1876: Happy Hollow, The Man Who Named Lincoln, and a Plot to Buy the Presidency

The story of how Lincoln became the capital of Nebraska is often told. The territorial capital in Omaha was moved to the village of Lancaster after South Platte politicians successfully won a long and bitter fight over the location of the capital of the newly-admitted state. The name of Lincoln was a last-ditch effort to stop the move. It’s an amusing anecdote today about how Lincoln got its name to troll copperheads. The men behind this story are generally not well-known today. The key player was a high-society darling, the founder of Dundee, the namesake of Happy Hollow, and a maligned figure in one of the most controversial elections in American history.

John Nelson Hays Patrick, called J.N.H. Patrick or Nelson Patrick, was born in Brandenburg, Kentucky, on June 28, 1827.1“Most Interesting Life Story of a Passing Pioneer,” Omaha Daily Bee, Feb. 5, 1905, p.9 He was an early pioneer in Nebraska, and was quartermaster of Nebraska’s volunteer regiment at the outset of the Civil War. An attorney with many business interests, Patrick was a wealthy landowner and prominent citizen of Douglas County. Originally residing in Omaha on Davenport St.2The block is now a downtown parking garage, Patrick moved west and built an estate which came to be known as Happy Hollow.3The home, located at present-day 400 Happy Hollow Blvd., would be sold after his death and the land converted into the Happy Hollow Country Club. When the club moved west in 1922 they sold the land and the mansion to Brownell Hall (now Brownell-Talbot), where the school remains to this day. The mansion/clubhouse was torn down in the 1960s. He would later hire the Shannon Brothers of Kansas City to build more homes nearby, creating a subdivision known as Dundee Place.4History/Architecture – Dundee-Memorial Park Association The Village of Dundee grew out of this subdivision, until it was eventually annexed by Omaha in 1915.

Patrick and his wife were mainstays of the Omaha society pages, and Happy Hollow was a frequent gathering place for the well-to-do. In later days, little was mentioned of his political life, save for his friendship with Sen. Charles Manderson, and the occasional remembrance of Patrick’s brief but eventful time in the Nebraska Senate.

Statehood and Lincoln

In 1867, he was elected to the Nebraska Senate as one of two senators from Douglas County.5Isaac Hascall, later President of the Senate during the impeachment of Gov. David Butler, and eventually a Republican candidate for Mayor of Omaha against James Boyd, was the other. The special sessions called by the Governor had to deal with a number of significant issues, the most pressing of which was the admittance of Nebraska as a full-fledged member of the Union.

In preparation for statehood, Nebraska had passed a state constitution in 1866 and organized this Legislature under that Constitution. The first session of that Legislature met in July 1866, primarily to elect U.S. Senators.6Hence why, despite the fact that Nebraska would not be admitted to the Union until March 1, 1867, Nebraska officially considers the members of the first two sessions of the Nebraska Legislature to be members of the State Legislature and not the Territorial Legislature, which had not yet dissolved and in fact met between the first and second sessions of the State Legislature. The problem was that Nebraska’s Constitution limited the franchise to “free white males.” Congress had already passed the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection under the law, and were not about to admit a new state into the Union that explicitly denied the right to vote based on color. So when Congress passed a bill admitting Nebraska as a state, it was with the condition that Nebraska not deny the right to vote and the Legislature assent to the condition. Andrew Johnson, who opposed equal voting rights (and equal rights of many other kinds) vetoed the bill, which Congress then passed over his veto.7I don’t really have anything to add here, other than Andrew Johnson sucked. The 2nd Legislature convened in order to deal with this condition and allow Nebraska to be admitted as a state.

James E. Doom of Cass County8Comics nerd that I am, I have as yet been unable to ascertain whether Sen. Doom held a doctorate. introduced the bill in the Senate to affirm Nebraska’s acceptance of the conditions. Isaac Hascall of Omaha, who had been elected as a Democrat, announced that he would become a Republican, and sided with the Republicans in favor of the bill.9“The Day We Celebrate,” Nebraska State Journal, May 25, 1892, p.4 Patrick did not arrive until the next day to present his credentials. The official record tells an incomplete story, in large part because the minority report was defeated and not printed. Thomas Majors, who would later serve as Congressman and Lieutenant Governor, objected to the report as “an ungentlemanly document.”10Senate Journal of the State of Nebraska, 2nd Legislature, Feb. 21, 1867. But it seems clear from the context on votes taken that Patrick was firmly on the side of his fellow Democrats, against the condition.

Days before the 2nd Session of the Nebraska State Legislature convened to assent to Congress’ condition, the 12th and final session of the Nebraska Territorial Legislature adjourned. The scene that unfolded during the closing days set the stage for the 3rd Session and the removal of the capital from Omaha. Far from the partisan split over statehood, the loyalties in the final Territorial Legislature were entirely along sectional lines. Tensions came to a head over an apportionment bill which would have taken a seat from North of the Platte River and given it to South Platte. Members from Otoe County opposed the bill because it also would have reduced Otoe County’s representation. A rumor spread that the change was meant to shift the balance of power south so the capital would be removed from Omaha. The vote was deadlocked until the Speaker was removed and another representative from Otoe sworn in, allowing for the defeat of the bill. Members brandished revolvers, the Speaker drew his pistol, and the Sergeant-At-Arms drew a sword.11“The Legislative Imbraglio,” Nebraska Advertiser, Feb. 28, 1867, p.2 The bill was defeated, but the episode would ultimately lead to the removal of the capital in the next session of the State Legislature.

One member of the Territorial Council in 1867 was Mills Reeves, who was also a member of the State Senate, and the same Senator who introduced the “objectionable” and “ungentlemanly” minority report opposing the statehood conditions. Born in Ohio and raised in Indiana,12Where he would return in 1870. Reeves was a staunch Democrat and according to many accounts a former slaveholder. But as a member of the Territorial Council in 1860, he voted to prohibit slavery in Nebraska Territory and objected to territorial Gov. Samuel Black’s veto of the measure, casting it as the right of Nebraskans to govern themselves on the question.13Nebraska Advertiser, Jan. 26, 1860. The Nebraska Advertiser was an early territorial paper published by Robert W. Furnas, later elected Governor of Nebraska. He was not a member of the Territorial Legislature the next session when the body successfully overrode another veto to abolish slavery in the territory.14The tenor of debate being so heavily slanted in favor of abolition, Democrats were left to argue instead that slavery did not exist in any meaningful form in Nebraska, and that those who were with their masters were there voluntarily. This was a laughable and insulting argument, made most prominently by George L. Miller, publisher of the Omaha Herald and member of the Territorial Council. Black as territorial Governor argued that the body had no authority to ban slavery. He resigned not long after the ban on slavery passed.

