Frustration, mischief and anger seemed to motivate more than a century of bombings around Omaha. Between the combination of easy-to-access bomb-making materials and lax police protection, criminals were motivated to cause explosions of all sizes. This is a history of bombings in Omaha.
In the course of researching this article, I learned about beer wars, cigar wars, egg wars, and dry cleaner wars in Omaha. These “wars” were labelled by the newspapers, apparently to evoke the idea of a back-and-forth exchange of violence and more between warring factions. The role of Tom Dennison, criminal and political boss extraordinaire, became clear and evident. And the anarchistic mess of the 1960s proved itself again. I also learned the different names and euphemisms for bombs, including explosives, incendiary devices, firebombs, dynamite, pipe bombs, and Molotov cocktails, as well as pop can bombs, grenades, smoke bombs and sulphur bombs.
All in all, this article generally doesn’t cover bomb scares, hoaxes or other false calls. Included here are events which resulted in explosions or fully-intact bombs that were found, and that’s mostly all that’s here.
Its been challenging finding early information about bombings in Omaha, including the labor bombings that happened at the stockyards (anecdotal evidence but no newspaper articles) or detailed information about racially or ethnically motivated bombings. I’ll add more information and details to this article as they arise; in the meantime, I hope this can serve as an introduction to more than 120 times bombings happened in the history of Omaha.
The Earliest Bombings
One of the earliest examples of bombings in Omaha I found was from 1904. On November 24, 1904, two shady looking dudes hopped of a streetcar going to west Omaha. They got off around North 49th and Underwood Avenue, and they headed northward to the home of Elmer E. Thomas at 4626 Douglas Street. Around 1:30am, the set a small explosive device on the Thomas’s house and walked away.
For the year beforehand, Thomas had been the lawyer for the Civic Federation. He’d taken crime boss Tom Dennison to court in a robbery trial, and was working with the Federation to get the city’s saloons to close at midnight. Clearly, Thomas had upset a few of the wrong people, and they were trying to make a lesson out of him. Upon learning he was a suspect, Dennison totally denied he was guilty.
“I wouldn’t have had this thing happen, if I could have prevented it, by paying $500 right out of my own pocket,” began Mr. Dennison. “I’m not such a d—d fool as not to know that it injures me more than it does anyone else, including Elmer Thomas, besides giving Thomas a whole lot of sympathy he is not entitled to.”
The bombers failed, and Thomas and his family survived. Thomas went on to castigate Dennison and his criminal scene in public, speaking frequently, loudly and brashly across the city. The bombing was reported by The New York Times and newspapers nationwide, and Thomas made the most of it to promote Prohibition. He went on to become the federal director of Prohibition in Omaha, and later the dean of the Omaha University law school. Born in 1864, he died of natural causes in 1944.
Nobody was ever found guilty of bombing his house.
On Tuesday, December 7, 1909, there was an explosion in the alleyway of the Karbach block at 15th and Douglas. More than one person reported they saw a man set dynamite there and run away. However, no one was apparently ever charged with this incident either. The next year, on Monday, May 9, 1910, the R. B. Howell Warehouse at 10th and Dodge Streets was the target of a bomber. It was suspected the was an upset teamster, but nobody was ever charged.
Frank Erdman, aka Frank Brinkman, was arrested on Sunday, May 22, 1910 for leaving a suitcase with dynamite in it on the porch of Tom Dennison at 1507 Yates Street. Two policemen were attributed with saving Dennison’s house by taking the suitcase to an empty field and taking it apart. Later, during a trial, a Creighton University professor called Rev. William F. Rigge used shadows in pictures to prove Erdman’s innocence.
Rev. Earl Little was a Baptist minister and an organizer with Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA, who lived at 3448 Pinkney Street. Because of his efforts to rally African Americans in Omaha against white supremacy, Little and his family were regularly harassed by the KKK. One evening in 1926, Rev. Little was out of town when his house was attacked with flames and a firebomb. After fanning out the flames and making sure her family was safe, Rev. Little made arrangements to move his family to Michigan. That’s where his son, Malcolm Little, was raised. Eventually, Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X, and eventually El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. That attack on his childhood home was mentioned in his autobiography.
