Omaha was a vehemently racist city in the 1910s. The African American population of the city doubled that decade, and in response Jim Crow spread rampantly and police brutality soared, while white people in Omaha flocked to see Birth of a Nation in droves, and that’s all before the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and the subsequent riot. Following is the story of an African American man who was convicted for murdering a white women after being accused by a virulent racist. This is a biography of Larkin McCloud.
The Scene of a Murder
On August 26, 1917, Nellie Nethaway (1868-1917) was murdered in her home near Briggs Station, located in the south cut of the Chicago and North Western Railroad by North 60th and McKinley Street. Nellie was the wife of Claude L. Nethaway (1867-1937), an avowed white supremacist who sold real estate in the Florence area. Nethaway launched his career as a real estate agent using vehemently racist advertising.
There was not a search party for the body. Instead, it was Claude Nethaway who went looking, supposedly taking a neighbor along. Nethaway reported that he found his wife’s in tall grass. Her hands were bound with a piece of fabric cut from her dress and she was gruesomely murdered, with one report saying that she was bound, assaulted, and nearly decapitated. Nethaway also found the knife.
Soon after Claude Nethaway got to the murder scene, he ran home and called his wife’s sister, who came with her husband to see the body. Using a pejorative, he immediately proclaimed it was a Black man who killed her.
At the time, 31-year-old Larkin McCloud was described as “a colored tramp” who had worked for the Yankee Robinson Circus. He was African American, and he was not from Omaha. Instead, he was traveling through the city. At the time of his arrest near Blair by police there, his clothes and hat were stained with blood. Despite telling officers the blood was from butchering meat for the circus animals, they arrested him on suspicion of murder.
Immediately after his arrest, McCloud gave his stage name to police, which was Charles Smith. The media reported him by his alias from then on, sometimes including his birth name but mostly not.
Stories from outside of Omaha tell a story local papers do not: Apparently McCloud was directly threatened by a mob of 300 farmers outside of Blair. Determined to lynch him, they gathered around the police cars that came from Omaha to take him to the city jail. However, the police beat off the men, who proceeded to chase the cars apparently for a long time until the police got nearer to Omaha and escaped the farmers’ mob.
During his questioning, McCloud said that he had gone to the Nethaway house to ask for water, and when nobody came to the door he helped himself to their well. He proceeded to catch the train from there.
The day after McCloud’s arrest, the Omaha World-Herald excitedly announced, “Florence Men Threaten Lynching. When reports of the capture of the n—– reached the infuriated citizens of Florence a mob of men and boys congregated with the avowed intention of getting the slayer and hanging him from the tallest tree in the city.” Apparently, an “extra detail of officers” was called to the Central Station where McCloud was held to “resist any attempt to take the alleged slayer from the hands of the law.”
The Omaha Police Department was accused of beating McCloud while he was a prisoner. During the second day of the trial, Dr. Gertrude Cuscaden (1849-1940) told the newspapers that McCloud was being tortured in police custody. She “offered to take the place of a supposed criminal suspect and be treated like an ordinary prisoner while undergoing the alleged ‘horror session.'” She also wanted to stay at the jail with two newspaper reporters “to see that Charles Smith… is not brutally treated.” This was in keeping with OPD’s apparent commitment to maintain white supremacy through police brutality. When Dr. Cuscaden asked to see McCloud, she was denied. When the Omaha World-Herald implied that she was seeking attention, she replied that, “I have no interest in this case other than humanity…We have heard a lot about this cruelty of the police. This would be a good time to find out about it.”
Compounding the case against McCloud, the media—including the Omaha Bee and the World-Herald—declared that the same person who murdered Nethaway definitely murdered another woman in Omaha on the same day. They then speculated that he might have recently murdered in St. Louis, as well as a 12-year-old girl in rural Iowa. Within days after the preliminary inquisition, the Omaha police got a note from the Douglas County, Kansas, sheriff that McCloud was wanted for murder there, too. The media also implicated him of two other assaults in the city, and during the trial he was accused of robbing two houses in addition to the murder.
McCloud was implicated in the robbery of a house at North 56th and Blondo Streets on August 28, two days after the murder.
The Omaha Monitor, a Black-owned, Black-focused newspaper that acted as the city’s race conscience for the previous 20 years, called out the investigation for its racial bias from the jump. They started a legal fund to support McCloud’s defense and secured the services of an African American lawyer, Amos Scruggs (1875-1946), from North Omaha.