But whatever expediency caused Reeves to cast his vote in favor of abolition, it did not signal any allegiance or admiration for the man who had become synonymous with the cause, even after his death. He reportedly “hated the name Lincoln ‘even more than he could that of Satan,'” and thus was seen as a potential target to divide the South Platte delegation on the question of removal by means of political trickery.15“Abraham Lincoln’s Connection With Nebraska,” Lincoln Journal Star, Feb. 10, 1974. The Third Legislature was called into special session by Gov. Butler in order to deal with a laundry list of issues the newly-admitted state needed to address. Chief among them were apportionment, and the location of public buildings, including the Capitol.

William Presson of Richardson County introduced the bill to relocate the capital. The bill as written contemplated the eventual location of the capital in Lancaster County, though it was more broadly written than that. Unfortunately, the chosen name for the city was “Capitol City,” which in addition to being grammatically incorrect, was also as Patrick described it, “inexplicably clumsy and ugly.”16“The Story Behind Lincoln’s Namesake,” Lincoln Journal Star, Apr. 10, 2011. The votes on various amendments to the measure were failing on 8-5 votes, so Patrick thought to divide the Republican majority from South Platte Democrats like Reeves who were the floor leaders on the bill. He moved to replace “Capitol City” with “Lincoln,” thinking Reeves would object. But Reeves instead seconded the motion, which was adopted. The rest is history.

And that’s the extent of Nelson Patrick’s place in the common narrative of Nebraska history. He didn’t serve in the Legislature again. Few sources even make the connection between the Senator and the founder of Dundee, except in passing mention of Happy Hollow. But it was his involvement in two scandals, one comparatively minor and the other unlike anything the country had ever seen, that has become largely forgotten.

The Howe Investigation

We’ll start here by saying that the facts are not definitive. A large number of the sources of these accusations are highly partisan or colored by personal rivalries. And where personal rivalries and late-19th century Nebraska politics are concerned, you can bet that chief among the highly partisan individuals involved was Edward Rosewater, publisher of the Omaha Daily Bee. I’ve discussed Rosewater quite a bit here before, and there’s not a lot to add. While he was a prominent Republican, his allegiances were more often than not driven by personality than anything else. He was distrustful of Republicans like Church Howe and Thomas Majors, and his admiration of Charles Van Wyck ultimately led him into the Populist camp for a short time. He was staunchly anti-prohibition, which undoubtedly contributed to his paper’s later relationship with Omaha political boss Tom Dennison.17For much of the Dennison era, the paper was controlled by Edward’s son Victor, after Edward’s death in 1906.

It was Howe who became the target of the first accusation. The Central Nebraska Press of Kearney on Feb. 17, 1876, reported: “Mr. J.N.H. Patrick of Omaha, went to the Capitol of the state last winter with nearly $100,000 in his clothes for the avowed purpose of buying his way into the United States Senate from Nebraska.”18Nebraska Advertiser, Feb. 17, 1876. The allegation was that Patrick paid $3,000 to Howe and $10,000 to Speaker Edward Towle. Howe had not yet made his reputation as a Republican. In fact, some sources at that time still referred to him as a Democrat and in 1876 he was elected as an Independent.19The Independent ticket in those days was in most cases a precursor to the Farmer’s Alliance, Greenback, and Populist movements. In Howe’s case it was most probably a means to get elected when he failed to get the nomination at a Republican convention. The Press also alleged that the Bee would receive a bribe for excusing Republicans to vote for the Democrat Patrick. If the Bee was party to any of this, it doesn’t seem to have surfaced in any of their reporting. The bribery charges against Howe specifically formed the basis of Rosewater’s frequent attacks over the next two decades, and more immediately the basis of what the Nebraska State Journal and other papers dubbed the “Howe-Rosewater Investigation.”

A Senate committee found no evidence for the charges, while Rosewater attacked the committee as a whitewash. But Howe was the only person to vote for Patrick, and what later transpired gives us ample reason to believe Patrick had no scruples about bribery, though his effectiveness may be questioned.

“Secure Your Point At All Hazards”

The 1876 Presidential election remains the closest contest in American history. Incumbent Ulysses S. Grant did not seek a third term as President, and Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes was the Republican nominee for President. Samuel J. Tilden, the Governor of New York, was the Democratic nominee. The contest remained in doubt in December 1876, with up to 20 electoral votes contested, but the long and short of it is that Tilden was one vote shy of the Presidency. And Tilden’s allies endeavored to get it for him by any means necessary.

The New York Tribune published decoded telegrams sent between Tilden’s residence and various Democratic Party officials. The telegrams detailed a plan to secure Tilden’s election in several of the contested states. In Florida, the plan was to bribe election officials. In South Carolina, to purchase the votes of several state legislators and imprison Republican electors. And in Oregon, to secure a single electoral vote for Tilden by bribing Republican electors to accept an illegitimate Democratic elector in the state.20“The Cipher Dispatches,” New York Tribune, Nov. 12, 1878.

One of the earliest and most infamous of the messages to be decoded was signed “Gobble,” or “Gabble,” the translation of the cipher showing that it was purportedly from the Governor of Oregon to Tilden himself, guaranteeing to decide the case of a disputed electoral vote for the Democrat. These dispatches came into the hands of a Senate committee in early 1877, and through testimony a relatively complete picture of the Oregon conspiracy came into place.

William T. Pelton, Tilden’s nephew and a resident of his home at 15 Gramercy Park, New York, began communicating with George L. Miller, a prominent Democrat in Omaha and publisher of the Omaha Herald, on efforts to affect the result in Oregon. Miller, unable to go himself, delegated the responsibility to Patrick, who he put in touch with Pelton and Sen. James Kelly of Oregon. “Secure your point at all hazards,” a co-conspirator wired Patrick, admonishing him to keep communications secret.

