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

After the Trial

After the trial newspapers suspiciously scrutinized the motives, tactics, strategies and procedures of police, prosecutors, lawyers, the mayor at the time of the murder (Robert B. Graham, whose term ended in April 1891), and various groups of townspeople.

Critics of Mayor Graham declared that he had "sought to close his term with a blaze of glory, at the expense of justice." Melick and Malone were accused of having been blinded by ambition and willing to gather evidence at any cost. Dr. Holyoke's unexplained closing of the inquest raised the specter of a conspiracy to convict Mary Sheedy and McFarland without due process.

Dennis Sheedy's involvement also drew comment—he had interfered in the local investigation by bringing in Pinkerton detectives, had offered of a reward for information leading to the arrest of the murderer, and had hired Frank Hall to back up the county prosecutor, Novia Snell, an old friend of John Fitzgerald, whose role also was questioned. Fitzgerald had been appointed an administrator of John Sheedy's estate, even though he was Sheedy's adversary. It appeared that he and Dennis Sheedy were bent on convicting Mary, guilty or not, so they could gain control of John Sheedy's entire estate. [1] ("From the State Capital.," Omaha Bee (Morning Edition) January 14, 1891)

Also questioned were the actions of individuals who sought Mary Sheedy's conviction but then seemed to side with her at critical moments in the case. It was unclear, for example, why Chief of Police Melick allowed himself to be befriended by Mary Sheedy while she was in custody at his house.

Even stranger, after the trial, was his appointment by the court to replace Mary as an administrator of John Sheedy's estate—seen by some as a "reward for his kindness." He and his old friend John Fitzgerald, both reformers and law and order men, had worked together for years to bring down John Sheedy, and upon Mary's acquittal, now controlled the estate.

This seemed to fit suspiciously well with Fitzgerald's decision, apparently at Dennis Sheedy's request, to hire Frank Hall, the estate's lawyer, and it seemed to corroborate suspicions of a plot against Mary.

Finally, when Mary was acquitted and the alleged plot backfired, the very men who prosecuted her with such determination gained control of the estate anyway. It suggested to some that the prosecutors had covered themselves for either outcome, and had achieved their goal.

That scenario would explain the presentation of what some believed was a weak case against Mary, and it suggested an even deeper conspiracy to sacrifice McFarland but acquit Mary and thereby assure that all the lawyers involved would be paid—if she were acquitted she would have her share of the estate, administered by Melick and Fitzgerald, from which to pay Stearns, Strode, and Weir.

The following year Melick and Fitzgerald, as estate administrators, along with Dennis Sheedy, resisted Mary's efforts to acquire a larger share of the estate. Meanwhile, the newspapers seemed more interested in speculating about the lurid details of a "noted criminal case" and pandering to a popular fascination with malfeasance rather than digging for the truth. [2]

A "show trial," the case involved some of the city's most prominent lawyers, and deepened public concern about the motives and impartiality of Lincoln's bar. The trial seemed more important to lawyers as a career boosting—indeed, career defining—opportunity (J. C. Strode's obituary thirty years later made note of the case, for example.

Various observers, while recognizing that the lawyers pursued justice by working as hard as they could for their clients, even if it meant true guilt or innocence was not determined, questioned the motives, tactics, and actions of lawyers on both sides.

The motives of Frank Hall, a railroad lawyer for the Burlington and Missouri Railroad Company and a partner of John Fitzgerald's lawyer Turner Marquett, were questioned from the start. When Hall drew attention to the issue of undue influence by apologizing to the jury for being "a railroad lawyer" with no criminal law experience, and then stepped easily into Strode's "trap," further questions arose.

In fact, there was no dearth of criminal law experience on the prosecution team: In spite of his disclaimer, Hall did have criminal law experience, and Dennis Sheedy also had hired Genio Lambertson, who had been U. S. Attorney from 1878–1887, and had secured the city council's vindication in 1887 after returning to private practice.

Tactics, such as the risky decision to permit the defendants be tried together, were questioned as well, though there may have been no other way to get McFarland's confession before Mary Sheedy's jury.