A Coroner’s Inquisition
The state brought the murder charge against Charles McCloud. Prosecutors set up a story of how he committed a crime of passion, citing circumstantial evidence throughout the trial. In court, McCloud was represented by a team of public defenders that worked with Scruggs.
McCloud was not allowed to testify because of threats against his life.
The story woven by prosecutors suggested that McCloud had burglarized the house at North 56th and Blondo, and used a deer-handled hunting knife from there to commit the murder. Nethaway testified that he thought he had scene McCloud that day, and he knew he would do something bad.
Testifying for the prosecutor, one neighbor apparently saw Claude Nethaway come from his car looking for his wife, asking his a young neighbor whether he’d seen her. He told the woman he thought there was foul play and was afraid something happened. Taking that neighbor’s son to the railroad tracks, Nethaway and he searched either side for the woman separately, with Nethaway finding her corpse. A neighbor’s wife corroborated the account, including insisting that McCloud had come to the Nethaway house looking for water, and complete an account of Nethaway’s scream, “That n—— killed my wife!” before he and her husband hopped in his car.
Several people testified for the defense. One neighbor testified that Nethaway yelled at his wife on the day of the murder, while another said he cursed her on the same day. “…it’s a lie,” Nethaway said. “I might have cursed the gate, but never my wife.”
On the second to the last day of the trial, four people had to be carried out of the courtroom during the arguments. Apparently, they were Claude Nethaway; his sister Lulu Nethaway; the murdered woman’s mother Francis Cachlin (1849-1925); and Miss Cachelin, her sister. The women were “in a fainting condition.”
Multiple people testified about the location of McCloud at the time of the murder, ultimately coming to the conclusion that he was in the Ponca Hills picking wild grapes when it happened. There was also testimony that the crime was committed with a knife, and not the razor that McCloud was found holding.
Blood tests done on samples found on McCloud’s clothes found that it was animal blood, and not from a human.
In his closing arguments, the deputy Douglas County attorney demanded “the extreme penalty” for McCloud. Apparently he insisted that the “chain of circumstantial evidence” made every link to McCloud and the murder. In his closing statement during a “highly dramatic appeal for conviction” another county attorney detailed every specific thing in the case.
After the corner testified, the prosecution’s circumstantial evidence fell apart.
McCloud’s attorney said the state offered no witnesses who could unequivocally place him as the murderer, and with the state admittedly relying on circumstantial evidence they were being asked to “guess away his life.” A later newspaper report said “There was no material evidence connecting Smith to the crime in any way.”
One of McCloud’s own lawyers cried out loud,
“Charles Smith, if I believed that your Black hands were stained with the blood of this woman I would myself demand you die for it.”—D.F. Seacot in the Omaha World-Herald, November 16, 1917
In closing arguments McCloud’s lawyer Scruggs showed that Nethaway’s actions showed “a guilty knowledge either as principal or accessory.” From his testimony, the court learned:
- Claude Nethaway hadn’t gone to Nellie’s sister’s house where she said she would be; instead, he went to another sisters’ house instead.
- Nellie Nethaway was 45 minutes late meeting Claude Nethaway, but he hadn’t shown any apprehension about her being late.
- There were tracks of two people leading into the cornfield behind the Nethaway house to where Nellie’s body was found.
- The killer didn’t sexually assault Nellie Nethaway or rob anything from her. McCloud didn’t have a motive for the murder.
- Nethaway’s search for his wife led almost exactly to where he found her body.
- Nethaway said there was foul play before his wife’s body was found. How did he know?
Another one of McCloud’s lawyers called out Nethaway’s scruffy appearance and also reiterated the inconsistencies in his testimony.
When it became obvious they hadn’t proved McCloud guilty, the DA asked the case to be dismissed. Nethaway himself hopped up in a rage and yelled, “I object!” He announced that he wanted to rebut the “prejudice against him” shown during the trial. He called on four farmers and a transient who could testify that McCloud was at the location of the murder.
Soon after that, police told the newspapers they were “weaned off” their idea that McCloud was guilty. Despite a fingerprinting officer’s insistence that McCloud’s marks were at the house, the detective in charge of the case and the police chief weren’t convinced of his guilt. Police had found evidence that McCloud was near the Nethaway house at the time of the murder, but didn’t connect him to the crime. McCloud had said the same thing the whole time—he was near the house but hadn’t committed the crime.
On September 3, the coroner’s inquiry found Charles McCloud not guilty of the murder of Mrs. Nellie Nethaway. However, they recommended holding him for further investigation.