Patrick wired Pelton with the plan, the translation of which read as follows:

Certificate will be issued to one Democrat. Must purchase Republican elector to recognize and act with Democrat and secure vote and prevent trouble. Deposit ten thousand dollars my credit Kountze Brothers, 12 Wall St. – J.N.H. Patrick
I fully indorse this. – James K. Kelly21“The Cipher Dispatches,” p.37

The “Gabble” message from Gov. Grover to Tilden followed a couple of days later. “I shall decide every point… in favor of the highest Democratic elector,” the decoded message said. The Senate committee determined that this dispatch was actually by Patrick’s hand.221 Cong. Rec. 565 (1890). The plan was clear: replace a Hayes elector who had been constitutionally disqualified by reason of holding a federal office with a Tilden elector, and bribe a Republican elector to recognize the Tilden elector as legitimate. Without the second part of the plan, the vote would remain in dispute and Tilden would be no closer to winning the presidency than he was previously.

Sen. Kelly after the translations surfaced denied any knowledge of their true contents, saying he believed the money to be for legal fees. The initial plan proceeded, with the next-highest Democratic elector appointed by the Governor to take the place of the ineligible Republican elector. The Hayes elector had since resigned his federal office and the Republican electors, by Oregon law, appointed him to the vacant post. It is unknown whether there was any realistic chance of the bribery being successful, but in any case, the money arrived too late to find out.23“The Cipher Dispatches,” p.40 The electoral commission devised to settle the disputed electoral votes awarded all three Oregon votes to Hayes, as well as the disputed votes in the other states. But the cost of those votes was even steeper.

To settle the election and place Hayes in the White House free of any encumbrance, Republicans agreed to sell out the country and end Reconstruction. Federal troops would be removed from the South. Jim Crow laws would soon follow. It’s not to say that Tilden would have been better – beholden as he was to a party that was full of people who were recently traitors – but that Hayes ultimately placed the dagger in the heart of civil rights for nearly a century is beyond dispute.

Patrick’s role in all of this is largely forgotten to history, in large part because he was unsuccessful. Rosewater certainly never forgot, invoking Patrick’s name whenever possible to attack Church Howe, adding the additional charge that Howe meant to deliver Nebraska’s electoral votes to Tilden. The Advertiser, similarly hostile towards Howe, would often bring up Patrick’s name in connection with Howe as well. But Howe’s allies at the Journal believed Howe was fully vindicated in the Rosewater investigation, and Patrick’s friends at the Herald wouldn’t dream of attacking him, particularly given Miller’s ties.

John Nelson Hays Patrick died on January 30, 1905 at his home in Happy Hollow. The glowing obituary in the Omaha World-Herald only made passing mention of his time in the Nebraska Legislature, focusing mainly on his business and society life.24“J.N.H. Patrick Dies At His Home In Happy Hollow,” Omaha World-Herald, Jan. 30, 1905. The story of Lincoln’s naming was something that future historians would bring up, but the man behind it remained a name. The messier parts faded into memory, and we were left with just another story.

1892: Gov. Boyd and the Legal Fight to Keep Him from Office

In 1890, James Boyd, an Irish immigrant who had served two terms as Mayor of Omaha was elected Governor of Nebraska, the first Democrat to be elected after 24 years of unbroken Republican victories. Gov. John Milton Thayer was not a candidate in the 1890 general election. But when it came time for him to vacate the office, he waged a legal battle to prevent his successor from taking office on the pretense that he was not a citizen, eventually ousting him after a decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court. In Boyd v. State of Nebraska ex rel. Thayer,1143 U.S. 135 (1892). the United States Supreme Court found in favor of Boyd, recognizing his citizenship and restoring him to office.

James Edward Boyd was born September 9, 1834 in Tyrone County, Ireland.2“Boyd, James E., 1834-1906,” | Nebraska History His family moved to Ohio in 1844, and he eventually settled in the Nebraska Territory in 1856. Boyd served in first session of the Nebraska State Legislature in 1866, representing Buffalo County.3Nebraska Legislature (1867), House Journal of the State Legislature of Nebraska: First, Second, and Third Sessions. p.5. In 1868 he moved back to Omaha, and in 1881 was elected Mayor.4Boyd, 143 U.S. at 148. Omaha Daily Bee publisher Edward Rosewater boosted Boyd’s candidacy for Mayor,5It must be noted again that Rosewater was a Republican, and indeed the Bee was a leading Republican newspaper. However, Rosewater frequently feuded with Republicans who he believed to be corrupt, and often saved his fiercest criticism for his competitors such as the Omaha Republican, the Democratic Omaha Daily Herald, (and later the World-Herald) the Nebraska State Journal, and others. saying “every vote for [Isaac] Hascall (Boyd’s opponent) is a vote for hoodlum government.”6Omaha Daily Bee, April 5, 1881. In the wake of his election, the Bee declared “it was simply a question of honesty versus rascality, and honesty won the day.”7Omaha Daily Bee, April 7, 1881.

Boyd was not a candidate in the next election, in which former Nebraska Attorney General Champion S. Chase was returned to office for his third stint as Omaha Mayor.8Omaha Daily Bee, April 5, 1883. But Chase was impeached and removed from office by the City Council on June 30, 1884, for counts related to drunkenness and neglect of office.9Omaha Daily Bee, July 1, 1884. Boyd became Mayor again in the election the following spring, defeating the incumbent acting mayor Patrick Murphy. This time, the Bee did not support Boyd, boosting the Republican ticket instead. “We do not propose to help Boss Boyd and his democratic ring,” the Bee wrote.10Omaha Daily Bee, April 2, 1885. And the Omaha Republican, which accused the Bee of apostasy in the 1881 election for supporting Boyd, supported Boyd over the Republican Murphy.11Omaha Daily Bee, April 3, 1885.

The 1890 election for Governor was a three-way affair. The Farmers Alliance nominated John H. Powers.12The People’s Independent Party, as they were officially known in Nebraska, eventually became known as the Populists, merging the Farmers Alliance with Free Silver and Greenback interests when they nominated a candidate for President in 1892. They elected Silas Holcomb in 1894 on a fusion ticket with Democrats, and began to fade as a political party after the rise of William Jennings Bryan as a national figure. The Democrats nominated Boyd at the state convention in August.13Omaha World-Herald, Aug. 15, 1890. The Republicans nominated L.D. Richards of Fremont.