Risky, too, was their apparent overconfidence, their overly formal rhetoric in their closing arguments, and their surprising excitability a number of times in the case, which led some to wonder if, rather than pursuing Mary's conviction, they had conspired to "sacrifice McFarland" to make it seem that justice had been served, while purposely offering a weak case against Mary to assure her acquittal.

Perhaps what appeared to be a half-hearted effort reflected a certain ambivalence about the case. Perhaps they were unwilling to press for a murder conviction and a possible death penalty (but no woman, even to this day, has been executed in Nebraska, and the sentence probably would have been life imprisonment). Or perhaps they were inclined to exonerate her, seeing some measure of self defense in her act; perhaps they considered the murder to have done the city a favor.

As lawyers who had encountered each other for years on opposite sides of the ongoing struggle between the Law and Order League and John Sheedy, the prosecution team had represented clients who, for a variety of reasons, had long since lost patience with Sheedy and wanted to see him brought down. They may have seen Sheedy as a man whose departure from Lincoln—or life—would not be grieved.

Perhaps, for prosecutors and defenders alike, justice had already been done with Sheedy's death, even if his murderer was never brought to justice. Who really murdered John Sheedy and who else was involved seemed, to many Lincolnites, a question that no one really wanted to answer. In the larger battle of good versus evil, they may have concluded, Sheedy had received his due, and the end justified the means.

Though the defense attorneys Stearns, Strode, and Weir were pleased with the outcome, and the prosecutors seemed to feel that they had done the best they could, public opinion focused on the lawyers efforts to acquire large fees for a case "of more than ordinary importance" from Sheedy's estate or the district court.

Indeed the case was, in the end, recalled as a "great attorneys battle" and "one of the greatest legal battles in the annals of the court of the state." ("How They Received It.," Lincoln Daily Call May 30, 1891)

After perfunctory expressions of joy or disappointment over the verdict, the prosecutors scrambled to recover costs and fees from the court, while the defense attorneys pursued their fees. Indeed, the day of the verdict, Charles Gates Dawes, prominent lawyer and businessman, wrote to his friend J. D. Cox, reporting not on the verdict but on the scramble for fees.

He noted having heard that "Colonel H. W. Weir of Boise City," who had arrived later in the case, apparently at the request of Mary Sheedy's relatives, to back up Stearns and Strode, objected to the proposed fee of $15,000 and "lopped off $2500" to make it $12,500 for Strode and Stearns (equivalent to about $200,000 today).

Dawes wrote that he got involved when Weir, "counsel for Mrs. Sheedy," asked him to research Sheedy's real estate holdings, because Weir expected he would "have to take a mortgage for his fee." Dawes thought Weir "an able and genial gentleman," who "has a tough client in Mrs. Sheedy."

Dawes gave Weir the "disappointing" news that Sheedy's estate was worth only $54,500 (about $1,000,000 today), consisting mostly of the Hotel Mack, the Sheedy residence, another downtown lot, and eighty acres in Clay County.

In any case, because the estate was controlled by John Fitzgerald, and indirectly Dennis Sheedy, Mary Sheedy, though acquitted, eventually indirectly paid part of the prosecuting attorneys' fees as well. McFarland's lawyers were remunerated by the court.

The day after his acquittal, Monday McFarland, dressed in a "new suit of clothes," left town "to visit his mother in Kansas." His whereabouts after that are unknown. As many expected, he did not return to Lincoln. ("Monday, The Confessor.," The Nebraska State Journal May 31, 1891)

Mary Sheedy, the day after the trial, stayed at an apartment her sister rented at the Alexander Block at the northeast corner of Fourteenth and O streets and enjoyed her first day of freedom since January. She was visited by many friends and spoke freely about the trial, disparaging the prosecuting attorneys and some of the press who labored to "convict her in print." ("How They Received It.," Lincoln Daily Call May 30, 1891)

After resting, she visited her sick mother in Illinois. ("How They Received It.," Lincoln Daily Call May 30, 1891) A while later she returned to Lincoln. She refused to return to the Sheedy house and sold it later in the year, and the following spring was living in "rooms" at 1452 O Street, still listed as "widow of John." Residents passing by the empty house would claim that they heard noises coming from inside the house, and that it was haunted.

