reside in the alley between 11th and 12th Streets, in the rear of the Wells Fargo office.”
At the same time Smith was being maligned for the crime, Sheriff John Boyd and City Prosecutor J. J. Mahoney were already busying themselves with the impending death penalty for Ed Neal for a double homicide. This kept them distracted enough to not understand or care about the impending raid on the county jail. With a convenient absence of police or the number of deputy sheriffs who’d protected Ed Neal (25), it seems that the City of Omaha and Douglas County just forgot George Smith.
Because he was arrested for rape before in East Omaha, the white mob decided he was guilty of raping Lizzie Yeates. However, it wasn’t until The Omaha Bee reported that the child had died from the attack that a mob was formed in the Near North Side neighborhood.
“Men, I Am Not Sure.”
Marching to the Douglas County Courthouse and neighboring jail, a crowd of 5,000 greeted the mob upon its arrival around 5 in the evening. Sheriff John Boyd, who’d just executed Ed Neal, reportedly went to the crowd and said it was his duty to protect the prisoner.
Attacking him immediately, the crowd disarmed the sheriff and imprisoned him at the Omaha High School a few blocks away.
According to newspaper reports from the time, the group raiding the jail was led by a white-haired old man, supposedly a veteran of many wars, “well known in Omaha and throughout the west as ‘Uncle Jimmy.’” His real name was James Cannon. When he decided how to enter the jail, the mob found a battering ram and began blasting at a window. When it broke down, it was Uncle Jimmy who led the crowd into the building. Walking past a deputy sheriff who wouldn’t shoot him, Uncle Jimmy heard Omaha Police Department Captain Cormick declare:
“Stand back, gentlemen, you are violating the law and I must keep you out, even at the risk of your lives. I mean you, be careful,” said Omaha Police Department Captain Cormick.—As quoted in “On the inside: What happened inside the walls of the jail,” Omaha World-Herald October 10, 1891
Despite Governor James Boyd and Judge George Doane speaking to them, none of the crowd backed off. Instead, they thronged, and by 10pm there were 10,000 people in the hoard. The Omaha Fire Department arrived to hose the crowd, but their hoses were quickly cut.
Screaming racist slurs, the mob battered their way into the jail using a streetcar rail, George Smith was immediately put into an “impregnable steel cage” by the jailers. They weren’t just out to cause justice, they were on a racist killing spree, hell-bent on demonstrating the power of white supremacy.
“‘Get cold chisels, they can’t get into his cell without cold chisels,’ yelled the men inside the jail, and men again ran to a blacksmith shop for cold chisels.”—Morning World-Herald, October 10, 1891
“Soldiers from the fort are coming! Hurry up. We want that damned n—– at once,” the newspaper reported. Two hours later, the mob broke through the steel cage with crowbars and sledgehammers waling away at the door.
When they broke in, the attacked immediately put a rope around Smith’s neck and dragged him from his cell while yelling racist epithets at him.
Apparently, a reporter from the World-Herald called for the crowd to cool while the father of Lizzie Yeates was retrieved so he could make sure the prisoner obtained was actually the perpetrator. When nobody went for him, the reported took it on himself to get in a carriage and race to D. O. Yeates house on North 18th Street. Yeates agreed, and rode back to the jail to identify the prisoner.
Yeates was reported to say, “Men, I am not sure. My little girl is alive and doing well. Let the law take its course and I will be satisfied.”
Insatiable Blood Thirst
The accounts from the newspapers read as horribly as any movie could portray this race hatred. By midnight, a mob of 15,000 people surrounded the Douglas County jail, and the newspaper said “on the outskirts where the jam was least intense were a great many women.” This lynching was a massively popular social event that drew spectators from across Omaha.
Omaha Police Department Chief Seavey, who’d appeared so powerful and useful in the execution of Ed Neal just a day earlier, was completely powerless. As police walked around the mob and sought to keep order in the crowd, they did nothing to intervene with the lynching. Seavey reportedly whispered to his captains and several other officers, “but they made no movement.” Seavey blamed the newspapers for inciting the crowd.
