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

John Sheedy

John Sheedy, a noted booster, real estate developer, gambler, and "sporting man," lived a very public life. His notoriety was based on his highly visible casino on the second floor of Gus Sander's saloon on the southeast corner of Tenth and P streets just across from Govenrment Square.

He was also a well-known figure in other taverns, saloons in the area, and, in the words of one report, was "one of the best known of Lincoln's citizens and for years a conspicuous figure on the streets and around the hotel lobbies" ("Will Prove a Murder.," Lincoln Daily Call January 12, 1891) in the "Uptown district." Most visitors to Lincoln in 1890 would have heard about him or even seen him within hours of their arrival. Following John Sheedy around Lincoln can give us a good sense of what life was like for him and others in the male subculture in the heart of a Gilded Age Plains city.

Read More about John Sheedy's spatial narrative by following him around town.

The Casino

John Sheedy first appears in the local records in the late 1870s when he joined in a partnership with Tunis P. Quick, owner of a three-story saloon, hotel, and boarding house building he had constructed a few years before on the northeast corner of Government Square. As early as 1880 he was running a gambling casino on the second floor of this three-story building. There were boarding rooms on the second floor next to Sheedy's casino and the entire third floor was used for rooms as well.

Sheedy's casino, above Sanders' saloon in the Quick building at 146 North Tenth Street was the primary venue of the uptown district which operated primarily on the east and north sides of Government Square. It was visible from the west all the way down P Street at the Burlington depot, from the east back towards Sheedy's house. From the south and west across the square, it dominated the corner's enclosure.

The gambling hall was on the second floor of the Quick building, clearly marked as a gambling establishment on the insurance maps of the time. Sheedy's casino, which offered a range of gambling options from "stud horse" poker, roulette, "dice and boxes" and a "hazzard table" (State vs John Sheedy et al) (State vs John Sheedy et al) (State vs John Sheedy et al) to a "faro bank," "was crowded at all hours by a large clientele" including Mayor Carlos C. Burr and prominent members of the town elite.

Besides gambling, one could also enjoy a drink and socialize with "women of the town," "sporting women" or other working class women in town. The fact that by 1891 Sheedy had acquired a quarter interest in Quick's building and operated the casino with Sanders reflects the central role he played as a "sporting man" in Lincoln's male subculture.

In 1891, August (or Gus) Sanders, Sheedy's associate, lived above the saloon he operated on the first floor with his brother H. J. Sanders. Their business, H. J. Sanders and Co., dealt wines, liquors, and cigars in addition to being wholesale agents for the Schlitz Brewing Co. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This saloon, operated by Tunis P Quick before his death in 1887, was, for a long time, the "quasi official headquarters of many fraternal orders" and a meeting place of a "select patronage" of town boosters, businessmen, club men, workers, gamblers and other men from the demimonde. (WPA, Guide, p. 23)

As chief of the Lincoln fire department for fifteen years, a city commissioner for two, a fellow member, with Sheedy, of the Knights of Pythias, and a wealthy stockman, Quick turned his saloon into an unofficial clubhouse for each constituency and the booster ethos in general.

Sheedy's casino generated two separate groups interested in its closing.

On the one hand, John Sheedy was a hard-headed businessman who sought to protect his interest and hard-won turf by out competing and eliminating other gambling establishments. One person noted that he was the "king among gamblers and excited jealousy among competitors" ("Closing the Sheedy Case," Semi Weekly State Journal May 29, 1891) .

In his efforts to establish a monopoly he provided the best services at the most reasonable prices and, in the eyes of other gamblers, employed unfair tactics and brute force to intimidate others to prevent them from competing. He also aggressively protected the genteel venue of his casino by guarding the door and cracking down hard on patrons who did not or could not pay or who became disorderly.

Finally, he also protected his casino by an arrangement in which he paid monthly "rent" to the local police and police judge to look the other way and not raid his establishment or prosecute for violation of the local anti-gambling code. This kept him from the continual threat of being "pulled"—raided and shut down—that other gamblers routinely faced in their efforts to open a casino.

