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

Male Subculture

Most of the members of the associations and groups within the booster ethos acted within a broadening urban "public" sphere across downtown Lincoln.

The Public Realm

This "public realm" extended from its core on Government Square into downtown, uptown, and the Haymarket, down into the tenderloin. It included meeting places in churches, the opera and theater, in hotels, and at the university, newspaper offices, meeting rooms, fraternal lodges, and halls, and club rooms, as well as the taverns, bars, saloons, casinos, barbershops, fire stations, and small shops throughout the broader area.

Across this venue, boosters—usually more established married men with families living in houses located outside of downtown—rubbed shoulders and intermingled with a broader population of single men who lived in, or were passing through, Lincoln.

While almost all of the members of the booster ethos were native-born, Protestant, and predominantly Republican—including, more specifically, a preponderance of men from central Illinois— single men were workers who were native born, European immigrants, blacks, and even some native Americans. Within this broader male subculture, a range of values from members of various subcultures that interacted within it—boosters, WASPs, small shop owners and entrepreneurs, various ethnic subcultures, as well as African-Americans—were recognized and tended to interact upon the basis of generally shared, or at least recognizably similar values that collectively constituted a cross class, interracial set of values and behaviors that emerged as common male subculture.

The Uptown District

The core venue of this male subculture was the uptown district after dark. In the male "sporting" subculture or demimonde along P Street, blacks and whites, workers, laborers, "sporting people," travelers, businessmen, boosters, entertainers, and "nymphs du pave," enjoyed vicariously collective drinking, cigar smoking (which etiquette increasing segregated to all male realms), and the pleasure of games of cards, faro, or roulette—usually at Sheedy's and Sander's casino.

There most men encountered "sporting women," whose presence, along with the sexualized décor of most bars—French nudes were ubiquitous behind and above many back bars—provided vicarious visual stimulation. In dance halls and brothel parlors, where one actually interacted and talked to these women, the gratification was more physical—though it is unclear whether Lincoln had a dance hall in which dancers crossed the lines into exotic dancing at the time.

Such impersonal flirtations could, of course, lead, as it did routinely for John Sheedy, to physical gratification in illicit sexual liaisons—for a short or long term—with sporting women in nearby brothels, or hotels. Whether merely visual, or a client-customer relationship, the sexual mores of this male subculture stood in opposition, and indeed flouted, the culture of sexual self control among members of the middle class as well as among some ethnic subcultures.

Sanders, August (Gus) [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

The Ethos of the Male Subculture

Figure 1 preview

Figure 1

Within the pastiche of this subculture, most men acted on the assumption that they were autonomous, free will individuals whose "character" was defined by the course of their interactions with other men. Rather than aspire to gentility, or manliness, men in the male subculture expressed their aggressions, defended their honor, and strove to assert themselves and gain the respect of their fellows.

At the same time, they conceded power when it was won or gained, and accorded those who had acquired power patriarchal obedience or deference, and accepted that they exerted that power through patronage, nepotism, or reciprocity.

In this culture, one looked out for oneself and took care of one's friends, using whatever means were available to one (sometimes involving violence), and no matter how closely those means skirted the law or raised ethical questions of improper "influence." This was an urban world of caucus decisions, insider deals, rigged bids, and kickbacks in which "conflict of interests," intractable as they were, were hardly given notice through the 1880s.

Others competed openly in the highly volatile free market place. Still others, especially workers and members of fraternal lodges, acted on their belief or aspirations for egalitarian fraternal mutuality, brotherhood, and associational loyalty.

In order to temper, vent, or redirect the tensions and pressures inherent in such a diverse, aggressive, highly competitive realm, the "boys" on O and P streets, as they had for a generation elsewhere across urban America, cultivated a dissimulating, ironic, sarcastic rhetoric and discourse, accompanied by a range of sarcastic or ironic behaviors and practices.

