The Gilded Age Plains City

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


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Spatial Narratives

Interpretation and Narrative

The Bench and Bar and Law and Order

From the earliest development of towns in the West, lawyers had played a central role in the development of a booster ethos. This was due not only to the fact that much of the work of boosters—railroad and infrastructure development and construction—involved complex legal issues, but also because law, as a profession, possessed a strong ethos of public service either through public office or contributing to public life as a citizen. Each of these were given further impetus by the evident fact that a prosperous town made for a good practice in law. Hence a healthy local bar was a sine qua non of a vigorous booster ethos in most towns.

In Lincoln, as elsewhere in the urban west, lawyers were among the first to arrive in town. As early as 1880, lawyers in town had come together to form the Lincoln Bar Association. Their monthly meetings in a downtown hotel forged the collegiality and friendships which enabled individuals to both work together and remain impartial in carrying out the law.

Initially, most lawyers in town located their offices in smaller structures clustered around the Main Post Office Square at Tenth and Eleventh and O streets. The First National Bank Block at 1041 O Street, and the Richard's Block 1104 O Street, were especially crowded with lawyers.

Among these early practitioners of the law were Stephen Pound, a New Yorker, who arrived in 1870 and set up a law office at Ninth and P streets. He later became a U. S. District Court judge.

His son, Roscoe Pound, attended the University where he received a degree in botany in 1888. The following year he attended Harvard Law School and then returned to Lincoln to practice law, which he did until in 1899 he became Dean of the University of Nebraska College of Law, a position he held through 1907. Pound left Lincoln to teach law at Northwestern, then the University of Chicago, and finally his alma mater, Harvard University in 1910. In 1916 he became Dean of Harvard Law school, a position he held through 1936, during which time he became one of the most eminent jurists in the country.

The Burr Block

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The 1888 completion of the Burr block, built by Carlos C. Burr, a lawyer and developer—head of the Lincoln Land and Development Company—and member of both the Board of Trade and the Union Club, drew numerous lawyers to establish offices in his new building at Twelfth and O streets. At six floors, the elaborate stone building with its Queen crenulations on the O Street façade was Lincoln's highest office building and set a new standard in urbanity for Lincoln. Even as Burr was completing it, lawyers lined up to rent offices in the prestigious new building.

Among the prominent lawyers who moved into the Burr Block and worked side by side, and interacted every day in the Burr block at 1204 S Street, were partners Stephen Pound and C. C. Burr, who had their offices in rooms 98–100, on the top floor of the structure.i

Other prominent law firms were Harrison and Eddy, Heiskell and Scott, Clark and Allen, Adolphus Talbot and recently arrived William Jennings Bryan, and counsel of the law department of the Burlington and Missouri Railroad, Marquett, De Weese and Hall. The latter firm, founded in 1880 by Turner Marquett and Frank M. Hall, was located in rooms 79–84, apparently on the fifth or sixth floor, and, by 1890, "one of the most successful law firms in Nebraska."ii

For the first year or two of his work at Talbot and Bryan, William Jennings Bryan apparently "economized by sleeping on the couch in his office, preparing his own meals, and doing his own janitorial service."iii

In between these "law firm" offices—most of whom painted their firm names on the windows—characterized by white painted walls, a series of roll top desks and tables and chairs, and barrister book cases filled with leather-bound law reports and statute books that lined the walls, crowded single practitioners.

Though we have no photos of a contemporary law office, we do know that offices in general were, at the time, dingy affairs.

Bryan, a Democrat, though politically odd man out of the local Republican culture, was still an active member of it from the time of his arrival in Lincoln.

Among the solo lawyers in the building were N. C. Abbott (city attorney), J. S. Bishop, A. L. Frost, W. F. Kelley, H. Mansfield, G. C. St. John, Samuel J. Tuttle, a former partner of Nathan S. Harwood, H. J. Whitmore (briefly police judge in 1887), Genio M. Lambertson, and Charles G. Dawes. Samuel J. Tuttle had his office in rooms 74–75 on the fourth floor of the building.iv

Lambertson, a resident of Lincoln since 1874, had, through a series of important railroad cases, as counsel for the city council, and as city attorney in the late 80s, established himself as one of the most prominent lawyers in the city. In 1895, soon after the death in December 1894 of Turner Marquett in Florida, where he had gone to recover his broken health, G. M. Lambertson joined Marquett's partner Frank Hall in the firm of Lamberston and Hall.v

Dawes had moved to the Burr block about 1890 from his first office which he shared with Harwood, Ames, and Kelly around the corner on South Eleventh to gain access to their library. When Dawes' father came to Lincoln to visit on October 26, 1891, Dawes "called on Lambertson and a great may others" in the Burr block and was delighted when "Mr. Burr took us on top of the Burr block for a view."vi (Figure 1) (Figure 2) (Figure 3) (Figure 4) (Figure 5) (Figure 6) (Figure 7) (Figure 8)

Aside from participating in monthly meetings, lawyers were closely associated with the Board of Trade, the Union Club, and other clubs in towns. One study has found that seventy percent of the town's lawyers were members of at least one club, and most of those were members of two or more clubs. Lawyers, in particular, were heavily represented in the Masons, the Lincoln Commercial Club, and the Knights of Pythias.

Though the Union Club was predominantly a businessmen's club, there were also a few lawyer members over the years, including C. C. Burr, J. W. DeWeese, Frank M. Hall, Genio M. Lambertson, William Jennings Bryan, Charles Gates Dawes,vii Roscoe Pound, and N. C. Abbott.

