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 Murder

Just before eight o'clock on Sunday evening, January 11, 1891, John Sheedy stepped out the front door onto the front porch of his house on the southeast corner of Twelfth and P streets to go to the Capital Hotel. Suddenly, out of the shadows beyond the reach of the front porch light, a man charged toward him and struck him on the side of the head with a leather-covered, steel-headed cane.

Staggering, Sheedy drew his pistol and fired several shots. While one shot apparently grazed his assailant, the man ran across the south end of the porch. He then jumped over the back fence and ran east through the alley toward Thirteenth Street into the dark.

The sound and flash of the shots startled the neighborhood. A number of people who had been out walking, even though it was a dark winter evening, as well as neighbors who heard and saw the shooting at Sheedy's brightly illuminated house, converged on the scene.

As word spread of the assault, more and more people arrived from the adjacent neighborhood. Soon a small crowd had formed by the gate and in front of the porch. A few pedestrians on P Street saw the man who shot Sheedy run south from the porch into the dark. ("In Defense of Mrs. Sheedy," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 22, 1891)

Later there was conflicting testimony whether he was white or black (or as one newspaper put it in the words of a corner's jury witness "plain or colored"). ("Unwinding the Skein.," Lincoln Weekly News January 22, 1891)

Only one other person besides Sheedy, however, apparently had seen a man run south down Twelfth Street and into the alley toward Thirteenth Street. No one apparently chased him. Other bystanders claimed in court that they saw two men running across the intersection of Twelfth and O streets moments after hearing the gunshots. ("In Defense of Mrs. Sheedy," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 22, 1891)

A neighbor from across the street saw John Sheedy fire the second and third shots near the "east door" of the house facing south, before stepping back into the door. ("It Was a Happy Family," Semi Weekly State Journal May 15, 1891) Dr. Everett, another neighbor across the street, "heard a shot" and looking out his window "saw a number of other flashes" and rushed out the door when he saw "a crowd" gathering at the gate in front of Sheedy's house. ("Twelve Good Men and True," The Nebraska State Journal May 12, 1891) Identifying himself as a doctor, he pushed through the crowd and ran into the house.

Louis Otto, a police officer who had been standing watch near the Burr Block at Twelfth and O streets, heard the shots and ran in their direction, arriving at the house about the same time. ("It Was a Happy Family," Semi Weekly State Journal May 15, 1891) So too officer Kinney was walking his beat near the Burr Block. They were quickly joined by officers Adams and Bob Malone. ("After Life's Fitful Fever.," Semi Weekly State Journal January 16, 1891) ("After Life's Fiful Fever.," Semi Weekly State Journal January 16, 1891)

As Kinney rushed toward the Sheedy house—he later testified—a man told him he saw someone running down the alley toward Thirteenth, but Kinney did not see anyone. ("The Sheedy Case.," Lincoln Weekly News May 21, 1891)

In the meantime, Mary Sheedy, John Sheedy's wife, had rushed from the house to help her husband back into the parlor where he lay down on the sofa. She then called for a doctor and the police, even as Dr. Everett and Officer Otto arrived. Neighbors and curiosity seekers were just behind them trying to push into the house.

When Doctor C. S. Hart and the chief of police, Marshal Samuel Melick, arrived, they cleared the room. The doctors had Sheedy moved to his bedroom. They had him sit down in the "chair just inside the bedroom" ("Testimony for Mrs Sheedy," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 13, 1891) and dressed his severe head wound. The leather-covered, steel head of the cane had cracked his skull and caused profuse bleeding.

Marshall Melick questioned a still conscious Sheedy about the assailant. All Sheedy could tell him was that he came at him so fast he really did not see him clearly—later some would contend Sheedy knew his assailant but withheld the information—and that he ran down the alley south and east of the house while he shot at him three or four times. Sheedy apparently said the same thing later to another person in the room—Charley Carpenter, a saloon keeper. ("Will the Negro Testify?," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 16, 1891)

The doctors then apparently put Sheedy to bed and administered pain relievers. A while later Mary Sheedy gave her husband sleeping powders in a cup of coffee. ("In Defense of Mrs. Sheedy," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 22, 1891) For the next hour or so Mary received neighbors, friends, and some curiosity seekers and assured them her husband was resting well.