In the male subculture, one maintained one's cool, let little things slide, never took such things seriously, and, above all, never snitched on a comrade or divulged his behavior within the subculture to anyone outside it. In short, what happened on P Street, stayed on P Street, and was settled among themselves.

To challenge someone within, or go outside the culture—a culture in which many men carried guns (John Sheedy was usually armed)— was dangerous; thus violence lurked just beneath the surface and he was risking engagement in combative behavior, the end result of which could be fatal.

By the 1880s, this public male subculture had matured to include an elaborate culture of nicknames, practical jokes, and verbal jousting, and more formally organized spoof events, all laced with sarcasm and irony, but also a male posturing mode involving cigars, liquor, gambling, a closer attention to clothes, as well as self expression through versifying and "prose poetry."

Spoof and mock events, like the annual mock legislature which local politicians organized on the last day of the legislative session at the capitol, became elaborate posturing games involving overblown rhetoric, recitations of poetry (connected with a new self-deprecating mode of newspaper cartoons that showed themselves as boys' bodies with their adult heads) and endless versifying.

So too, collective social, sporting, or entertainment activities ranging from club meetings, banquets, spoof events and roasts, elaborate parades, vaudeville theatricals, and festivals to sporting events all lubricated by drinking, cigar smoking, billiard playing, and gambling were all part of this urban male culture. All male banquets or roasts that featured several course dinners, considerable liquor, and much after dinner verbal roustabouting were routine events in this realm. (Figure 1)

Most middle-class men were not the clichéd Victorian, up-tight, judgmental, tee-totaling gentlemen prudes of fiction; they understood the leeway granted to middle-class men and navigated along the edges of middle-class culture, and the broader trans-class male subculture that pervaded downtown life in the Gilded Age.

In this way, as Gail Bederman argues, men of the 1890s were beginning to seek ways to loosen the restraints of the narrow middle-class view of manliness to find new ways to express and act out their masculinity. Whether this involved interacting more with the male subculture, living a strenuous life, or engaging in and observing physical sports, men of the 1890s sought to express their inner "masculinity" and somehow break out of the restraints of their civilized, self-controlling manliness.

The modern man, unlike the Victorian man, expressed himself, acted on his impulses, presented a sexualized physical self and imagined himself free and independent; in short, he considered himself his own man. This more aggressive form of masculinity, drawn in large part from the working class, increasingly affected the behavior of middle-class men.

In some ways, many middle-class men envied and secretly admired men like John Sheedy who, in his flouting of middle-class restraints and prudery—emanating primarily from women—and his embracing of homosocial male comradery and sociability, lived the ethos of aggressive masculinity.

Two fine examples of male subcultural collective behavior in which Tunis P Quick and John Sheedy were probably involved occurred on Government Square and P Street and provide insight to the social purposes of such behavior.

This first surge of Temperance activity highlighted by temperance women in February 1874 marching into a number of saloons on P Street to stop the sale of liquor. Rebuffed at the door of T. P. Quick's Saloon, at the southeast corner of Tenth, they demonstrated in the street along Government Square in front of the saloon to the retorts of men on the street who came out from various saloons and offices to view the chilly spectacle.

The following night, many of the same men responded to the intrusive efforts of the W.C.T U. and appeared on the square dressed in women's clothes and carrying signs, and "raided" a series of bars in uptown. Mock protestations, mock resistance and violence, and much merriment and drink developed into a traditional collective "frolic" moving from bar to bar and provided a collective send up to the efforts of the women of the W.C.T.U. In some ways this was the first salvo of a deepening rift between the two cultures in downtown.

Thirteen years later, in November 1887 when Federal Judge Brewer declared the Mayor and the City Council of Lincoln in contempt of court and ordered their arrest and for them to appear before him, the boosters and press gathered around the mayor and the council to create a kind of stage male subcultural spectacle.

While Genio Madison Lambertson rushed to Washington to argue that the U. S. District judge had overstepped his jurisdiction before the United States Supreme Court, the mayor and the members of the council were quickly transformed into defenders of home rule comparable to Irish rebels and a band of brothers defending their rights against unbridled federal power.