The Round Table, a nonpartisan debating club, was founded on the model of law school debating societies, by William Jennings Bryan and his partner Adolphus Talbot in early 1891. Among other lawyers who were early members, as mentioned by businessman Charles Gates Dawes, a lawyer, businessman, and member in 1893, were Nathan S. Harwood, member of the firm of Harwood, Ames, and Kelley, who were associated with the Lincoln National Bank, Henry Lewis, Judge A. S. Tibbetts, and Allen W. Field.

From his first week in Lincoln, Harwood had been Dawes' mentor, and Fields his sponsor, as it was Fields who made the motion before Judge Chapman to swear in Dawes as a practicing attorney in Nebraska in June 1887.viii Soon thereafter, Albert Watkins, postmaster and lawyer, and Henry H. Wilson, Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska Law College, were members along with Frank M. Hall, who apparently added to the club's activities by preceding the prepared lecture on an important topic of the day by one of the members with a dinner. (Figure 9) (Figure 10) (Figure 11)

In general, before 1910, lawyers constituted more than half the membership of the small exclusive debating and dining club. Other clubs that followed, The Candlelight Club and the Fork and Knife, likewise attracted a certain share of lawyers, for whom club membership was a way to deepen and extend their connections with members of the booster ethos.ix

Bryan, William Jennings [Brief Biography]
Burr, Carlos C. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Dawes, Charles Gates [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Deweese, Joel W. [Brief Biography]
Field, Allen W. [Brief Biography]
Hall, Frank M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Lambertson, Genio M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Marquett, Turner M. [Brief Biography]
Whitmore, Howard James [Brief Biography]

Law and Order

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Interacting with members of the booster ethos, and the local bar, were the myriad of officials elected to local office or positions in the city government who spent their days in and around Government and Haymarket Square. This realm of politics drew in individuals from business, the press, and law.

For many years, the majority party in town, the Republican party, had it headquarters at the Windsor Hotel.

The Lindell Hotel, on Thirteenth Street south of O Street, served a similar purpose for both the Democratic and Temperance parties. It was in the Lindell Hotel that William Jennings Bryan, with the aid of his brother Charles W., launched his 1890 congressional campaign, as well as his three unsuccessful bids for the Presidency. In 1901 the Bryans joined together to publish a weekly newspaper, The Commoner, from offices on Twelfth Street just south of O Street about two blocks from Bryan's law offices. The "old" Lindell was also occasionally the site for Round Table and other club meetings through the years.

So too, the realm of government clustered around Government Square formed the space of law and order. The central building of the square was, of course, the old Post Office. Built in 1876 it housed the Post Office and, on the second floor, some federal offices and district and county courtrooms. The district attorney's office was on the second floor.

For years, city government was located on or near Government Square. At first, city hall was located in the engine house at 225 South Eleventh Street. City council meetings were held here until around 1878 or 1879 when a new "City Hall block" was built on the south side of O Street between Ninth and Tenth streets opposite the U. S. Post Office. Around 1883 the municipal government moved back to the engine house at 225 South Eleventh Street, where it shared space with the fire department again.

Sometimes during Mayor Carlos Burr's term, perhaps in 1886, the city built a new engine house and city hall on the northwest corner of Tenth and Q streets at 305 Tenth Street. The fire department maintained two engine houses until the old engine house at 225 South Eleventh Street was destroyed to make room for a new business block. In the twentieth century, City Hall would move into the old United States Post Office building after a new federal building was built on Government Square.

The modest building on the southwest corner of Haymarket Square (Figure 12) also housed police headquarters. Samuel Melick's office was at 303 North Tenth Street directly north of the fire station. The city jail was located north of his office at 309 North Tenth Street. The jail is shown in a photo of the Haymarket Square (Figure 13) —taken in the early twentieth century. It is in the two-story building on the right side of the photo. It was situated on the far left (or north) side of the building north of the police headquarters and the engine house—which are both further south in the same building.

County business was taken care of in a small building on South Eleventh Street just south of O Street. In 1891, district and county business moved into the magnificent new Lancaster County Courthouse between Ninth and Tenth streets and J and K streets. (Figure 14)

The Sheedy trial took place in the large double-vaulted two-story courtroom with elaborate wood paneling, on the second floor. County offices occupied the first floor. An atrium in the center of the building rose to the cupola under a narrow dome. Along the hall around the cupola on the third floor and down side hallways were other various county and federal offices. To the southeast, the hall had windows that overlooked the double-vaulted federal court room below.

iPound and Burr, Attorneys at Law to Samuel Chapman, 27 May 1889, Samuel Chapman Papers, Nebraska State Historical Society.

iiAndrew B. Koszewski, "William Jennings Bryan's Law Practice in Nebraska" (M. A. Thesis, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1991), 23.

iiiLincoln City Guide, Federal Writer's Project (Lincoln, 1937), 30.

ivSamuel J. Tuttle to Samuel Chapman, 4 June 1889, Samuel Chapman Papers, Nebraska State Historical Society.

v"The Bench and Bar of Nebraska," Omaha World Herald, 9 May 1899.

viCharles Gates Dawes Diary, 24 May 1887, 26 October 1891, Northwestern University.

viiCharles Gates Dawes, A Journal of the McKinley Years, 34.

viiiCharles Gates Dawes Diary, 24 May 1887, Northwestern University.

ixEdwin Jerome Faulkner, "Nights of the Round Table," typewritten copy of paper delivered at Round Table Club on 5 February 1973, Nebraska State Historical Society.

Bryan, William Jennings [Brief Biography]
Burr, Carlos C. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Melick, Samuel M. [Brief Biography]

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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