The election was a nailbiter. Prohibition was on the ballot, and the three candidates found themselves neck-and-neck as the ballots were counted. Ultimately, Boyd received 71,331 votes. Powers finished second with 70,187 votes. Richards trailed in third with 68,878 votes, with 3,694 scattered among other candidates.14Boyd, U.S. 143 at 138. At just a hair under one-third of the vote, It remains the lowest percentage vote total any elected Governor of Nebraska has ever received in a winning general election. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the People’s Party planned to contest the election result.

The day after the election, the Bee celebrated the demise of Prohibition at the ballot box. (Its headline, “Fanaticism’s Death Knell,” turned out to be a premature celebration.)15Omaha Daily Bee, Nov. 5, 1890. The results of the gubernatorial election were still uncertain, but the Bee was quick to put to rest any notions of fraud in Douglas County, given the importance it placed on Prohibition’s defeat at the polls. By the next day, the Bee had called the election for Boyd. “Caught In A Blizzard: A Very Cold Wave Seems to Have Hit Nebraska Republicans,” the headline screamed, as Republicans faced defeat across the state, owing to the popularity of Alliance candidates.16Omaha Daily Bee, Nov. 6, 1890. One Democratic victor in the election was William Jennings Bryan, who was elected to Congress.

Uncertainty still reigned, and Powers’ supporters claimed that he had been elected.17Nebraska State Journal, Nov. 9, 1890. The Alliance claimed that thousands of noncitizen Omahans voted fraudulently for Boyd.18Lincoln Evening News, Nov. 19, 1890. As the contest was underway, a report out of an Ohio newspaper suggested that Boyd’s father had never been naturalized as a citizen until 1890.19Nebraska State Journal, Dec. 13, 1890. Under the statutes at the time, if Boyd’s father had not been naturalized as a citizen before Boyd reached the age of majority, Boyd would not be a naturalized citizen himself.

It’s hard not to view what followed through the lens of xenophobia and a naked grab for power. No one elected John Milton Thayer to serve another term as Governor. He was scheduled to leave office in January, he was not even a candidate at the preceding election. The Republican candidate for Governor had, in fact, finished third. Even if Boyd had been ineligible to serve as Governor, and Powers unable to be installed because the election was declared void, the newly elected Lieutenant Governor Thomas Majors, himself a Republican, should have rightfully been the next man up for the job. But for various reasons, possibly owing to Majors’ own issues within the party,20Issues which would become apparent four years later when Majors himself ran for Governor. the decision was made to enter the next stage of the legal battle with the incumbent leading the charge.

The Legislature was scheduled to convene, and the possibility of a Populist being elected Speaker raised in the press.21Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 5, 1891. But between the contest for the election, a scheme to install Powers as Governor, and the reality that as soon as the results of the canvass were received and read aloud in the chamber, Boyd’s election would have to be acknowledged, things proceeded on a more chaotic scale. Samuel Elder was elected Speaker, but Lt. Governor George Meiklejohn took the chair and ordered the canvass results to be published.22Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 8, 1891. The independents were outraged, as this would dispose of Powers’ challenge. It soon became clear that the Republicans wanted their own man in power, but they also worried that the contest would throw the election of several Republicans who won their offices into doubt.

The next day, Governor Thayer had called up the militia to patrol the halls of the Capitol. The Supreme Court issued a writ of mandamus compelling Speaker Elder to publish the election results. And Elder issued a warrant for the arrest of Lt. Governor Meiklejohn. Eventually, Elder relented and published the returns. That day, Governor James Boyd was sworn in, while John Milton Thayer refused to vacate his offices, locked and guarded by police and militia, in the Capitol.23Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 9, 1891.

Thayer instituted quo warranto proceedings in the Nebraska Supreme Court to have Boyd’s election as Governor vacated on the grounds of his ineligibility for office.24This post is primarily interested in the political and historical significance of the court case, and as such won’t spend a great deal of time on the legal analysis of the case itself. For more on the legal case, See Anna Williams Shavers, A Century of Developing Citizenship Law and the Nebraska Influence: A Centennial Essay, 70 Neb. L. Rev. (1991) Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol70/iss3/5 The Supreme Court allowed the case to proceed notwithstanding Boyd’s arguments that Thayer had no legal standing. All the while, Boyd acted as Governor despite Thayer’s proceedings against him, while Thayer claimed to be legally entitled to the office. While Boyd and Thayer awaited the decision of the Supreme Court, Boyd vetoed a bill to set maximum railroad rates. The Populists in the House quickly moved to override the veto, but were unsuccessful in the Senate. The bill was dead.25“Knocked Clear Out,” Omaha Daily Bee, April 4, 1891.

On May 5, the Supreme Court ruled against Boyd’s citizenship, declared him ousted as Governor, and installed Thayer in office. Democrats could scarcely believe it. “Newspaper men were shunned as if they were adders by the politicians of all parties,” the Omaha World-Herald wrote. “If the leaders had anything to say they were careful to say it in privacy. Their perplexity was really affecting, and its gradation as reflected by their faces was an interesting study. The longer they thought over the decision and its possible consequences the more bewildered they became. It is not surprising that a large number of the city’s brightest political minds were obscured by beer when the memorable 5th day of May, A.D., 1891, went out.”26Omaha World-Herald, May 6, 1891.

Ultimately, Boyd appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and was successfully reinstated into office. The decision itself was not especially controversial, but the manner in which it was revealed to the public certainly was. On January 2, 1892, the Bee reported that the Supreme Court had made up its mind that Boyd was a citizen.27“Boyd is a Citizen,” Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 2, 1892. The Court, for obvious reasons, closely guards its decisions and there have been very few instances before or since in which a decision of the Supreme Court has been leaked prior to its official announcement. The World-Herald said that a court stenographer had sold the information to several newspapers, of which the Bee was one.28Omaha World-Herald, Jan. 3, 1892. The decision of the Court came down on February 1, 1892, and was received with enthusiasm by Democrats. William Jennings Bryan took to the floor of the House to announce the decision and “rejoic[e] over the restoration of popular government” in Nebraska.29Omaha Daily Bee, Feb. 2, 1892.

