The Lynching of George Smith

This is the second Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha, Nebraska. George Smith, aka Joe Coe, was lynched here.

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 the story of what happened.

Forgetting George Smith

Douglas County jail, 18th and Harney, Omaha, Nebraska
This is the Douglas County jail, which stood from 1876 to 1912. George Smith was stolen from here and lynched in 1891.

On October 18, 1891, Omahans carried out an even more heinous breach of justice than the lynching of Will Brown. George Smith, called “Joe Coe” by some newspapers, was a 50-year-old African-American railroad porter. He was accused of raping a 5-year-old white girl named Lizzie Yeates, and even though he had an alibi and witnesses attesting to his innocence, that wasn’t enough to keep him from getting lynched.

At the same time Smith was being maligned for a crime he didn’t commit, 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 had been convicted of rape before in East Omaha, the 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.

Racist Vigilantism

17th and Harney Omaha
This is a northwest view of 17th and Harney in 1908, and shown above the streetcar may be the very cables used to lynch George Smith 18 years later. The Douglas County courthouse is show in the background, alone with the Omaha Bee building and the Omaha City Hall. The Douglas County jail is to the left (west) of the pic.

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.

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.

Apparently, a reported 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.”

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.

After trying to lynch him from a telegraph pole at 17th and Harney and failing, at 1am in the morning, the faceless white mob of racist 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.

The Aftermath

After Smith was dead 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. Unfortunately though, nobody was ever brought to trial for any crime committed in connection with the lynching.

Today, there are no monuments to Omaha’s incivility and hatred, or citywide recognition of Omaha’s dirty, dirty past, and the legacy of that past on today.

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Published by Adam Fletcher

An internationally recognized expert in youth engagement, Adam leads the Freechild Institute and SoundOut. He is also the editor; the author of Student Voice Revolution and twelve other books; and the host of the North Omaha History Podcast.

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