On the other hand, Sheedy's casino, by flouting local laws against gambling drew the ire of local reformers. Rather than operating at some secluded location, Sheedy's casino stood brazenly just across from the Court House and a block south of the Police Station at Tenth and Q streets, thus openly challenging police and reform groups who wanted to eliminate vice or at least push the entertainment district out of the core of downtown to act.

Sheedy thus became the target of reformers and reformists groups who made numerous attempts, some as early as the mid-1870s, to arrest him and shut down his casino. His arrest record places him at the casino twice in 1885, again on January 20, 1886, as part of a new initiative by the Law and Order League—though in this case Sheedy was not at the casino as he had been injured in an assault the night before on P Street—and again on June 21, 1887—, though he was probably there most evenings.

Each time the casino closed for a while only to be reopened. Sheedy's successful gambling business did not come without his making enemies who did not refrain from attacking him right on the premises of his business. In addition to the Patterson assault, Sheedy was also assaulted another time in front of the casino in 1888 and then again on December 9, 1890, just a month before his murder.

We also know Sheedy occasionally lived at the casino, or used the rooms in the building, in the 1870s and early 1880s when he was frequently changing his residence before building his house at the corner of Twelfth and P streets. After boardng in various places around the square, Sheedy, in about 1880, began boarding at the new elegant Arlington Hotel on the northeast corner of Ninth and Q streets.

While a resident there he met and began to have a relationship with Mary Merrill, a hotel employee who had separated from her second husband in November 1880 and had begun to patronize the bars and taverns of P Street, in particularly Sheedy's casino. It is not clear if they met in the casino or the hotel.

Mary and John began a relationship and soon moved in together in rooms in the Quick building for a while in 1881 or 1882. Afterwards, Sheedy apparently had regular access to rooms next to his casino where, as "an all around sport" he, according to Genio Lambertson, the prosecuting attorney in Mary Sheedy and Monday McFarland's trial, indulged in liaisons with other women before and after marrying Mary.

Burr, Carlos C. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Lambertson, Genio M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Quick, Tunis P. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sanders, August (Gus) [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

The Uptown District

In his actions over the year John Sheedy had had interactions with nearly every place along the block at some point over the years. His "spatial narrative" was in many ways the spatial narrative of the larger demimonde and male subculture in which he lived.

In 1891, the block on the west side of the Government Square, shown in a photo "Looking north on Tenth Street" in the distance of the east side of Twelfth between O and P streets was one of the primary blocks where the men of Lincoln's male subculture (like Sheedy) spent their time, as it contained three saloons (one with billiards), a retail liquor dealer, a shooting gallery, and two barbershops.

Richard Sweeney's barbershop was located in the building directing south of the Quick building. Monday McFarland, Sheedy's barber and protégé, had worked here as a barber before he worked for Beverly Crampton diagonally across the street at 930 P Street, but must have still maintained a position, or occasionally shaved Sheedy there rather than at Cramptons, as the day after the Sheedy's death, he went back to Sweeney's to retrieve John Sheedy's shaving mug.

At 138 North Tenth was a retail liquor store run by Louis A. Ksensky. The building directly south at 132 North Tenth was a saloon owned and operated by Patrick M. Keeney and Patrick O'Gara in 1891. Mary and John had lived upstairs in this building in the mid 1880s before moving to their new house at 1211 P Street. Police raided this building in January 1885 and C. W. Jones was arrested for keeping a "bawdy house" just days before they try to "pull" John Sheedy down the street.

The Excelsior Cigar Factory, owned by G. R. Wolf, was located in the next building to the south at 128 North Tenth. The Ivy Leaf Saloon, at 124 North Tenth, was directly south of the cigar factory. This prominent saloon in the "male subculture," operated by William Gleason and George Bradsheen in 1891, had club rooms and a casino upstairs. ("Closing the Sheedy Case," Semi Weekly State Journal May 29, 1891)

Over the years they and Sheedy were competitors in their business and apparently adversaries. A shooting gallery owned by Rodecker and Fisk, where the well-known gun owner Sheedy possibly could have practiced shooting his revolver, was located at 122 North Tenth Street. Directly south of the shooting gallery at 120 North Tenth Street the Irish National Land League maintained a large lodge hall where Sheedy must have spent time as a member of that organization.