The World-Herald blared “BOYD GETS THERE” across the body of the front page. 30Omaha World-Herald, Feb. 2, 1892. Boyd would soon be restored to office, with only eleven months remaining in his term.

Brief Update

Working on a few things for the site, including a Wiki. A post on the 1890 election which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court will be coming soon.

In the meantime, here are some headlines from Nebraska newspapers 100 years ago, March 28, 1919:

“Women’s Rights In League,” Omaha Daily Bee. The proposed League of Nations covenant will include a provision recognizing women’s suffrage.

“Grammer Innocent Says Alson B. Cole,” Evening State Journal. A convicted murderer repudiates his confession which said the son-in-law of the victim hired him to commit the murder.

“Stephens Chides Sloan For Bitter Attack On Wilson,” Lincoln Star. Ex-Congressmen Dan Stephens and Charles Sloan engage in a war of words over Sloan’s remarks which came close to accusing President Wilson of treason.

1895: “They Had Earned Equality Before The Law”

In 1895, Dr. Matthew Ricketts, a Republican and the first black member of Nebraska’s Legislature, sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives to repeal the prohibition on interracial marriage, which had been law since the first days of the Nebraska Territory. It passed by a vote of 54-15.1Omaha World-Herald, Mar. 31, 1895. From there it passed the Senate and reached the Governor, Silas A. Holcomb, who had been elected as a Populist with the support of William Jennings Bryan. On April 11, 1895, Gov. Holcomb vetoed the bill, reasoning that such a bill without due consideration could not possibly reflect the will of the people.2Omaha World-Herald, April 12, 1895. The Legislature, having adjourned sine die, had no opportunity to override Holcomb’s veto. Though there was some doubt as to whether Holcomb had vetoed the bill within the five days required by the Nebraska Constitution, ultimately the veto stood.3“Lincoln All Agog Over the Validity of the Veto of Three Bills,” Omaha World-Herald, April 17, 1895.

Reaction to the veto was predictably tinged with racist, inflammatory rhetoric. The Crete Democrat said the bill “opened the gates that lead to racial destruction,” that it would “mongrelize the white race” and “destroy civilization.” “Just why men of ordinary intelligence would vote for such a measure is beyond the comprehension of the average citizen.”4Omaha World-Herald, April 23, 1895. Over a century later, we are left to wonder the opposite.

Our collective historical memory is short. We overlook or ignore the messy parts in favor of a cleaner narrative. Sometimes the figures in opposition, while in the present moment creating insurmountable obstacles, are deemed mostly insignificant in the grand scheme of history. Such is Silas Holcomb, a mostly forgettable Governor of Nebraska who was elected in 1894 on a fusion ticket between the Democratic Party and the People’s Party, commonly known as the Populists.

Silas Alexander Holcomb was born August 25, 1858 in Gibson County, Indiana to John C. and Lucinda R. Holcomb (née Skelton). His grandmother on his father’s side was reportedly related to Robert E. Lee. After his father’s death in 1878, he moved to Nebraska with his family and took up the practice of law. By 1883, he had moved to Broken Bow, where he became involved in local politics. In 1891, he was elected as a district judge as the nominee of the People’s Independent Party. The party nominated him for Governor in 1894.5E.R. Purcell, “Governor-Elect Holcomb: A Sketch of the Life of Nebraska’s Next Executive,” Nebraska State Journal, Dec. 3, 1894. Holcomb was only thirty-six years old when he became Governor of Nebraska.

The Populist Party’s history is intrinsically linked with Nebraska. In 1892, the People’s Party held a national convention on July 4 in Omaha, Nebraska, nominating James Weaver as its candidate for President.6Omaha Daily Bee, July 5, 1892. The platform adopted at that convention, known as the Omaha Platform, called for the free coinage of silver, a major issue in national politics at the time and an issue which Nebraska’s favorite son, Democrat William Jennings Bryan, would later use to rise to national prominence and the nomination of his party for President of the United States (and, ultimately, the demise of the Populists as an independent party).

For now, though, Bryan was a Congressman, editor-in-chief of the Omaha World-Herald,7A note on the political slants of the World-Herald, the Journal, and the Bee, which given their prominence in my research, will be a topic worth revisiting. The World-Herald was a Democratic paper and publisher Gilbert Hitchcock would later serve as a Democratic U.S. Senator. The Journal was a Republican paper but frequently clashed with the Bee‘s publisher Edward Rosewater, also a Republican. The Bee‘s sensationalist journalism would become infamous given its role in the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, which resulted in the lynching of Will Brown and the attempted hanging of Omaha Mayor Edward Parsons Smith. and a candidate for United State Senate in 1894. Prior to the adoption of the 17th Amendment, Senators were elected by state legislatures. Bryan saw an opportunity to partner with Populist candidates to elect a friendly Governor and improve his chances of being elected to the Senate. The Democratic convention nominated Holcomb for Governor and boosted Bryan as their preferred candidate for U.S. Senate. “It was Bryan’s convention from first to last,” the Nebraska State Journal wrote, “and his followers rode rough-shod over all opposition.”8“Fusion Is A Fact,” Nebraska State Journal, Sep. 27, 1894.

So Holcomb had the support of Democrats and Populists, as well as at least one prominent Republican. The Omaha Daily Bee was an important Republican paper at the time and its publisher Edward Rosewater notably broke with the party to support Holcomb over the Republican nominee, Lt. Governor Thomas Majors. This made Rosewater a frequent target of the Journal, which called him “the assistant populist.”9Id.

The elections of 1894 were by and large a disaster for Democrats. Republicans won a large majority in the State Legislature and with it removed any chance that Bryan would be elected as Senator. Holcomb’s election was in doubt as well. The Lincoln Evening News10The Journal‘s Lincoln daily and predecessor to the Lincoln Journal declared “Majors The Man” the day after the election,11Lincoln Evening News, Nov. 7, 1894. while the Bee declared just as confidently “Holcomb The Winner.”12Omaha Daily Bee, Nov. 7, 1894. The World-Herald, despondent over Democratic losses across the country, could only ask “Is It Tom Majors?”13Omaha World-Herald, Nov. 7, 1894. The Bee had it correct, and went about alleging potential fraud by Republicans intent on electing Majors.14Omaha Daily Bee, Nov. 8, 1894. As it turned out, Holcomb was the only bright spot for Democrats and Populists. Republicans had swept nearly every other race, owing to the national mood against President Grover Cleveland and the Panic of 1893, as well as the deep divisions within the Democratic Party.

