Ramcat Alley

A secret museum of Omaha's disreputable past.

The Juvenile Delinquent

This is Mrs. Anna Piper, and, unfortunately, there is some bad information about her online. If you do a search for her name, you’ll find a drawing of her done by a local artist, and taken from this mugshot, which identified her crime as “fugitive (from husband).” What follows, in quotation marks, is language very like the language used in court cases dealing with a spouse who has abandoned another spouse.

But Anna Piper never abandoned her husband, Ray Piper, or, at least, was with him until they both went to prison. And while her mugshot identifies her as a “fugitive,” the World-Herald from 1911 identified exactly what this meant: Omaha was in the process of shipping her to Iowa, where she had been kiting checks. She was sentenced to serve 15 years in prison, and then pardoned to the custody of her mother a year later.

But that’s about all we know about Anna, and she is rarely referred to by her own name in the newspapers of the time, but instead as Mrs. Ray Piper. It’s understandable that the story may have gotten mistold all these years later, but consider this a correction to the record.

And it’s a record worth correcting, because Ray was a hellion. Anna probably was too, and may have made additional appearances in the newspapers under her maiden name, but I can find no record of them having married in Douglas County, and neither is her mother’s name mentioned. So we can’t talk overmuch about Anna, alas. We can, however, talk about Ray.

Ray was a juvenile delinquent, although that seems to modern a word to be used back in 1904, when Ray started appearing in newspaper crime stories, along with a brother, who were suspected of burglary. Ray could not have been older than 16 at the time. Nonetheless, a World-Herald headline from May 15 of 1915 says “Juvenile Delinquents in Court,” which focuses mostly on one of Ray’s female compatriots, Lulu Fritschmann, “a girl of tender years and hardened morals.”

“The girl detailed a state of affairs covering the time from her 11th to 15th birthday,” the World-Herald continues, “that was little short of appalling.” The judge was so taken aback that he complained about a lack of evidence that would allow him to prosecute her associates, a South Omaha-based “crowd of juvenile delinquents that promises to keep the probation officers busy for some time to come.”

This gang included Ray Piper and was, in fact, sometimes called the Piper Gang by the papers, probably because it included Ray and one or more of his brothers. Ray had worked for a little while in meat packing, which was then in the middle of a number of brutal strikes, and Ray seems that he was employed mostly to brutalize strikebreakers and scabs. But his real work was burglary, and he went about it with considerable élan for the next seven years.

He made frequent appearances in court, sometimes protesting his innocence, sometimes implicating his partner. He was sent to the state pen for burglary in 1905, but escapes a few months later and managed to go uncaught for three years. In 1907, he was spotted in a saloon by two police, but he broke free of them and ducked down an alley. He went uncaptured again until 1910, when he and an associate, “Doc” White, were implicated in the robbery and shooting of the cashier of the Packers National Bank in South Omaha. A World-Herald article from August 9 speculates that White and Piper were also responsible for a string of robberies in the Field Club neighborhood, and calls the “highwaymen.” Piper’s previous prison escape goes unmentioned.

Unfortunately, the wounded and ailing cashier was not able to identify White or Piper, and so they were released, but ordered out of the city. Piper ignored this, and his next crime would be his last in Omaha. Piper and his gang ransacked a saloon in Omaha, stealing 1,000 cigars and several cases of bottled beer and whiskey. Unable to carry the loot, they stashed it in a nearby lot. There it was discovered by some children, who informed the police.

The police simply lay in wait. Shortly after the loot was discovered, Ray Piper returned to retrieve it. The police sprung on him, Ray opened fire with a pistol, and the police shot back, hitting him in the face. Ray began to call for help, but refused to lower his gun when commanded to do so. He broke the standoff by running away.

Ray decided to just bandage his face and lay low – never mind that he had been shot through the jaw and the bullet was still lodged behind his ear. He settled in to a house at  27th and Q Streets, and, over the course of a week, his face got worse. He finally called for a physician, which the police got word of and arrested Ray. By the time they found him, one side of his face was paralyzed and the police surgeon feared blood poising had set in.

The Omaha police seem to have then made a decision that they had attempted before: They decided to make Ray and his wife somebody else’s problem. Both were wanted for passing bad checks in Iowa, and so off they went, with Anna getting the 15 year sentence I mentioned at the start of the article, while Ray got 30, which, as you will see, he didn’t seem to serve the entirety of. And from there, his story ends in Omaha – he never again appears in a local paper having committed a local crime.