Skeptical of the police and court, Omaha’s Black media wasn’t having the lily white treatment of Nethaway or the brutality towards McCloud. However, they also implicated the rest of the media in perpetuating white supremacy throughout the case. Describing recent murders in the city, Rev. John Albert Williams, editor of The Monitor wrote that Black people were fortunate they weren’t accused of other murders that happened in the city in recent years:
“We say ‘fortunately’ advisedly, because while crime should be regarded as crime, by whomsoever committed, and punished accordingly, by some strange psychological process the average white American seems to arrive at the conclusion that a crime committed by a Colored man is more heinous than the same crime committed by a white man. And, moresoever, there is also this striking phenomenon that while a white man’s crime is attributed to him and him alone and is regarded as the act of an individual [original emphasis], the crime of a Black man seems to be regarded as a corporate act and a reflection upon the race to which he chances to belong.”—Rev. John Albert Williams in the Omaha Monitor, September 8, 1917
The county attorney told the media there was enough evidence for a trial later that year, and it happened.
In a letter to The Monitor published on September 29, 1917, Larkin McCloud’s mother in Lawrence, Kansas, attested to his character. “My son is not an outcast,” Mrs. Bettie McCloud (b. 1865) wrote. “He had a good home and he went away last April to work and I have never heard of him since until I heard of this… he went to work in order to get more wages so he might help his father and I more… We haven’t anything finance [sic] my husband is old and getting frail and spent everything we had trying to save my eyesight…”
Between the corner’s inquest and the first trial, several details came out about Charles Smith. He was born in 1887 as Larkin McCloud in Mississippi. He came from a family headed by David McCloud (b. 1856) with several siblings, who were Coral (b. 1879), Pearl (b. 1881), Gold (b. 1884), and Nelson (b. 1888). Living in Ottawa, Kansas, Larkin McCloud was a semi-professional wrestler in the South who was advertised as Charley “Cannonball” or “Thunderbolt” Smith.
The First Trial of Larkin McCloud
Larkin McCloud (1887-1928) aka Charles Smith was an itinerant worker with the Yankee Robinson Circus when he came through Omaha. Originally from Vicksburg, Mississippi, McCloud lived with his parents and five siblings in Ottawa, Kansas, when he became a wrestler at the age of 16 in 1903. Becoming a semi-professional grappler, he wrestled in the South as Charley “Cannonball” or “Thunderbolt” Smith. McCloud was sentenced to life for the murder of Nellie Nethaway in 1917. He died in the Nebraska State Penitentiary at the age of 41 years old from an unknown cause. His gravesite is at the Nebraska State Penitentiary Cemetery in Lincoln.
In November 1917, McCloud was retried in a trial that took four days. This time, Nethaway told the court a succinct story that he was supposed to meet with his wife at 3pm on Sunday afternoon to take her for a drive. They were going to meet at the bridge near Briggs, and when she didn’t show up, he went to his office, then drove home. There, he said he called his wife’s sisters to see if they had seen Nellie.
Sitting 100 yards away from the Nethaway house was the operator’s shanty for the Omaha Road, a railroad that cut through the hillside. Nethaway asked the operator if he had seen Nellie, and when the operator said no Nethaway declared, “there has been foul play.” The operator testified that Nethaway seemed “very excited,” and it wasn’t until later when he “acosted [the operator] and told him that there had been foul play.” Then the operator told Nethaway that he’d seen a Black man go up the railroad track. It was apparently the operator who walked up the tracks with Nethaway.
Testimony from a fireman said McCloud was standing at the north end of the South Cut on the railroad and came down to the Nethaway house from the woods on the cliff above the railroad, or from the plateau above the south cut where Mrs. Nethaway’s body was found.
After drinking at the Nethaway’s well, McCloud went north on the tracks where he caught the train to Blair. He came to the Nethaway house after the approximate time Nellie was killed though.
A business accomplice testified that he took Nethaway to look at a piece of land at 3pm and brought him back to Briggs Station at 3:45. This time, it was 4pm when Nethaway got home to look for his wife after she failed to meet him at Briggs Station at 3pm to go look at the property.
The jury went to Briggs Station to inspect the site of the murder for themselves.
During this trial, Nethaway got up and jammed his finger at McCloud, declaring directly that McCloud had murdering his wife using a racial epithet.
