The Gilded Age Plains City

The Great Sheedy Murder Trial and the Booster Ethos of Lincoln, Nebraska


Explore the City

Spatial Narratives

Interpretation and Narrative

What's What — A Glossary of Terms

Bench and Bar

Between 1885 and 1890 the number of lawyers in Lincoln dramatically increased reflecting the growing trend in the United States to study law. A significant portion of the new middle class was composed of the rising number of attorneys in urban centers. Attorneys did not succeed alone but relied on a larger social group of lawyers — represented clearly in the numbers of local, state, and national bar associations that burgeoned in the Gilded Age. The bar associations were social, not political, groups, and were crucial to the success of any aspiring attorney. Some members of Lincoln's bench and bar culture became politicians on the national scene — most notably William Jennings Bryan and Charles Gates Dawes.

Booster Ethos

Early in Lincoln's development, men from different sectors of society came together to further the town's growth. In an effort to attain maximum economic growth these men often were willing to restrain their personal values and opinions and work with others who did not share their lifestyle. The men who forged the booster ethos came from a variety of occupations — the bulk being attorneys, politicians, farmers, and businessmen. Organizations such as the Lincoln Board of Trade, the Lincoln Commercial Club, the Union Club, and the Chamber of Commerce provided the impetus that boosters used to accomplish their social and economic goals. In the 1870s boosters played an instrumental role in bringing multiple railroad lines through Lincoln.

Burr Block

The Burr Block was completed in 1888 as Lincoln's tallest building. Built at the northeast corner of Twelfth and O Street, it was located in the heart of Lincoln's downtown where most of the city's lawyers and other professionals situated their offices.

Capital Hotel

One of Lincoln's elegant hotels in the downtown area, the Capital Hotel was the location for political meetings.

Circumstantial Evidence

By placing an accused person in a certain circumstance, or location, with a certain motivation, and the opportunity to do what they are accused of doing, a lawyer argues, without first-hand evidence, that a defendant in fact did as charged. Judge Allen Field felt that the case against Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland was based, McFarland's confession aside, on such evidence; therefore, he provided in his instructions to the jury extensive discussion of the meaning of the term.

Citizens' Reform Party

In the mid-1880s many of Lincoln's boosters sought to suppress the influence of saloons, gambling halls, and bordellos through political action. To accomplish this goal, groups such as the Citizens' Reform Party ran local candidates for public office. Two Lincoln mayors in the Gilded Age, Andrew Sawyer and Austin Weir, ran on the Citizens' Reform Ticket.

Sawyer, Andrew J. [Brief Biography]
Weir, Austin H. [Brief Biography]


Like most railroad towns burgeoning across the United States during the Gilded Age, Lincoln had a distinct entertainment section of the city. The demimonde in Lincoln was located basically on P Street between the passenger depot and Twelfth Street. The side streets in this area, particularly Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh, were included in the demimonde as well. Lincoln's demimonde included around twenty saloons, a few casinos, and a number of brothels.

Farmers' Alliance

As the economy of the entire United States took a turn for the worse in the 1890s, it affected farmers severely. Many farmers blamed their failure on the railroad companies because the high cost of shipping their products made it impossible to turn a decent profit. The Farmers' Alliance, a political group, formed out of this conflict and rapidly gained membership and support in Nebraska.

Irish National Land League

In the 1880s, Lincoln was home to a chapter of the Irish Land League of America headed by the successful capitalist, John Fitzgerald. The Land League and the Irish National League of America combined in 1883, and Patrick Egan was elected head of the new organization, the Irish National League, shortly after his arrival in Lincoln; he transferred League headquarters to the city in 1884.

Fitzgerald, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

Knights of Pythias

Lincoln's first fraternal organization, the Knights of Pythias met regularly in a hall in the State Block at Tenth and O streets where they held banquets. They additionally organized parades and other public events for the citizens of Lincoln.

Ladies' Temperance Society

As in many localities, Lincoln's anti-alcohol movement began with the women of the community. In 1874 a group of around fifteen members of the society marched into many of the saloons, including Quick's saloon.

Law and Order League

In the fall of 1885, after numerous attempts to suppress illegal liquor sales, gambling, and prostitution, members of Lincoln's reformist middle (and upper) class formed the Law and Order League. The goal of the organization was to reduce crime and poverty by reducing the number of saloons and eliminating brothels and gambling halls. They employed their own police officers who assisted the city's police force in the administration of laws that normal officers would not or could not enforce. The League additionally employed attorneys to prosecute offenders. Ultimately, the Law and Order League failed in Lincoln.

Lincoln Board of Trade

The Lincoln Board of Trade was one of the male social organizations that represented the booster ethos in early Lincoln. A group of men formed the Board of Trade in July of 1874 in order "to promote and facilitate commercial and manufacturing interests" in the city and elected Charles H. Gere as their first president. The board met, often in the University's Temple Hall, to discuss ways of expanding Lincoln's economy. By the mid-1880s the group maintained a membership of around two hundred, including Andrew J. Sawyer, Carlos C. Burr, and Isaac M. and A. S. Raymond during the Gilded Age. The Lincoln Board of Trade apparently ceased to exist around 1892.

Burr, Carlos C. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sawyer, Andrew J. [Brief Biography]

Lincoln Commercial Club

The Lincoln Commerical Club was a male organization that sought promototion and economic development of the city.

Male Sub-culture

Nineteenth Century United States did not exhibit a monolithic culture but instead had multiple cultures that interacted with one another. The male sub-culture, a culture that revolved around saloons, casinos, and brothels, was one of the primary cultures to rival the middle class ethos of gentility, moral reforms, and temperance. Historians have also referred to the male sub-culture as the male sporting sub-culture thus reflecting the importantance of prostitution in its creation.