The Dirty 30s
The 1930s were a time of dramatic crimes and terrible violence throughout Omaha. Gangland criminals and terroristic mobsters gripped the city in fear, running protection rackets and controlling vice with merciless, meaningless explosions and more. Assassinations, attempted murders and maiming became the norm, and police seemed powerless, incapable or un-desiring to solve the crimes. In two years between 1932 and 1934 alone, there were ten bombings in a row, and nobody was ever convicted.
The largest happened on June 26, 1932. That day, an “old fashioned” cooler was left in the back of the Turf Cigar Store at 1321 Douglas Street. The bomber lit a gas trail and walked away. When the cooler ignited, the explosion shattered windows up and down the street a block in either direction. The cigar store building was destroyed, along with two neighboring buildings. Nobody was ever arrested.
Several others were small and apparently inconsequential, beyond damaging or destroying a doorway or some windows.On March 31, 1933, a large blast demolished the Baseball Headquarters at 413 South 15th Street. The police commissioner thought it was a last-ditch attempt to discredit him before an election, but no leads were ever found in this case. Some smaller ones happened June 18, 1933 at the Culver Cigar Store at 2039 Harney Street; and on July 1, 1933, at the Metropolitan Pool Hall at 1516 Capitol Avenue.
In April 1934, the egg war took an ugly turn. Starting back in 1921, there was price battle between egg suppliers that lasted three days, and included sabotage and espionage, but ended in cooperation among various suppliers. In 1925, an egg war flared up again, this time between the state Secretary of Agriculture and the City of Omaha Commission of Health. That was won by the City, but didn’t include any violence. With all the tension around chickens’ yummy yolky by-product, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that on Tuesday, April 10, 1934, a bomb went off on a delivery truck. After loading up at Associated Freight Forwarding Company at 13th and Jones, the truck headed out. Then blew up. Aside from some bruises and cuts, the driver was okay. However, his entire load of chickens was obliterated.
A few months later in July 1934, there were several more bombings that were attributed to a war between dry cleaners. They happened at the Orpheum Cleaners downtown at 1500 Harney Street; a soon-to-be opened tavern at 2931 Q Street; and the South Side Cleaners at 5009 South 24th Street. The dry cleaner war continued for at least five years afterward, and included a variety of window-smashing, knee-capping and other violence happening at locations around the city. However, none ever equaled the bombs exploding at these locations.
The 1930s were bomb-happy. In addition to the dry-cleaner war, Omaha also had a so-called beer war and a cigar war. Beginning with a soon-to-be opened tavern at South 29th and Q Street, on July 9, 1934 the bombs began flying. Close to its opening date, a bomb demolished that place. The cigar war struck manufacturers and stores citywide. Bell’s Cigar Store at 100 South 15th Street was demolished by a bomb at 3:30am on July 9, 1938. The same store was struck again with a bomb on January 25, 1952.
Maybe the worst damage done by a bomb happened during the streetcar strikes in Omaha during 1935. That year, the Omaha World-Herald and the Omaha Bee reported that “Irish confetti” (bricks) rained down on policemen as they struggled to stop striking streetcar workers from causing serious destruction to individual cars, managers’ homes, the offices and shops of Omaha’s streetcar company. In raging battles between strikers and police and strikebreakers and other forces, two strikers were killed, several streetcars were demolished and a dozen streetcars were damaged. According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, when the streetcar company sent out a car driven by strikebreakers on April 24 of that year,
When the first two cars were sent out… with thick wire covering the windows, heavily armed guards on board, and escorted by police cars, few passengers rode…
Riots erupted. A bomb went off outside a streetcar company lawyer’s house. Other damage exploded citywide, and the whole thing was a mess. Strikes continued, more damage was had and reportedly, hundreds of people were wounded. After the governor imposed martial law and forced the streetcar company to negotiate with the unions, the whole thing ended in June before the Nebraska National Guard showed up.
However, after they left the whole thing flared up again, with at least 1,800 protesters in full stride! The national guard came back and suppressed the uprising, and the event was over.
Eventually the lawyer, Grenville Paul North, sued the streetcar company itself, as well as several strikers and others, for inciting violence that affected him. He suspected the streetcar company used saboteurs within the unions to start riots, which lead to him being a target. As far as I can tell, he didn’t win the trial. However, he did run for political office four times, including Congress, district judge and state attorney general – although he never won. G. P. North died in Omaha from a heart attack in 1957.