Sometime in the middle of the night—apparently about 4 a.m.—while asleep, Sheedy was stricken with paralysis. He fell into a coma the next morning.

While Sheedy lay in the back bedroom, the crowd around the house grew. Among them was a close friend of Sheedy's, D. G. Courtnay. As a friend and attorney apparently he had a brief conversation with Mrs. Sheedy about her husband's affairs, just in case he should die.

Meanwhile, as downtown was abuzz with the news, people kept coming to the house during the day. At some point D. G. Courtnay, convinced these intrusions were hardly helping things, locked the door. ("Twelve Good Men and True," The Nebraska State Journal May 12, 1891) As Sheedy's vital signs worsened during the day, the doctors decided against an operation.

Mary and some friends held vigil beside Sheedy's bed all day—Mary apparently kneeling much of the time. One of Mrs. Sheedy's friends, Mrs. P. Swift, offered medical advice on how to treat Sheedy, but Mary Sheedy told her "it was useless to give him anything." ("All State Testimony In.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 21, 1891) This was just before noon. ("Nearing the End," Vanity Fair May 23, 1891) Mary occasionally asked John Sheedy if he knew her at all, but received no response. ("In Defense of Mrs. Sheedy," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) May 22, 1891)

He lingered through the evening and, with his wife and some friends by his side, died about ten o'clock Monday night, January 12, 1891, about twenty-six hours after the attack.

On Monday night, when word of Sheedy's death reached the county coroner, Dr. E. L. Holyoke, he rushed to the Sheedy residence, signed the death certificate, and had the body transported to the new Lancaster County Courthouse for a coroner's inquest.

The following morning, as Lincoln awoke to news of Sheedy's death, Holyoke empaneled an inquest jury assembled from men gathered at the courthouse. At nine o'clock the next morning, January 14, an unprecedented number of reporters, policemen, lawyers, and politicians, including Mayor Robert B. Graham, crowded the jury room as the inquest began.

A member of the jury, Robert McReynolds, a prominent reform businessman, moved that the inquest be held in secret and insisted that the press leave. Suspicious and infuriated reporters called the unprecedented closed inquest an illegitimate "Star Chamber," eavesdropped through the transom, and tried to force their way into the room.

Upon unanimous agreement of the jury members, Holyoke moved the inquest to a small, unheated meeting room on the third floor. Though some jury members apparently doubted the blow could have caused Sheedy's death, the inquest concluded that he had been murdered, death resulting from internal bleeding caused by a blow to the head.

The question now was by whom and why?

The "cause of death" on John Sheedy's death certificate, would, in time, become one of the central issues in the case against the person or persons accused of his murder.

Some believed that while the blow was indeed severe—cracking his skull, causing profuse bleeding, and possibly a concussion—it was not damaging enough to kill him. Moreover, some would contend that the symptoms Sheedy developed in the course of the night after the assault—an uneven pulse, shortness of breath, and then paralysis and falling into a coma—were inconsistent with a wound to the back of the head. Indeed, these and other symptoms were more clearly the signature symptoms of a drug overdose—in particular that of morphine.

While the doctors did give Sheedy a dose of painkillers, suspicion would focus on the "sleeping powders" that Mary Sheedy put into the coffee she gave to her husband in the hours after the assault to help John at least achieve some comfort in sleep.

In short, some skeptics asked, why would someone struck by a cane show the classic signs of morphine poisoning? With these questions swirling in the air—the city full of rumors and questions—and Mary Sheedy "sick and confined to her bed" ("The Sheedy Inquest.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) January 15, 1891) the day after her husband's death, Marshal Samuel Melick and officer James Malone pursued the murderer in the most notorious crime in Lincoln's history to that point and one of the most "heinous crimes in the annals of American crime."

Courtnay, Dominick G. [Brief Biography]
Graham, Robert B. [Brief Biography]
Hart, Charles S. [Brief Biography]
Holyoke, Edgar L. [Brief Biography]
Malone, James [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
McReynolds, Robert [Brief Biography]
Melick, Samuel M. [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

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