At the far south end of the block at 100–102 North Tenth was the Union Block where the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad ticket office was located. Other small businesses, such as W.A. Miller's barbershop, and offices were situated in the Union Block. These buildings further south on the block are visible in a variety of images of Government Square taken from atop of the new Lincoln Hotel.

McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

Courthouse and O Street

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John Sheedy's other spatial venues were the courthouse and P Street. He had appeared in court, before the police judge, the county court judge, and in the district court, a number of times over the years. On August 1, 1887, he appeared before the city council, which sometimes met in the courthouse for lack of room in the city building up on the Haymarket, to file complaints of blackmail and embezzlement against Albert Parsons, a corrupt police judge.

Sheedy would have also been acquainted with the west side of Government Square where the Irish National Land League maintained an office in one of John Fitzgerald's buildings at 111 North Ninth Street. Nearby, he attended meetings of the Knights of Pythias at its rooms in the State Block. (Figure 1) (Figure 2)

The State Block was across the street from the ticket office on the southeast corner of Tenth and O streets. The building was three stories high and had offices in the basement. The First National Bank was located in this building in 1891. (Figure 3)

John Fitzgerald, Sheedy's adversary, succeeded Amasa Cobb as president of the First National Bank and retained that position until around 1889. Andrew J. Sawyer, another Sheedy adversary, served as the vice-president of the First National Bank at the time of his death in 1924.

In 1891 the Knights of Pythias Hall was also located in the State Block. Also located in this building, indicated by the barber pole on the lower right (Figure 4) , was the barbershop, Harris&Crampton, where both Peter Crampton and his wife Beverly worked before Beverly moved her business to 930 P Street, directly west of the Sheedy building, around 1890 or 1891. Monday McFarland began working at Harris&Crampton in late 1890.

Crampton, Peter [Brief Biography]
Fitzgerald, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Parsons, Albert F. [Brief Biography]
Sawyer, Andrew J. [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

P Street

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The Sheedy Building

Increasingly, however, John Sheedy's interests turned toward the north side of the square on P Street. In the mid 1880s, as his gambling establishment continued to be fairly profitable, he acquired the fourth lot east of Tenth Street and proceeded to build his own building. Shown in the photo of block 34, (Figure 5) the Sheedy building is the fourth building in from the east (or the right) side of the block.

The three-story building was made of iron, granite, Buffalo Gap stone, and pressed brick. To give the building a look of gentility the entire front of the building was decorated with carved stone and was topped off with an elaborate copper cornice. Sheedy built the structure at a cost of twenty-five thousand dollars and it was completed in 1888. "The Sheedy building," as it came to be known, contained twenty-five rooms for lodging on the third floor and a public hall on the second floor.

In 1891 the Hotel Mack, under the proprietorship of J. C. McHaffie, was located in this building. Apparently, the Hotel Mack functioned as a brothel. When this building was first completed, Sheedy placed it in the hands of W. W. Carder, a future night captain of the police force and one of the first "trustees" of the newly created town of Lincoln in 1868. Carder, who was also one of Charles H. Gere's first business partners as he attempted to build a major press in Lincoln, ran the European Hotel and a restaurant in the building.

Directly west of the Sheedy Building at 930 P Street was the Coffield block. This is the building where Beverly Crampton, the wife of barber Peter Crampton, owned a barbershop where Monday McFarland was employed in 1891 at the times of John Sheedy's murder. Nearly every day in late 1890 and the last days of his life, Sheedy got a shave at Crampton's barbershop.