One of the most interesting bombings in Omaha struck in April 1945. On the 18th of the month, one of the thousands of bombs launched by the Japanese into the jet stream over the United States, one of them reached Omaha. Falling toward Dundee, the bomb exploded in the air above North 50th and Underwood. There was no damage, but many Omahans attested to seeing a bright flash in the sky. Today, there’s a plaque commemorating the occasion in Dundee.
The week of February 3, 1957, four teenage boys were caught setting off large explosions in Benson. In the course of the week, there were four large bombs in the neighborhood. At the beginning of the week, the boys were roaming around a housing construction site when they came across explosion materials used to remove rock. Taking the materials, they configured a bomb by packing the materials in a jar and making their own fuse. After finishing the work in the home of one of the boys, the group exploded it in a field west of North 72nd Street. They basically did the same thing three other times in three other locations throughout the rest of the week. All of the explosions were away from houses and buildings, and there was no damage. However, the explosions had massive force, and they were finally apprehended when the sound of the last explosion startled several people into calling the police. The boys were released by juvenile authorities when they promised not to experiment with bomb making anymore.
Seven years later, a spate of bombings in Omaha had such a sinister vibe the newspaper declared the perpetrator to be the city’s “Mad Bomber.” In 1965, there were five bombs set off in a series of explosions throughout the city. It was mid-December when two men were walking to their car at North 23rd and Lake Streets when they discovered a bomb planted in the backseat of their car. Wiggling the wires, they quickly learned it was a dud and called a policeman over. They had the only dud that month, with five real bombings happening between December 16 and 25. A Shaver’s and a Skagway were hit with small pipe bombs; the Buy-Rite Home and Auto Supply at North 30th and Ames was hit, and then the Harold’s supermarket in East Omaha. The final bombing in the spree demolished a car in the parking lot at the Admiral Theatre. Between Christmas and January 15, 1966, more than a dozen false bombs were reported to the Omaha Police Department. Schools, grocery stores and restaurants were the targets, and the newspaper ran a variety of stories about what happened. Apparently though, the so-called Mad Bomber never struck again, and was never caught.
However, of the false bombs and hoaxes perpetrated after the bombings, there were at least two people who were arrested for making the calls. After the newspaper hyped the possibility of all these being done by teens, a 30-year-old man and a man in his 20s were the ones arrested.
Riots & Firebombs
As we know from the 1930s accounts in this article and my other article on the history of mob terrorism in Omaha, the North Omaha riots in the 1960s weren’t the first in the city’s history; however, they may have been the worst and definitely had the biggest impact. Still today, more than 50 years after the first of the North Omaha riots happened, the white supremacy that rules the city is still punishing African Americans in Omaha. Benign neglect, explicit ghetto-ization, and the coming onslaught of gentrification have all been proven as impacts by local historian/scholar Matthew Stelly and others.
During the era of the riots, from 1966 to 1970, there were at least 20 different incidents of firebombs being used in the course of rioting. The white-owned Omaha World-Herald is a dubious source for this information, given that it’s reporting was blatantly biased and discriminatory. They reported that these incendiary devices were thrown through glass plate windows; lobbed on top of building roofs; set inside doorways, thrown at policemen and firemen; and otherwise used to terrorize white people in North Omaha. Whether or not this is absolutely true is hard to know without access to first-person interviews and other primary sources. What is plain and obviously true, though, is the ongoing effect these events had on North Omaha.
In the early 1960s, the citywide Pilgrim Dry Cleaning Company built a large new plant and headquarters at North 37th and Lake Streets. On Monday, August 1, 1966, it was the apparently one of the first target of rioters who threw a firebomb into the building, which was mostly gutted from the ensuing fire. The rioting surged around the community. In short succession, a firebomb exploded at the Otto Wolff and Sons Store on North 16th and Locust; the Walker Lakeview Pharmacy at North 16th and Lothrop; and the Markle Dry Cleaners on Florence Boulevard across from Horace Mann Junior High, now called King Magnet Middle School. There were other firebombs that night that damaged the Cownie Fur Company at North 16th and Howard; and obliterated a phone booth atNorth 19th and Burt. Rioting apparently continued the next night, wrecking the Shrago Market at North 20th and Clark Streets; causing a fire on the roof of a railroad salvage company at North 16th and Ohio; and damaging the Kolnick Market on Florence Boulevard by Paul Street.