Later in 1892, she left Lincoln to marry Max Brust, a traveling salesman for the American Tobacco Company, in San Francisco. On March 1, 1893, using the name Mary Brust, and "in need of money," she sued the estate for a larger monthly allowance than the $83.33 she was receiving.

The county court ruled against her, but she appealed, and Dennis Sheedy again brought in Frank Hall to argue the case in district court. The judge dismissed the case declaring that Mary had already helped herself to the household furniture, a horse and buggy and $500, and that she had, therefore, already received an amount "to which she was by law entitled."

By 1900, Max Brust had settled down as a storekeeper, and soon thereafter the couple apparently left San Francisco. Where Mary went after that is unknown.

It is difficult to measure the effect of the trial on Lincoln. Though events had raised questions about the similarities in the tactics of reformers and the corrupt powers they aimed to reform, the outcome, and the evasive responses to it, seemed to confirm the faults of the existing judicial system as well as the gender and racial structures implicit in the booster ethos.

With Sheedy gone, the way was open for the Law and Order League and other reformers. A month before Mary Sheedy's acquittal, Austin H. Weir (not to be confused with defense attorney Judge H. W. Weir) had been elected mayor on a "citizens reform ticket," which C. G. Dawes called a "great triumph for honesty and reform."

The convoluted machinations of the trial raised deep concerns about endemic corruption in public life and broadened the constituency supporting reform. Meanwhile, emboldened reformers broadened their cause to include social as well as political reform and the elimination of vice. Several progressive organizations were founded in 1892 and 1893, and calls for reforms in state and city government and the railroads highlighted the conflicts of interest and corruption at the heart of the booster ethos.

Then the crash of 1893 hit Lincoln hard, forcing many companies into bankruptcy, throwing thousands out of work, and leaving the street "very quiet" in the fall of 1893. As people stepped back and considered the corruption of the system, a "great wave" of "reform in municipal and state governments before notoriously corrupt" swept across Lincoln, opening up a new chapter in the city's history.

Though the timing of Sheedy's murder and resurgent reform may be merely historical coincidence, it is striking, nevertheless. The advantage Sheedy's removal gave reformers, however, was undermined during the recession that followed the crash of 1893. Like every other group, booster reformers faced crisis and decline, and increasingly, local initiatives failed, were cut short, fell short of expectations, or drifted aimlessly.

In the mid-1890s, after years of growth, the core groups of Lincoln's booster culture, the Union Club and the Chamber of Commerce, suffered a wave of departures and resignations. For ten years or more, wholesale changes in city personnel and declines in membership left the survivors struggling to pursue their social agendas in a declining city; the booster ethos had lost its dynamic force, leaving it vulnerable to conservative reformers in pursuit of conservative ends.

Across the nation, a rising tide of reform and the crash of 1893 spurred the rise of Progressivism and the conversion of boosterism into city planning and scientific municipal administration.

In Lincoln the same convergence, moving dynamically along a different trajectory, shaped an increasingly conservative urban culture. Instead of taming the metropolis and serving as a handmaiden of development, reform emerged as a strategy to slow or control social modernization and liberalism. After 1900—and even through the 1960s—conservative reformers and boosters continued, anachronistically, to employ a closed, personalized style of elite leadership. The legacy of the crisis of the 1890s would run deep in Lincoln's history.

1. Lincoln Evening News, Jan. 13, 1891; Omaha Bee, May 31, Jan. 14, 1891. [Back to Reference]

2. Omaha Bee, May 4,31, 1891. [Back to Reference]

Brust, Max [Brief Biography]
Dawes, Charles Gates [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Fitzgerald, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Graham, Robert B. [Brief Biography]
Hall, Frank M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Holyoke, Edgar L. [Brief Biography]
Lambertson, Genio M. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Malone, James [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Marquett, Turner M. [Brief Biography]
McFarland, Monday [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Melick, Samuel M. [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, Mary [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Snell, Novia Z. [Brief Biography]
Stearns, Royal D. [Brief Biography]
Strode, Jesse B. [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Weir, Austin H. [Brief Biography]
Weir, H.W. [Brief Biography]

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