In the course of the defense and in the media it was revealed that…
- The Douglas County sheriff didn’t like the Omaha Police Department’s detective work in the case and thought McCloud was innocent.
- A neighbor testified to seeing McCloud go to the Nethaway house for water after the point in time when Nellie Nethaway was murdered. Why would he have returned to the scene of a crime, or leave when nobody answered the door?
- County deputies found no evidence that Nellie Nethaway was dragged from the tracks to where her body was found at the top of the little cliff. How could McCloud, who weighed 147 pounds, carry her up that steep slope? Mrs. Nethaway had walked voluntarily to that spot by another route, but why?
- Mrs. Nethaway had not been raped or robbed, and the hunting knife found didn’t even appear to be the murder weapon because the fatal neck wound looked like it was made by a smaller and sharper blade. A razor was found buried nearby.
- The piece of women’s clothing discovered around her wrists Mrs. Nethaway’s other clothing and appeared to have been cut with scissors. It looked like someone planted fake evidence.
At the end on November 24, 1917, The Monitor wrote, “…no jury of fair-minded and sane men would convict the accused upon the evidence introduced. The prevailing sentiment… was that the jury would not be long at arriving at a verdict of not guilty.” On first ballot, the verdict was nine for acquittal and three for conviction. In the 42 hours afterwards, ballot after ballot came out the same.
The judge dismissed the jury and ordered a new trial.
A New Trial
The third trial used nearly the same evidence and similar testimony, as well as the same judge.
Media continually remarked how collected McCloud’s demeanor was throughout both trials. In a statement at the beginning of this trial, McCloud said that if he were sentenced to the electric chair he would go “with a smile because I know I am innocent… I have never harmed a person.”
In this trial, Claude Nethaway “seemed on the eve of stepping over a realm that has been narrowly skirted in the previous trial, but by apparent tacit consent of both sides avoided at the last moment.” [Adam’s note: I don’t know what that statement meant.]
Prosecutors for the state brought the four additional witnesses Nethaway wanted in the initial inquisition.
The defense brought some new witnesses, too. The Florence postmaster was with Nethaway the night of the murder and witnessed him undressing. He testified that he saw blood on the collar, necktie and shirt Nethaway wore, but that Nethaway explained it away as being from kissing his dead wife when he found her. Another man, an attorney, testified it was clear that steps from the body led down the nearby cliff, not up as previous testimony had said. This was essential because the prosecution said McCloud carried Nellie Nethaway’s corpse up the cliff and put it there.
A few more interesting details arose in this trial, including:
- Nellie Nethaway walked a half-mile on the railroad tracks to meet Claude Nethaway when it would only have taken him 5 minutes to drive from Nethaway’s office to his house.
- A neighbor testified that she saw Claude earlier that day wearing dark clothes. When she saw him again in the afternoon, he was wearing light-colored clothes.
- McCloud had no human blood on his body or clothes, but Claude Nethaway did.
However, in a surprise event, in the final hour of the trial, McCloud insisted on taking the stand. During his testimony he said that he saw two men put Nellie Nethaway’s body on the ledge where she was found, and that there was a third man who scattered evidence from the murder around the site. After they left, McCloud said he went to look at the body and when he saw she was murdered he was scared and ran away.
At the end of the second trial, one of McCloud’s attorneys reportedly said,
“We have been criticized for casting aspersions on the husband of the dead woman, by innuendo insinuating that he might have been guilty. There is a mystery in this case that will not be cleared up by the conviction of Charles Smith. If the evidence adduced in this case has seemed to point to any person, no matter who, it is not our fault, but the trend of the evidence.”—Attorney Alva L. Timblin (1859-1949), as quoted by The Monitor on February 2, 1918.
On February 4, 1918, Larkin McCloud was found guilty of murdering Nellie Nethaway and sentenced to life in prison. The judge denied an immediate motion for a new trial by the defense lawyers.
According to The Monitor, “When the verdict was delivered McCloud collapsed in a fit of hysterical screaming and it took the efforts of four deputies to remove him from the courtroom. The prisoner threw himself on the floor, cried out, beat the floor with his feet and finally lapsed into semi-consciousness, in which condition he was returned to his cell.”
The newspaper declared that McCloud’s own testimony condemned him, and also noted, “Despite the jury’s verdict the Omaha public is by no means satisfied of Smith’s guilt. The sentiment sets the other way.”