Not all bombing in North Omaha was riot-related. Several bombs were exploded around North Omaha in the weeks following the first riot, and none of them were seemingly connected to the events of August 1 to 3. Starting on Saturday, August 13, 1966, four bombs were set off, with the first one at a house at 4731 N. 36th Street was bombed. The bomber used a pipe bomb here, similar as the other three bombings within the next several days: August 15 at Mills Cleaners at 2917 Meredith Ave; August 16 at Skagway Department Store at 4911 S. 72nd; and, August 17 at the Ames Bowling Center at North 56th and Ames Avenue. The police received zero leads in this case.
In April 1967, there was another spate of bombings in North O. On Sunday, April 2, a bomb was chucked into Lane’s Drug Store at North 16th and Locust Streets late at night. It did extensive damage. The next day, Monday, April 3, the Katz Grocery Store at 1823 Maple Street was severely damaged, and on Tuesday, April 4, the home of James R. Boan at 1461 Pinkney Street was attacked for no apparent reason. Bombs were flying everywhere, but this time the Omaha Police Department refused to associate them with any riot events.
The following March, there were more fire bombings, but associated with rioting. During a riot on the night of March 6, 1968, there were three fire bombs reported by the newspaper. They included Louis’s Barbershop at 3706 North 16th; Ray C. Clinkenbead’s house at 3059 Huntington Avenue; and the Crosstown Loan at 1819 North 24th. That business was the site of the shooting of an unarmed African American male by the Omaha Police Department. On the same night, Mike’s Pharmacy at North 24th and Fort Streets was firebombed, too. Several months later, in a seemingly isolated incident, on June 4 the home of Artilmon Brye at 4411 Evans St was firebombed. Six days later, the Bedford Market at 3247 North 42nd Street suffered the same.
A few months later, on Monday, June 10, the Bedford Market at North 43rd and Bedford was firebombed. However, the store continued on and today is the J-n-J Market. A month later, on Friday, July 12, 1968, a crowd gathered at the Safeway store on North 24th and Lake Streets. Entering the store, the newspaper reported that at least one and possibly more firebombs were exploded in the store. The next year, Safeway closed this location permanently, and soon after shut down all of their stores in Omaha. A few nights later, on Monday, July 15, Peggy’s Dry Cleaners on the corner of North 24th and Pratt Streets was destroyed by a firebomb.
In 1970, there were several separate bombings in Omaha. At 4:15pm on Saturday, March 21, 1970, someone aboard an Omaha Transit Company bus threw a firebomb out the window at 1824 Farnam Street. A few minutes later, the same bomber threw a bomb at the Omaha National Bank at 19th and Dodge Street. The next day, during the Easter Break vacation on Sunday, March 22, 1970, a bomber hit Tech High School. Throwing a wine bottle filled with gas, the bomber lit up the forth floor of the school for just a short time. No damage really happened.
Then on Thursday, July 2, 1970, a crowd threw a firebomb through the window of the Component Concept Company at 3815 North 24th Street. The company, a Black-owned business that manufactured electronic parts, moved their business to the former Safeway store at North 24th and Lake Street.
Shadows on the Century’s End
In the 1970s and 80s, there were several bombings in Omaha that were seemingly unrelated, while there were other gross injustices that flared throughout the city. Suddenly labelled domestic terrorism, the media began labeling bombs as “incendiary devices” and the police became more strategic about addressing bomb threats, using specially trained bomb squads and saftey equipment to protect their officers as never before.
The most famous bombing of the last 45 years happened on August 17, 1970, at 2867 Ohio Street. That day, police officers were sent to investigate the vacant house at that address. Omaha Police Department Officer Larry Minard went into the house, and found a suitcase there. The suitcase exploded and killed the policeman instantly. Federal records show that a year earlier, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover insisted the Omaha office of his agency do something about the Omaha Black Panther chapter, whatever it would take to shut them down. Eventually, the murder of officer Minard was pinned on Ed Poindexter, the leader of the city’s chapter, and David Rice, the information officer for the chapter. Despite shady evidence, suspicious circumstances, and a lot of other evidence the pair have never been acquitted for the bombing. Rice died in prison in 2016; Poindexter has a life sentence with no chance of parole.