It was in this environment, with a Republican majority against him and an uneasy alliance of Populists and Silver Democrats on his side, that Silas Holcomb became Governor of Nebraska.

Matthew Ricketts was born on April 3, 1858 in Henry County, Kentucky, to enslaved parents. After the Civil War, they moved to Booneville, Missouri.15W.A. Howard (1895), “Matthew O. Ricketts,” Biographical Sketches of the Nebraska Legislature, p.177 Upon moving to Omaha in 1880, Ricketts became a trailblazer in more ways than one. Working as a janitor at the Omaha Medical College (now the University of Nebraska Medical Center), he enrolled and graduated with high honors in 1884, becoming the first African-American to graduate medical school in Nebraska.16J.M. Wolfe (1895), “M.O. Ricketts,” Portrait Engravings of All the Members and Officers of the State Legislature, p.148 In 1892, he was elected to the Nebraska State House of Representatives as a Republican representing Douglas County,17Nebraska did not have single-member districts until after a Constitutional amendment in 1920. becoming the first black state legislator in Nebraska history. Dr. Ricketts was successful in his first term, securing passage of a landmark civil rights law which prohibited discrimination in public accommodations.18Editorial, “No better time to remember Nebraska’s civil rights pioneer,” Omaha World-Herald, Aug. 26, 2017. Sen. Robert Moore, who carried the bill in the State Senate, was elected Lt. Governor in 1894. Ricketts earned high praise from his colleagues and observers of the Legislature. “Dr. Ricketts is one of the best speakers in the house as well as a ready debater,” one biographical guide wrote.19Howard (1895), Biographical Sketches. He was reelected in 1894.

Ricketts’ bill passed the House at the end of March, a few days before the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn. Ricketts called the law “a stigma upon his race,” according to the Journal. “They had earned equality before the law.”20“Caucasians and Negros May Marry,” Nebraska State Journal, Mar. 31, 1895. Ultimately, the bill was the victim of a (perhaps convenient) process argument. There does not seem to have been any debate on the measure in the Senate, and the news accounts of the day did not find the passage of the bill, or even its veto, all that remarkable or controversial. But the circumstances of the final day of the Twenty-Fourth Nebraska Legislature were enough to provide Holcomb with an excuse to veto the bill.

The last day of the 1895 session of the Nebraska Legislature was chaotic and seemingly endless. A number of bills were left until the final hours, including an age of consent bill which Ricketts also supported, and the marriage bill. The World-Herald matter-of-factly reported on the Legislature’s work, still ongoing at a late hour on the morning of April 6, 1895. The passage of the marriage bill merited but a single sentence in its report.21“Gives Up The Ghost,” Omaha World-Herald, April 6, 1895. The bill passed the Senate without debate in the evening hours of April 5. The sensational details of the rest of the day’s business were left to the other papers to fill in, fixated on the fact that the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn at noon on April 5. “At 11:30 in the house and at an earlier hour in the senate the great clocks over the chairs of the presiding officials stopped through aid extended by the sergeant-at-arms with a step ladder,” the Nebraska State Journal wrote. “All through the day and the hours of the night the hands of the official time pieces declared the hour for adjournment had not yet arrived.”22“With Silent Clocks,” Nebraska State Journal, April 6, 1895. The Bee suggested something altogether more lurid. “Drunken orgie in cellar,” one heading announced.23“Its Tale Is Told,” Omaha Daily Bee, April 6, 1895. In the early morning hours of April 6, as the Bee tells it, “drunken men reeled about the hallway and danced on the lunch tables. Beer was free as water. Clerks, janitors, house and senate members were mixed up in one grand carnival of bacchanalian revelry.”24Id.

The Legislature finally adjourned sine die at 12:35 p.m. on April 6, 1895, over twenty-four hours after the scheduled time for adjournment. Ricketts struck a collegial tone, “urging the members to forget all partisan feeling upon returning to their homes and to part with assurances of good will.”25“End of Turmoil,” Lincoln Evening News, April 6, 1895. On April 11, Gov. Holcomb issued his veto message. The headline-grabbing veto was on a bill for a new Omaha City Charter, but Holcomb laid out his reasons for vetoing the marriage bill as well.

“[T]his measure was hurriedly passed during the closing hours of the legislative session, without consideration, many members afterward openly declaring that they did not know they had voted for the bill on its final passage,” Holcomb wrote.26“Vetoed The Omaha Charter,” Omaha Daily Bee, April 12, 1895. He argued that the bill could not possibly reflect the will of the people until it was given a full debate, and thus he was obligated to veto it.

Holcomb would be re-elected to another two-year term in 1896, while William Jennings Bryan would be the Democratic nominee for President. Ricketts would not run for re-election. Holcomb would later be elected to the Nebraska Supreme Court and serve as Chief Justice. But Nebraska’s law banning interracial marriage would survive another 68 years.

1970: “They’re In For A Surprise”

Described as “militant” in the press, a 33 year-old barber challenged the incumbent state senator for North Omaha’s 11th legislative district. Decades later, he is one of the most important figures in the history of Nebraska’s legislature, still serving at the age of 81.

Ernie Chambers was already a prominent civil rights activist by the time he ran for Legislature in 1970. In 1964, he petitioned for the removal of the racist story “Little Black Sambo” from Omaha Public Schools.1“‘Sambo’ Book Under Fire Again,” Associated Press, Dec. 12, 1964. In 1966, he appeared in the Oscar-nominated documentary “A Time For Burning.”2“A Time For Burning” | Library of Congress Then-mayor A.V. Sorensen said he would always meet with Chambers, “although he has heaped a lots of abuse on me.”3“Negro Community Has Leadership, But No Consensus,” Omaha Star, Mar. 11, 1966. In 1969, Chambers campaigned for Omaha City Council.4“Chambers To File For City Council,” Omaha Star, Jan. 23, 1969.