Given a plot to which they could attach their means of expressing and venting frustration, members of the male subculture and the booster ethos transformed the trip to Omaha, the appearance before Judges Dundy and Brewer, and the incarceration of the council for six days in the Omaha Federal jail into a highly theatrical overblown historically self-conscious exercise in inculcating political and social unity through the creation of a mythic struggle against outside opposition.

Whether involving vigilante action, the battle against corruption and evil, or, as in this case, the struggle to maintain local autonomy and home rule against outside federal power, such exercises served a purpose similar to that of a war to draw internal factions together against a common foe, quash internal disputes, inculcate cooperation, mutuality, and fraternity, foster town self-identity, and broaden the influence, persuasiveness, and power of the booster ethos.

That the exercise quickly became part of the booster ethos strategy is apparent in the appearance of all the various modes and motifs of male behavior within the urban society of the time.

Suddenly, the mayor and his councilmen found themselves thrust into the lead roles in a historical drama manufactured, in almost mock town, by the press and members of the male subculture, of which they were enough part of to oblige. One can only imagine John Sheedy's amusement.

Political posturing manifested by elaborate verbal jousting, overblown rhetoric and bravado, exaggerated historical self-consciousness—expressed by historical quotations, reciting of poetry, versifying in the "prose poem" format that had lately become the vogue among toastmasters, story tellers, and chroniclers of the 1880s—quickly suffused the entire episode.

One of reporters of the event, Walt Mason, had already emerged at the State Journal as Lincoln's journalist "prose poet" and would later make a name for himself as a well-known journalist-poet in Chicago in the 1910s, composed an ironic dirge (to be read in a bombastic style), "The Suffering Heroes" to summon the feelings of the martyrs: …"Oh Shade of Latimer, give care!
Forget thy tortures at the stake,
Gaze on the groaning martyrs here,
Mark well each sob and moan, and tear,
These hearts that bleed but do not break!"…

So too, the trip to Omaha, witnessed by hundreds of onlookers, many of whom enjoyed the posturing spectacle that was hard to take seriously, was made with a band in tow and took on the ceremonial format of a railroad excursion, becoming by 1885 a ubiquitous scripted event in the public life of the time.

Later in Omaha, the incarceration in the jailors elegantly appointed apartments became an extended "levee" in which supporters by the hundreds paid ironic tribute to the imprisoned heroes by leaving them flowers, gifts, cigars in profuse supplies, liquor, and food, while poets and commentators bemoaned the "martyrs" "severe trials," marked by "tedious" evenings at the opera, sumptuous food and spirits at local locals, and intense boredom of six days in the "Omaha bastille" enduring sleeping in bunks, each other's snoring, a shortage of fresh linen, and endless rounds of cards and cigar smoking.

Upon release, gained by G. M. Lambertson's dramatic trip to Washington and appeal before the Supreme Court, the "martyrs" of Lincoln returned in glory to Lincoln, to be greeted by a huge throng, feted in the following days by a series of banquets, and then to carry out the obligatory obsecquiescies to those who supported them.

But out of this male subcultural event came two outcomes for John Sheedy—neither particularly promising. By using the city council and the legal system resulting in the expending of so much unnecessary litigious energy, perniciously, John Sheedy had gained serious enemies among the boosters and reformers. In addition, by breaking the code of "taking care of it among themselves," among the boys, he exposed—in pursuit of his own selfish interests—the whole system to the legal threat of the reformers and Law and Order League.

This was not "good business" for either Sheedy or his colleagues and gained him the enmity of many of his colleagues and strengthened the position of his enemies. In time, John Sheedy and the male subculture would face threats to the status quo both from within its ranks and from emboldened reformers.

Brewer, David J. [Brief Biography]
Dundy, Elmer S. [Brief Biography]
Lambertson, Genio M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Quick, Tunis P. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

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