On November 9, 1971, a bomb exploded at the Rollins Leasing Corp, a trucking company. They hauled a lot of freight around the U.S. and leased trucks to a lot of other companies, as well as providing maintenance, gas and other services. That case was unsolved.
I haven’t talked about bomb scares, of which there have been literally hundreds across Omaha for all kinds of reasons. Only one warrants telling here though, and that’s a story at Eppley Airfield. Less than a year later, on April 28, 1972, there was a bomb scrare at Eppley Airfield that sounded pretty certain to be the real thing when a man told airline officials he’d packed a bomb in his suitcase. Long story short, there wasn’t a bomb. There had been previous bomb scares at Eppley, including in 1963 and 1968, and bomb scares since, but apparently none have been as dramatic as this one.
On March 1, 1977, the Nebraska Legislature repealed part of the 1973 abortion law that required fathers’ consent to abortions after the United States Supreme Court declared that type of law unconstitutional. Six months later, on August 18, 1977, abortion protesters firebombed the Ladies Center. One of two abortion clinics in Omaha, it was located at 120 South 41st Street. Around 2:15am, a group of people threw four Molotov cocktails that caused $35,000 in damage. Just two years later, on August 17, 1979, the group struck again, but this time there was little damage.
A few private homes were firebombed in the 1980s. At 2:15 in the morning of February 1, 1984, an apartment building at 4852 Taylor Street was firebombed. Gang violence was attributed to a firebombing a year and a half later when a home at 4521 South 62nd Street was hit at 1:30am.
On February 5, 1985, an assailant attacked thePi Kappa Alpha fraternity in midtown Omaha. Apparently, an individual was seen simply walking up to the fraternity, which was housed in the historic Garneau-Kilpatrick House at 3100 Chicago Street. They approached the carriage house and threw a grenade into the second floor, where apartments were located. It exploded, causing a fire. The fraternity members living there ran out, and the fire was put out by the Omaha Fire Department. Apparently, the attacker was never caught.
In April 1988, gang violence led to the firebombing of a house at 2212 Burdette Street, causing minor damage.
On Sunday, January 8, 1989, there was a bomber who took hostages at the Possibilities Hair Salon at 6519 Sunshine Drive. The bomber was shot, and the hostages were freed.
In April of that year, gang violence led to more firebombing. A home at 1537 Willis Avenue was struck in an apparent retaliation for an earlier shooting. Early in the morning on August 3, 1989, a house at 1912 Sprague Street was struck, and late that night at 10:15pm, a house at 3734 Wirt Street. The City of Omaha used that occasion to announce they were going to rampantly demolish empty houses in North Omaha in order to stop these types of bombings from happening, but the newspaper didn’t report what the connection was. Less than a year later on May 10, 1990, a house at 1814 Laird Street was firebombed, with the paper asserting it was another gang-related incident.
A barn belonging to Dr. LeRoy Carhart was potentially bombed in 1991. With his home located on the same property at 16401 Dyson Hollow Drive in Elkhorn, Carhart was the operator of the Women’s Medical Center, a clinic on L Street where he performed abortions and provided other women’s health services. It was the same organization as the Ladies Center, which was moved and renamed in the late 1990s. At the time of the incident, police investigations didn’t determine whether it was a bombing caused by extremists. However, at the time Dr. Carhart asserted that it might have been the work of domestic terrorists, and did the same in 2001. That year, anti-abortion organizations threatened to have the case re-opened to prove otherwise; however, that request was denied by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, and Carhart’s assertion that his barn was bombed stood. 17 horses were killed and thousands of dollars in damage were caused by the ensuing fire.
In 1992, several Omaha World-Herald newspaper racks were exploded with pipebombs. Stands at North 129th and Spaulding Streets; Eldorado Drive and Blondo Street; and North 54th Street and the Northwest Radial were all exploded within months of each other. A private home mailbox at North 149th and Seward Streets was also bombed in this spree. The bomber was arrested with a garage full of explosives and materials for making them.