The Nebraska State Journal Building, where Charles H. Gere was editor in chief, is shown on the far west (left) side of the block. To the east of the Mack Hotel, on the corner facing Sheedy's casino, was Hurlburt's Gents Clothing. With a small meeting room in back and adjacent to a saloon behind it, and the St. Elmo Hotel next to it on Tenth Street, the store became a popular venue to gather among "sporting men" and "gents" in town. (Figure 6)

John and Mary Sheedy's House

Sheedy's interests in P Street extended east when he purchased a much sought-after lot two blocks east on the southeast corner of Twelfth and P streets, just north of the Burr Block, being erected by his friend and "client," Mayor Carlos C. Burr. There, on the west edge of the residential district to the east, Sheedy, after living in hotels and boarding rooms for most of his adult life, had a mid-sized four or five-room wooden house built around 1884.

He also later purchased the lot on the corner, to the west of his house, for possible future development, but for years he left it vacant as part of his yard. [1] Though no known photo exists of the house, we have an image from a bird's-eye view, a diagram from an insurance map, and various descriptions from testimony at the 1891 Sheedy murder trial. A detailed diagram of the house was submitted as evidence at the trial but it has not survived.

A circa 1908 postcard of the Burr Block shows the trees and a corner of a smaller building behind, perhaps a corner of the Sheedy house. Likewise, another photo taken in 1889 from atop the Burr Block looking north, looks over the top of the house to the boarding house across the street. (Figure 7) A similar view "Northeast from the Roof of Burr's Block" showed the residential neighborhood to the east of the Sheedy house. (Figure 8) The house stood twelve feet from the sidewalk on the south side of P Street on the corner lot.

Sheedy had a few trees planted along Twelfth Street as well as to the east of the house, called, in one account, an "arbor." ("Closing the Sheedy Case," Semi Weekly State Journal May 29, 1891) The grounds were surrounded by a fence with a front gate. The house was located twelve feet from the sidewalk. ("Closing the Sheedy Case," Semi Weekly State Journal May 29, 1891) A trellis ran along the south wall by the alley behind Burr's block and a beer garden, and a gate opened to a walk to the front door.

The one-story house had a parlor on the west and a dining room on the east facing P Street. Behind the parlor was a sitting room and behind that the kitchen. Across the hall were two bedrooms. The diagram presented at trial by F.G. Fisk indicated "bed rooms, parlor, [and a] sitting room." ("The Morning Session," Lincoln Weekly News May 21, 1891) The maid Anna Bodenstein referred to the "dining room, kitchen, [and] parlor [with] doors between them." The house was surrounded by a porch with "lattice" carpentry work. ("Closing the Sheedy Case," Semi Weekly State Journal May 29, 1891)

To the east of the house were other houses much like it; to the south stood the six-story Burr Block; across the street to the north, a rooming house and across the street to the west, the Transit Hotel. It was situated on the fluid line between the uptown district to the west, O Street to the south, the University to its north, and the residential district to the east that all three areas were encroaching on. Residential, but downtown, it was in a distinctive in-between space reflecting, to some degree, the Sheedy's own social spatial ambivalence.

The Capital Hotel

For John Sheedy P Street, not O, was the central artery of uptown. A view "West on P Street" (Figure 9) , shows the Capital Hotel on the left, John Sheedy's casino on the left in the distance, and on the right, in the distance, facing the square, the Mack hotel.

Though we have no direct evidence Sheedy walked this route, we do know he was concerned about P Street development moving east and encroaching on the edge of the residential neighborhood in which he and Mary lived. Just days before his murder, a letter he wrote to the State Journal was published regarding his effort to resist John Fitzgerald's attempt to build a streetcar in front of his house. Cars would have increased traffic on P Street, already becoming noisy, and accelerated the neighborhood transition.

West along P Street he could see the recent development first hand. On the left side of the photo is the Capital Hotel. It was built as the Commercial Hotel in the early 1870s and was remodeled in 1876 under the management of J. J. Imhoff, one of the first founders of Lincoln.