The Morning World-Herald gleefully reported that African Americans in the crowd “manifested satisfaction at seeing Smith lynched.” Apparently, “one of the leaders of the crowd said there were 500 colored men… there” who would help if needed.
Once he was forced out a window at the jail, a small group of police officers forced their way through the crowd, violently attempting to save George Smith from the mob. They failed.
It took 15 minutes to force Smith through a tiny window in the jail. Then, he was passed through the crowd and down the steep bank leading to the courthouse. Quickly, the crowd quieted down to allow George Smith to speak. “I am guilty, I am guilty,” Smith cried, “No, I am not! I am the man that was arrested, but I am innocent, I am innocent!”
Suddenly, three police wagons pushed through the crowd along Farnam. A dozen police officers burst through the crowd and attempted to rescue Smith again. This time, the mob descended on them and beat them without reserve. The wagons were pushed over, the horses released and the wheels were taken off.
“A man climbed the motor pole and, quivering with excitement, slowly threw the end of the rope over the cross wire and then descended slowly and worked the rope toward the middle of the street.”—”High as Haman: Smith is strung up over a motor cross wire,” Omaha World-Herald October 10, 1891
After trying to lynch him from a telegraph pole at 17th and Harney and failing, at 1am in the morning, the faceless mob of white supremacists lynched George Smith from an electric streetcar line, and his corpse was left hanging there.
In the morning, the newspapers announced that reports of the death of Lizzy Yeates had been exaggerated, and that the girl lived. Years later, she confessed she’d never been raped at all.
Prosecutor Mahoney filed charges against several of the mob leaders, but all of them were dismissed. Nobody was ever tried or convicted of the lynching of George Smith. Two weeks after the lynching, a jury issued the verdict that George Smith died of fright before he was lynched.
“Therefore we find that said divers [sic] persons, to this jury unknown, did then and there purposely, deliberately, premeditatedly and of their malice aforethought feloniously kill and murder the said George Smith, to the evil example of all others in the like case offending and against the peace and dignity of the state of Nebraska.”
Basically, they decided that the mob – but nobody in particular – was guilty. That was the last trial in this case.
In 1895, the Nebraska State Legislature carried a vote condemning the lynching. Pushed by North Omaha’s Representative Dr. Matthew Ricketts, the statement said,
“Whereas, on the 10th day of October 1891, one George Smith, a man who had never been given a trial in any court, and a man now generally regarded as innocent of the crime charge; and,
Whereas no sincere effort has ever been made to the constituted authorities to punish the murderers of said Smith; therefore,
Resolved, that this house strongly condemn the cowardly course of the people of Omaha who participated in the work of that fiendish mob, and also denounce as cowardly in the extreme the conduct of the Douglas officials, whose duty was to have meted out justice to the murderers, and the governor is hereby requested to offer a suitable reward for the capture and conviction of the murderers of said George Smith.”—”Senate pushing its business,” Omaha Daily Bee January 23, 1895
In 1898, the issue of media interference in George Smith’s lynching was exposed. Gilbert Hitchcock (1859-1934), founder of the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, ran unsuccessful for Congress that year. Fighting him in the media, Edward Rosewater (1841-1906), the publisher of the Omaha Bee, asserted that Hitchcock was corrupt. In response, the Omaha World-Herald published a long column on November 8, 1898 detailing all the ways The Bee lied in its coverage of the lynching, and promoted racist rationalizations that merely stoked the city’s white supremacy. As the article said, “Desperate efforts to arouse race passions indicate final struggle to bolster up the Rosewater dynasty.”
After Smith was lynched, the city’s ropes had barely cooled down before they met Will Brown 25 years later. However, it’s important to know that Brown was not the first African American to meet racist Omaha’s hateful vigilantism.
It’s also important to note that the rape itself was disputed, as were many child molestations during this era. Smith was wrongly accused, but that doesn’t mean nobody raped the child involved. Nobody was ever brought to trial for any crime committed in connection with the lynching.
The body was taken to Heafey and Heafey Mortuary, and then buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Today, there are no historic plaques or monuments to this episode of Omaha’s incivility and hatred, or citywide recognition of Omaha’s dirty, dirty past, and the legacy of that past on events today.
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