George Althouse, a Republican appointed by Governor Norbert Tiemann that year to fill the vacancy created by Sen. Edward Danner’s death, was the incumbent.5“Althouse, Troudt Appointed,” Lincoln Journal, Feb. 20, 1970. Danner, a Democrat,6“State Senator, 2 Other Demos File As Delegates,” Lincoln Star, Feb. 9, 1968. had sponsored several civil rights bills during his time in the Legislature,7“Sen. Danner, 69, Succumbs,” Associated Press, Jan. 27, 1970. including a successful repeal of Nebraska’s interracial marriage ban four years before Loving v. Virginia.8“Interracial Marriage Ban Repeal Bill OKd,” Lincoln Journal, Mar. 27, 1963; “Marriage Bill Hearing Monday,” Lincoln Star, Feb. 24, 1963. Initially, Althouse was not expected to run,9Don Walton, “20 Incumbent Senators Seek Re-Election,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 4, 1970. but ultimately filed for reelection. Chambers filed at the deadline to join Althouse and Michael Adams, grandson of former State Senator John Adams Sr., in the race.10Dick Herman, “Candidates Rush To Beat Deadline,” Lincoln Journal, Mar. 13, 1970. Chambers led the pack in the primary election, with Althouse finishing second and Adams in third. Althouse accused Adams and Chambers’ campaigns of “intimidating” his campaign workers.11“Althouse: ‘Workers Intimidated,'” Lincoln Star, Jun. 16, 1970.

Althouse did not get to officially serve or cast a vote in the Legislature until the special session in June 1970. But with his first floor speech, Althouse had already created controversy. “If it is [God’s] plan that the white man be in command,” Althouse told the Legislature, “there is nothing we can do about it, so let’s all join up and work together.”12“Althouse: Let’s Join And Work Together,” Lincoln Star, Jun. 17, 1970. Marian Danner Williams, the daughter of the late Sen. Edward Danner and a supporter of Chambers, criticized the remarks, saying they depicted God as a racist. Michael Adams accused Althouse of “plantation antics” and said that if he really felt that way, he should resign and hand his seat to “the first white man he can find.”13“Charges Fly In Race For Unicameral Seat,” Associated Press, Jun. 24, 1970. In the narrative of Ernie Chambers’ career this speech is often cited by media as the motivating factor in his run for Legislature.14Nicholas Riccardi, “Term limits will silence speaker of the Senate,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 24, 2007. But Chambers had been a candidate and already won a primary election before Althouse made the speech. So while it couldn’t have been the reason he decided to run, it may have at least added fuel to the fire.

Chambers himself, of course, was and is no stranger to controversial statements. Arguably, his no-holds-barred rhetoric contributed to his popularity. And he didn’t really care if it jeopardized his political standing. In the case of the death of Omaha Police Officer Larry Minard, Chambers said “he had no tears for the death of his ‘enemy.'”15“Chambers: Won’t Hide For Vote,” Lincoln Journal, Oct. 15, 1970. David Rice and Edward Poindexter, members of the Black Panther Party, were later tried and convicted for Minard’s murder, and became a cause celebre among those who believed that they were framed.16Lori Pilger, “After 45 years in prison, question remains: cop killer or political prisoner?,” Lincoln Journal Star, Dec. 11, 2016.

Chambers was unapologetic about his opinions. “If I am elected to the Unicameral, I don’t want it to be because I disguised what I think.”17“Police Catch Most Of Chambers’ Wrath,” Lincoln Journal, Sep. 22, 1970. He listed some signature issues, including prison reform, that would continue to dominate his legislative career over the decades. Chambers won the election in November, defeating Althouse by a 58-42 margin.18“Election At A Glance,” Lincoln Journal, Nov. 4, 1970. But some observers wondered whether Chambers would be able to work with the predominantly white Nebraska Legislature. He had an answer for them too.

“When I’m dealing with rational-reasonable men, I can be rational and reasonable,” Chambers told the Lincoln Journal. “They’re in for a surprise. Everyone is.”19Dick Mezzy, “Chambers and Althouse Campaign In Controversial Legislative Race,” Lincoln Journal, Oct. 22, 1970.

1982: “A Nice Christian City”

Days before Lincoln was to vote on a City Charter amendment that would add sexual orientation to the list of protected classes under the Lincoln Human Rights Ordinance, the leading opponent of the proposal made an explosive charge.

“Right now, here in Lincoln, there is a 4-year-old boy who has had his genitals almost severed from his body at Gateway [Shopping Center] in the rest room with a homosexual act,” Paul Cameron, chairman of the Committee to Oppose Special Rights for Homosexuals, told a church audience in Lincoln just over a week before the May 1982 primary election.1Kathryn Haugstatter, “Cameron Used False Report,” Lincoln Star, May 8, 1982. It wasn’t true. Cameron, who would later go on to found the Family Research Institute,2Paul Cameron | Southern Poverty Law Center admitted that it was a rumor. Lincoln Police said no such incident had occurred. But the outrageous rhetoric had its intended effect: the charter amendment failed by a nearly 4-to-1 margin.3Steven Stingley, “Gay Rights Advocates Say Issue Not Dead in Lincoln,” Omaha World-Herald, May 12, 1982.

The push to amend Lincoln’s anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation reached Lincoln’s government in 1981. Proponents organized a campus event at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to help garner support for the measure, which first had to be approved by the Lincoln Human Rights Commission.4Kent Warneke, “Panelists Support Gays’ Civil Rights,” Lincoln Journal, Oct. 9, 1981. Immediately, there were problems. The Lincoln City Attorney’s office took the position that any such change would require either a change to statute at the statewide level, or a change to the City Charter, which would require a vote of the people.5Haugstatter, “Panel debates gay ordinance,” Lincoln Star, Oct. 9, 1981. Three decades later, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, then himself a candidate for U.S. Senate in the Republican primary, would rely on that opinion to argue that Lincoln must submit a similar proposal to the voters as a charter amendment.6Nancy Hicks, “Undeterred by AG’s opinion, City Council will consider anti-discrimination ordinance,” Lincoln Journal Star, May 4, 2012.