The hotel functioned as a residence and meeting place for representatives and senators from around the state. In 1886, realtor Aldridge Kitchen purchased the building. He refurnished the interiors and changed its name to the Capital Hotel. The Capital was the hotel of choice for the famous boxer John Sullivan when he traveled to Lincoln in 1886 for one of his boxing shows at Funke's Opera House.

The Nebraska State Journal referred to the hotel as "the grand political centre of the Capital." The Capital Hotel under the ownership of Kitchen often exhibited paintings. In 1886 Kitchen paid local artist Alonzo Philleo to paint him two works—one of two lions that had just finished eating a carcass of a deer and another of an Indian attack upon a western stagecoach.

Kitchen also placed a piano in the hotel parlor in 1886, and in 1888 he transformed the parlor into a billiards hall, thus enhancing its role as a meeting place for fraternal organizations and clubs, in particular the Union Club, as well as, in general, members of the political "third house" that prevailed in Gilded Age cities.

Kitchen also added a "ladies reception room" on the second floor with a special stairway to secure a separate entrance. The hotel also had an elegant dining room, of which we have a rare photo (Figure 10) taken in 1885. A saloon, owned by Lentz and Williams in 1891, and a barbershop run by Jasper McFadden were also located in the building.

The Capital Hotel was often the site of "elegant" dinners on New Year's Day. Carriages were always waiting in front of the hotel (Figure 11) (Figure 12) (Figure 13) . It stood prominently at the corner of 11th and P Streets, a monument to the elegance and gentility to which John and Mary Sheedy aspired. Next door to the south, operating somewhat later, was the Little Gold Dust Saloon, (Figure 14) another popular meeting place for the men of Lincoln's male subculture.

P Street near Sheedy's Casino

Quick's saloon, where John Sheedy and August Sanders operated their gambling hall, was directly west of the Capital Hotel. On the right side of the photo (Figure 15) is block 35 in the foreground. This block, on the north side of P Street between North Twelfth and North Eleventh, begins with the Ledwith Block on the northwest corner of Eleventh and P Streets. The Ledwith Block, where the Merchant's Hotel was located, was completed in 1887 and was financed by grocer and political figure James Ledwith. Its total cost was thirty-five thousand dollars (Figure 16). It was built of pressed brick and was three stories tall.

In 1891, W. L. Hunter owned the Hunter Printing House in the basement of the building. Also in the building in that year was a saloon owned by Charles Inman. In the photo is a sign marked, "beer," where this saloon would have been. The Nebraska Democrat newspaper offices were also in the corner offices. (Figure 17) Later, the building became the Savoy Hotel. (Figure 18)

Further west on the block at 1016 to 1018 P Street was Tunis P. Quick's second business building that he financed. It is the fourth building in from the west end of the block and was two stories high with protruded windows on the second story. This building was completed in 1886.

In 1891 the Grainger Brothers (Harry B. and Joseph), who were wholesale commission merchants, were located on the first floor of this building. The second floor was used as a boarding house and Stillman H. Whipple operated a milk depot in the basement.

To the north of these buildings on the north side of block 35 are three more boarding houses not shown in the photo. At 1021 Q Street was a female boarding house run by Mrs. Mary Brown. At 243 North Eleventh there was a boarding house operated by Mary Moyer, and in the W. Menlow Block at 227 to 231 North Eleventh Street (where Capital City Coffee and Spice Mills were located) was another boarding house where about a half-dozen men and women lived.

Aside from downtown, John and/or Mary Sheedy ventured out across Lincoln in their carriage. For instance, when Harry Walstrom came to visit the Sheedys in the fall of 1890, John Sheedy showed him the town and "took him out" to the new courthouse and the State Capitol Building. Likewise, witnesses recall seeing John and Mary at Cushman Park many times.

1. State Journal, June 27, 1885. [Back to Reference]

Burr, Carlos C. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Crampton, Peter [Brief Biography]
Fitzgerald, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Quick, Tunis P. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sanders, August (Gus) [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

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