In November, 1995, a teenager was putting together a bomb, reportedly for the fun of it, at their home when it exploded. The house, located at 905 Sourth 153rd Street, was damaged and the young person lost some fingers.
In an apparent first-ever event, a pop can bomb was used at the Logan Apartments at 104 North 18th Street on March 17, 1996. Then in January 1998, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the house at 3614 North 22nd Street in what was labelled a gang-related attack. Around this time, the Omaha Fire Department labelled all these firebombings as arson. Taking charge of these investigations, the chief of the department said,
“What we need now is for people – the victims – to step forward and cooperate in these arson investigations… The frustrating aspect is when we know that somebody did it and other people know who did it, but they won’t come forward.”
There weren’t a lot of convictions.
New Century, Old Tricks
Since 2000, firebombings have continued around Omaha. However, there haven’t been any reports of more complicated explosive devices that I could find. I couldn’t find a single example of the Omaha World-Herald attributing a firebombing, Molotov cocktail or other incendiary device to gang members after 2000. This lies in stark contrast to their reporting for 15 years before the turn of the century, when it seemed like another firebombing went off every week courtesy of Bloods or Crips.
For instance, in November 2000 a firebomb exploded in the parking lot of the former Target store at 360 North Saddle Creek Road. In west Omaha, on February 17, 2001 several young people demolished a house under construction at 1808 North 138th Street. In addition to smashing all the windows out with a baseball bat, the Omaha Police Department determined they threw a Molotov cocktail through the window.
Around 4:00pm on March 18, 2003, children found a pipe bomb at Grace Abbott Elementary School at 1313 North 156th Street and took it home. Police were called to the house near North 140th and Seward Street and nobody was hurt. In November of the same year, a pipe bomb exploded at a house at North 13th Street and Ellison Avenue. More than two years later, on December 9, 2005, a bomb exploded at the Avalon Hills Apartments at 10921 Arlington Plaza. Despite some damage, nobody was hurt.
In a modern rarity, a few commercial spaces were attacked within 14 months of each other. On May 28th, 2006, the 72nd Street Self Storage at 6100 South 72nd Street was firebombed. A car in a parking lot at Oak View Mall at South 144th Street and West Center Road was firebombed in August 2007.
In 2011, the Omaha World-Herald provided a first-ever definition of “Molotov cocktail,” defining them as “any breakable container that is semi-filled with accelerant and plugged with a wick or rag that is then lit and thrown like a grenade.” In the same article from December 6, the newspaper reported on an so-called arsonist attack at 3008 Lincoln Boulevard around 8pm. Several Molotov cocktails were thrown at the house, trapping residents who had to be rescued by the Omaha Fire Department.
A trend has emerged where several parks and natural spaces have been targeted with pipe bombs since the beginning of the millennium. The include Hitchcock Park at 4220 Q Street, where a pipe bomb was found by an 11-year-old on March 15, 2002. On January 18, 2013, a pipe bomb was found by a jogger at Memorial Park at 6005 Underwood Avenue.
Scanning more than a century of Omaha history, the highlights of my findings intrigue me.
- There appear to be few convictions for these types of crimes;
- For all the booms and bangs, there has been a lot of property damage and few deaths. People have just been trying to make points rather than kill others, or these are really poorly timed and executed crimes;
- There are a lot of copycat activities;
- Industry wars and labor struggles (beer, eggs, streetcars, etc.) can get really ugly;
- Components for these devices appear to be readily attainable or improvisable;
- There are short rashes of bombs, then nothing for long periods of time;
- Criminals, including mobsters and gangsters and robbers, etc., suck;
- Teenage boys shouldn’t try to make bombs for the fun of it.
Following is a Google map I’ve created showing the locations of bombings around Omaha throughout the years. It accounts for a total of 124 bombings I have identified since 1888. Included here are all kinds of bombs, including explosives, incendiary devices, firebombs, dynamite, pipe bombs, and Molotov cocktails, as well as pop can bombs, grenades, smoke bombs and sulphur bombs. Contact me using the space below for a list of citations, as well as any additions or corrections.
- A History of Mob Violence in Omaha
- A History of Riots in North Omaha
- A History of Early Crime Bosses in North Omaha