Proponents pressed on, and the Lincoln Human Rights Commission held a public hearing on the proposed changes. In addition to the standard inflammatory moral rhetoric, opponents argued that the changes would protect people who engage in illegal activity, as sodomy was a crime in Nebraska.7George Hendrix, “Gay rights law debated,” Lincoln Star, Nov. 18, 1981. Lincoln Mayor Helen Boosalis said she would sign the measure if the City Council passed it.8“Boosalis has ‘no qualms’ about ratifying gay rights,” Lincoln Star, Nov. 19, 1981. The Commission made a unanimous recommendation to the City Council in favor of the amendment.9Hendrix, “Gay rights get panel support,” Lincoln Star, Dec. 2, 1981. Commission member Bob Kerrey, who would be a candidate for Governor in the upcoming election, would face criticism even from members of his own party for his vote.10“Gay Issue Stand Under Attack,” Omaha World-Herald, May 7, 1982.

But despite the support of the Human Rights Commission and Mayor Boosalis, the City Council delayed.11Hendrix, “Council delays voting on gay rights proposal,” Lincoln Star, Jan. 5, 1982. The City Attorney’s opinion provided the Council with the only excuse some members would need to avoid taking a controversial stand. They could punt the question to the voters, if they decided to take action at all. The Human Rights Commission again urged the Council to act, voting to request the Council to conduct a public hearing on the ordinance.”12L. Kent Wolgamott, “Rights Commission renews pressure for gay rights law,” Lincoln Journal, Jan. 6, 1982. The Nebraska Attorney General issued an opinion supporting Lincoln’s legal authority to pass an ordinance.13“Gays Applaud Legal Opinion,” Associated Press, Jan. 8, 1982. But the City Attorney’s office stood by its opinion, and the City Council decided to hold a hearing to place the measure on the ballot.14“Council to discuss scheduling gay rights vote,” Lincoln Journal, Feb. 2, 1982.

The public hearing on the proposal took place on March 1 and lasted for six hours. Roughly an hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin, the city received a threat stating that a bomb would go off during the meeting at 8 p.m.15David Swartzlander, “Sexual orientation amendment on May ballot,” Lincoln Journal, Mar. 2, 1982. Law enforcement cleared the building to search for an explosive device, but found nothing. Many people who showed up for the hearing did not remain after the search, and fewer still remained for the entire six-hour meeting. The final vote came after midnight.

With only two months to organize, proponents of the measure faced a steep uphill battle. Cameron organized a letter-writing campaign to create the appearance of opposition in the local newspapers.16“Group to campaign against gay rights,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 9, 1982. The letters were full of vile bigotry and homophobia with the veneer of religiosity. “Bias must exist in law in order that a society can preserve itself, and protect its citizens against harm,” one letter argued.17Douglas W. Mueller, “Bias must exist,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 17, 1982. “God declared the same penalty for homosexuality as for murder – death,” another wrote.18J. Wendel Howsden, “No approval,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 17, 1982. “Citizens for human rights should be dealing with people who are human,” one Omaha letter said, “not homosexuals.”19Thomas Anthony Fleming, “Lincoln, the Gay Capital?,” Omaha World-Herald, Apr. 16, 1982. The campaign itself took to making false and outrageous claims, like the mutilated child. They claimed the amendment would force businesses to hire homosexuals through affirmative action programs, and would provide protection against prosecution for rape, sodomy, and incest.20“Gay rights opponents’ ‘facts’ said wrong,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 18, 1982.

Proponents, meanwhile, failed to gain mainstream support. The Democratic Party was far from decided on the issue. Kerrey’s opponent in the primary election criticized him for supporting the proposal. DiAnna Schimek, then the leader of the Democratic Party, answered Republican criticism of the proposal by calling the matter “a local concern.”21“Republican Official Asks for Stand on Gays,” Associated Press, May 6, 1982. The Lincoln Chamber of Commerce opposed the amendment, citing the increased burdens they claimed it would place on businesses.22“Chamber supports jail bond issue,” Lincoln Star, Apr. 16, 1982. A poll conducted the week before the election showed the measure trailing 53-34.23Swartzlander, “Pollster: Gay rights measure won’t pass,” Lincoln Star, May 9, 1982. Ultimately, the proposal lost 78-22.

Opponents were jubilant at such a resounding victory. Some sought to press the advantage. “If Lincoln is to remain a nice Christian city… the Christians of this city must become more involved in politics other than on election day,” one op-ed in the Lincoln Journal said.24Doug Wehrli, “Must keep Lincoln a nice Christian city,” Lincoln Journal, May 19, 1982. But if there were any electoral ramifications for those who supported the proposal, they weren’t readily apparent. Bob Kerrey would go on to win the election for Governor in 1982, and later would go on to serve two terms as a U.S. Senator. Helen Boosalis was the Democratic nominee for Governor four years later when Kerrey declined to run for reelection. Proponents of the measure put on a brave face, calling the vote a “first step.”25Stingley, “Gay Rights Advocates Say Issue Not Dead in Lincoln,” Omaha World-Herald, May 12, 1982. But it would be a decade before a serious anti-discrimination proposal next arrived.

Hello Again!

I decided to restart this blog as a place to put some longform thoughts, and really start writing again. I’m going to try something a little bit different with this iteration: for a number of reasons I don’t want to spill a bunch of virtual ink over the political controversies of the moment. I do enough of that on Twitter. Instead, I’m looking to dive into some historical research, particularly as it relates to the Nebraska Legislature. With the possible exception of Ernie Chambers, most of the political figures I will discuss here are no longer in public office. But their stories are relevant and many of the issues discussed are still with us today.

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a Democratic political consultant in Omaha, Nebraska. I have worked for various campaigns including Heath Mello, Bob Krist, Jim Suttle, and Jim Esch, and consulted on a few others. From 2009-2013 I worked for Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle, who survived a tea party-backed recall effort but ultimately lost reelection. In 2016, I graduated from Creighton University School of Law and was admitted to the Nebraska state bar.

As I said, there’s going to be a heavy focus on historical topics here, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have contemporary relevance. Some things to look out for in the future: The history of efforts to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in Nebraska; Civil rights-era legislation; The first unicameral session; The last bicameral session; Key figures in the history of Nebraska politics; and historical elections.