Prohibition Party

Although it never reached the level of success of the Republicans and Democrats, the Prohibition Party was an active force in Lincoln during the 1880s, primarily fighting against the consumption of alcohol. In 1885, former mayor Harvey Wesley Hardy ran in the mayoral contest under the party. He came in, however, at a distant third place.

Hardy, Harvey Wesley [Brief Biography]

Red Ribbon Club

The Red Ribbon Club was Lincoln's most active temperance organization in the Gilded Age. John B. Finch founded the group in November of 1877 after a rousing temperance lecture. By 1878 the Red Ribbon Club had secured the signatures of twenty-five hundred people in Lincoln and forty-seven thousand in all of Nebraska pledging to live a life of temperance. The group maintained a public hall at Twelfth and T streets.

Reformist Boosters

As members of Lincoln's booster ethos became increasingly divided as to how to deal with the continued prevalence of the influence of saloons, brothels, and casinos in Lincoln, reformist boosters sought to use increasingly draconian measures to deal with the situation.

Round Table Club

The Round Table Club was a literary society founded by William Jennings Bryan and his law partner Adolphus Talbot. The group also included such noted men as Andrew J. Sawyer, Charles Gates Dawes, and John J. Pershing. Although officially gathered as a literary society, the Round Table Club provided the opportunity for Lincoln's leaders to debate the current political, legal, and business issues in a non-partisan fashion. The club continues to exist to the present day.

Bryan, William Jennings [Brief Biography]
Dawes, Charles Gates [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sawyer, Andrew J. [Brief Biography]


Like most urbanized areas in the United States, Lincoln experienced a rampant problem with prostitution in the Gilded Age. The Tenderloin was the section in Lincoln, located south of O Street between Ninth and Tenth streets, where many of the city's brothels operated. Many of these Tenderloin establishments were located in standard houses and looked much like other residences.

"Third House"

In the antebellum period it had become a routine practice among state legislators of Illinois to adjourn the session and then reconvene a spoof session of the legislature in the hallway immediately thereafter, allowing individuals to voice matters typically left unsaid. This spoof session was often called the "third house." The practice spread throughout the Midwest as other legislators called less formally convened spoof sessions. Like the "mock courts" traditionally held by lawyers the evening after the court session adjourned, the spoof legislative sessions were full of banter, sarcasm, and fun and thus served as excellent exercises in blowing off steam and getting better acquainted. By the Gilded Age, some legislators had carried these sessions into nearby taverns or bars, opening them to lobbyists who became a more important part of the process. In Hamlin Garland's lesser known novel, A Member of the Third House, A Dramatic Story (1892) the "third house" is portrayed as the realm where lobbyists sought to influence legislators lubricated by the tavern and saloon environment.

Traditional Boosters

In the 1880s the attorneys, businessmen, and other middle class men attempting to expand Lincoln's economy became increasingly divided as to what qualified as legitimate business. Traditional boosters believed that any form of business, whether it be alcohol sales, prostitution, or gambling, was ultimately tolerable because it contributed to Lincoln's growth — economically and otherwise.

True Womanhood

Historians developed the concept of "true womanhood" to help understand gender in the Nineteenth Century United States. The concept encompasses a range of values associated with "respectable" woman that emereged during the time period, including domesticity, purity, and piety.

Union Club

An exclusive Lincoln booster organization, the Union Club formed as a "social club to promote the sociability, instruction, entertainment, and amusement" of its select thirty-five members. The club soon acquired the elitist "reputation as the leading social institution" of the city, and as Lincoln grew so too did the number of applicants and rejections for membership. To allot for the expanding population, membership restrictions were raised to 50 in 1881, 75 in 1882, 100 near 1888, and over 125 in 1892. During this time, the club rooms also expanded, moving in 1881 from small rooms in a building around Tenth and O streets to rooms in the "upper story of Walsh's Building" at Eleventh and O. In December, 1888, the Union Club relocated to rooms on the third story of Zehring's Block at Twelfth and N streets. Finally, in 1889, they settled at 141 South Twelfth Street, just south of the Burr Block. Among the members who were involved in the Sheedy case, directly and indirectly, and who must have discussed the case in club rooms were Carlos C. Burr, Joel Deweese, Elmer S. Dudley, Robert B. Graham, Robert E. Moore, Charles Whedon, Frank Hall, Genio M. Lambertson, William J. Bryan, Lionel C. Burr, and Allen W. Field. Although C. G. Dawes is not named in the minute books for the club, he does mention going there in his diary.

Bryan, William Jennings [Brief Biography]
Burr, Carlos C. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Burr, Lionel C. [Brief Biography]
Dawes, Charles Gates [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Deweese, Joel W. [Brief Biography]
Field, Allen W. [Brief Biography]
Graham, Robert B. [Brief Biography]
Hall, Frank M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Lambertson, Genio M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Moore, Robert Emmett [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Whedon, Charles O. [Brief Biography]

University of Nebraska

The University of Nebraska was chartered as a Land-Grant institution on February 15, 1869, and welcomed its first students on September 7, 1871. The campus originally occupied the four square blocks between R and T streets and Tenth and Twelfth streets, and housed the four-story building, University Hall.

Unruly Women

To the dismay of its advocates, both male and female, many women in Lincoln, and throughout the United States, did not conform to True Womanhood, a concept that upheld values such as domesticity, purity, and piety. Instead, many women chose not to marry and sought to survive through other means, and, given the limited choices granted to women in the Nineteenth Century, many decided that a life of prostitution would be their best option.

Women's Christian Temperance Movement

Located in the Burr Block, the Lincoln chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement was organized in 1875, joining other local temperance groups in the fight against alcohol.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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