After the Conviction
In a jailhouse interview after the trial, McCloud told The Monitor that he insisted on testifying over his lawyers objections so he could “free his mind.” He said, “I know I am responsible for my conviction, but I told the truth and my mind is now free. I wanted to testify in the first trial. I told just what I saw. I have no kick on my lawyers. I didn’t kill that woman and the truth will come out some day.”
After the trial, McCloud’s attorneys said “the search for the murderer of Mrs. Nethaway will not end with the sentence of their client.” Claiming they had found more evidence that would show McCloud’s innocence, they would motion for a new trial claiming the trial was in error. However, I could find nothing in the newspapers following the case after this point.
Racial tension in Omaha continued to flare after the trial. The following week the case of an African American convicted of murdering a white gang member in self-defense was postponed for six months because of the threat of mob violence in the city.
Nethaway was married to his second wife, Stella Hazel Bump (1886-1931), on December 2, 1918. They were married until 1920. During their divorce trial, Stella said her husband was excitable, nervous, and spent most of his time at home talking about the “negro question” and railing against “negro lovers.” She also testified that he terrorized her and had held a knife on her more than once. She won her case and left Claude Nethaway, going back to her native Chicago. According to History Nebraska though, Claude Nethaway continued taunting her, eventually getting her fired from her job and getting fined by the US Postal Service for sending lewd content to her on postcards.
That year, Nethaway ran as the “White Man’s Friend” for county sheriff, promising to start by firing the county jail’s African American elevator operator. He received fewer than 300 votes.
In 1920, Claude Nethaway was put on trial for inflaming the mob during the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and the rioting surrounding the event. The Omaha Monitor immediately connected Nethaway’s racist crimes of 1919 to his racist accusations of 1917, saying “Peculiar circumstances surrounding the finding of Mrs. Nethaway’s body and other facts in connection with the mystery left grave doubts in the popular mind as to Smith’s guilt.” Connecting him to inciting the mob with racist jeers and white supremacist taunting, The Monitor clearly wanted the public to see his continual hatred of African Americans and the uncoincidental pathway from indicting one Black man to lynching another.
In 1924, Claude Nethaway was married for a last time to Eunice Warnick (1877-1954). In 1932, he ran for the Nebraska State Legislature in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District and lost. He remained married until he died in 1937.
For decades after the murder, the bridge on McKinley Street was called the Nethaway Bridge. Claude Nethaway’s office at 8013 North 30th Street is long-gone now, and the family’s graves in Blair are the only sites left to commemorate their lives.
According to the Omaha World-Herald, Larkin McCloud, aka Charles Smith, died at the Nebraska State Penitentiary on June 12, 1928. His prison record does not include a cause of death. His burial site is is at the Nebraska State Penitentiary Cemetery.
Thanks to Jim Rogers and Michele Wyman for their contributions to this article. Special thanks also to Tama Brisbane for inspiring me to finish this article.
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MY ARTICLES ON THE HISTORY OF CRIME IN NORTH OMAHA
Crimes: 1891 George Smith Lynching | 1909 Unsolved Murder | 1910 Jack Johnson Riot | 1917 Larkin McCloud Case | 1919 James Smith Death | 1919 Will Brown Lynching | 1969 Vivian Strong Killing | 1960s North Omaha Riots |
Events: Bombings | Mob Violence
Criminals: Early 20th Century Crime Bosses | Vic Walker | Ollie William Jackson | Axe Murderer Jake Bird
Related: Black Police in Omaha | Police Brutality | Antisemitism | Racism
Once again, I have enjoyed, not the perfect wording, but found the article so interesting and brutally sad. Thank you for researcing and sharing. It seems pretty obvious Nethaway murdered his first wife. How hideously prejudiced people were. So very unfair for Larkin. RIP
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Please change my email to Obpomni@gmail.com Thank you
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Again I shake my head. Nebraska theme is the good life. Ask any afro american person if this statement is true back then. Today, the answer maybe yes. But the hatred is covered up. Everyone has a story. At times I wish I could wave a wand and all haters would be gone. Yes there is unlawful people, but blacks don’t hold that position . It’s in ALL races.
For the piece on Rev. Williams, St. Phillips Church, the membership was bright skin worshippers only. Is this racist, IDK, but that was how it was then and for years.
Thank you Adam Fletcher Sasse for sharing omaha history. I leave your articles with a 🤔 but more educated.
Thank you for this research and for covering this sad series of trials. I hate that this is Omaha’s history.
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Me too Dallas.
Thank you 🙏🏾 for bringing attention to this unknown history. My goodness
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