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

John Fitzgerald

On the west side of the square, just north of the Humphrey Block on the northwest corner of Ninth and O streets, at 109–113 North Ninth Street stood a stone structure known as the Fitzgerald Building.

John Fitzgerald, one of Lincoln's most flamboyant and powerful boosters and entrepreneurs, had built the structure in 1880. From his offices in room number 6, overlooking the old courthouse and Government Square, Fitzgerald ran his contracting, livestock, real estate, railroad, street railways, and stock yard empire from 1880 until his death in 1895.

Downstairs was a wholesale grocery store in which he owned a one-third interest with R. A. Perry and Eli Plummer. Although local offices for the Irish National Land League were located there, the organization also kept a public event hall which Fitzgerald had built, on the east side of the Square at 120 Tenth Street. The hall became a center not only for the Irish National Land League, but also for the small state Democratic party.

Directly south of the Fitzgerald building, on the corner of Ninth and O streets, was a three-story building that housed Humphrey Brothers and Co., a wholesale and retail hardware store partially owned by Austin Humphrey, president of the Lincoln Board of Trade in the 1880s.

To the north of Fitzgerald's building a cluster of smaller structures was replaced in 1890 by the impressive Lincoln Hotel, in which Fitzgerald also had a financial interest. When finished and opened just after New Year's 1891, it became the frequent meeting place for politicians and boosters, statewide and local.

Across the Square on the other side of the courthouse, Fitzgerald served as president of the First National Bank, the offices of which were located in the prominent State Block on the south side of the Square for most of the 1880s.

Fitzgerald owned and occupied a range of properties in southeastern Nebraska throughout Lancaster, Cass, Gage, and Jefferson counties. In Lincoln he was one of the most successful capitalists who inhabited the city and at his death maintained an estate valued at over two million dollars.

A prominent booster in the city, Fitzgerald was known as the "foremost" contractor in the state who ventured, locally and nationally, in political and social organizations. In addition to serving as the president of the Irish National Land League from 1886 to 1890, he was a member of the Lincoln Board of Trade for whom he served on many committees, including the manufacturing committee.

The Board of Trade met at many locations over the twenty-two years it worked to expand Lincoln's economy. In the 1880s the group rented rooms for meetings in the Richards Block at 1104 O Street, which housed the Lincoln National Bank. Many meetings, however, also took place in Temple Hall at the State University, the District Court room, City Hall, and the Commercial Hotel (in the 1880s the Capital Hotel).

As part of this strategy Fitzgerald owned property in Gage and Jefferson counties, as well as over four thousand acres in and near West Lincoln which he used in connection with the Nebraska Stock Yards in which he owned a lot of stock.

After bringing a lawsuit against the Missouri Pacific Railroad to receive payment for services rendered, Fitzgerald joined partnership with his brother David to form Fitzgerald and Bros. which constructed a railway from Lincoln to Edgemont, South Dakota, for the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, as well as several lines to Colorado.

Fitzgerald was co-proprietor of the Fitzgerald-Mallory Construction Company and an avid real estate developer; as such he financed the construction of numerous business blocks that he rented as offices to lawyers and other professionals and as residences to local tenants.

He was also actively engaged in efforts to extend street railways throughout the city and had been involved in a long standing fight with John Sheedy about locating a line north on Twelfth Street past Sheedy's house at P Street—a fight which got into the newspapers in the first week of January 1891.

Fitzgerald's real estate interests also regularly clashed with the efforts of more traditional boosters located around Government Square, including John Sheedy, to use their property to create spaces for brothels, gambling halls, and saloons—not offices and grocery stores.

This struggle reached its high point when Fitzgerald ran for mayor as a reform candidate in 1885. When he lost a close election to Carlos Burr, a friend of John Sheedy's and frequent visitor to his casino, Fitzgerald contested the outcome.

On April 10, 1885, he appeared before the mayor and city council with his lawyers, Andrew J. Sawyer, Novia Snell, and Charles Whedon, in the city hall—then located in the engine house at 225 South Eleventh Street—to present his case for disputing the election. When they voted that the election results stood, Fitzgerald became an outspoken critic of Burr's corrupt mayoralty.

Over the years, therefore, although fellow Catholics, members of the Democrat party, the Irish Land League, and local fraternal organizations, John Fitzgerald and John Sheedy were increasingly regarded as adversaries. As an active participant in local and state politics, Fitzgerald became accustomed to frequenting city council meetings in the various buildings that housed city hall throughout the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s.

Though all his business was conveniently located on the square, near the courthouse and public offices, he maintained a large country house two miles southeast of the square. His residence was built in an Italianate style atop a parcel of land that extended across a low hill from A to D streets and Nineteenth to beyond Twentieth Street. The house itself was built on the west side of Twentieth Street between B and C streets.

When the mansion burned to the ground in 1892, Fitzgerald decided to reside in his office overlooking the square. As it turned out, this would be his last residence.

Burr, Carlos C. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Fitzgerald, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sawyer, Andrew J. [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Snell, Novia Z. [Brief Biography]
Whedon, Charles O. [Brief Biography]

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