He seems to have made trouble in Iowa and the rest of Nebraska, though. A special report filed in 1922 from Nebraska City has him breaking out of the city jail, where he was being held pending his return to Iowa, where he was wanted for burglary and shooting on officer. Somehow, from inside his cell, Piper had pried off the heavy padlock that locked the door.

Turns out one of his brothers was also in the city jail. An officer from Mason City explained their crime: They had broken into a butcher shop and were in the act of removing its safe when officers interrupted them. The opened fire on the police, hitting one, and escaped in a car, which they later abandoned. The car belonged to one of the brothers, which led to their being fingered. But now Ray was gone, busted out of the cell.

He had left his brother behind.

Into Murkymatmosphere

Lou Wright entered the Omaha news as a spectacle and exited it having inspired a spectacular piece of writing. There isn’t much to say about her personally – she was a resident of Omaha’s red light district, called the Burnt District, living, at least for a while, at 914 Capitol. This was a dive rather notorious for robberies, prostitution, and occasional illegal breweries. In fact, it seemed to be populated by a particular breed of prostitute, nowadays called a roller, who specializes in robbing clients. Wright was one of these.

But she first enters the news in 1902 for nearly having exited this world in her late teens. She was suspected of having an affair with a rather well-known local boxer named Haich Smith, who battled bruisers with names like Dago Mike, Ole Olson, and Torpedo Billy Murphy across the Midwest at the turn of the century. It was Smith’s wife, Shannon, who suspected the affair, and she responded with a pistol and two shots at Lou Wright. She missed, the police arrived, and Smith was fined $50. It turned out another Smith was present, Irene, who, despite the last name, was a “lady friend” of Haich’s and no blood relation. Irene had heard of Shannon’s plans and made plans of her own, packing a straight razor and her own plans of revenge. Lou Wright was, according to arrest records, only 19 at the time, and her 19th year could have been her last, ended with bullet and razor.

Instead, Lou became an infrequent but ongoing character on the crime page, arrested repeatedly in connection with prostitution that led to theft, and repeatedly released with the charges dropped. Why? “Same old yarn,” the World-Herald wrote in 1909, “no evidence.” The men who had been robbed would realize they needed to testify to having had relations with a prostitute, and never showed up to testify.

Later in 1909, on September 13, the World-Herald again lamented Wright’s release, in this instance after a sheep man from Idaho named Joseph Anderson found himself fleeced by Wright. The World-Herald had already mocked the victim, writing “Anderson came to Omaha recently with several carloads of sheep and has been having a good time with the proceeds.” When Anderson failed to testify against Wright, the World-Herald expressed their disappointment with exquisitely purple prose, written entirely in criminal argot:

“In the apprehension of the female dips of the scarlet segment of Omaha the bulls run across a lot of difficulty in securing a victim brazen enough to come over with the wheeze, since a howl of having been touched implies a presence in territory which is absolutely sublime in its depravity.

“Joe Anderson of Idaho Falls, Idaho, bumped against Lou Wright, a dingey crook of the alleged fairer sex, at 914 Capitol Ave., Saturday night. During his stay in this locality he was relieved of a double eagle in the coin of Uncle Sam’s realm, and he was sore enough about it to yell for help at the bastile. The harness cops went on the job with much gusto, but Joe was held as witness under heavy cash bonds, which he put up and happily forfeited Monday morning.

“So Lou Wright, who was hooked on the squeal, was oozed into murkymatmosphere in the morning, her fall guy failing to come over with the kick.”

That would be the last time Lou Wright would ever appear in the Omaha papers, but, then, hadn’t she already accomplished enough?

The Procuress

Annie Pokorni was a Bohemian girl. She was 17, or maybe 19, depending on the news account. She worked as a chambermaid at the Lange Hotel at 604 S. 13th St. And, according to a 1911 article in the World-Herald, she was mad.

Annie “crouched continually in an attitude of terror,” the paper reported. Her eyes remained “wide open and staring, but unable to recognize her closest friend.” Annie was in constant terror, crying “piteously for protection against an imaginary wrong.”

And the cause of her cries? A real wrong, done to her, in part, by the woman in the mugshot above: Blanche Wagner, 29, barely the size of a pencil eraser at 4’ 11”. Occupation: housewife. Crime: procuring.

Wagner, with her husband and another man, ran a “resort” at 524 S. 13th St., which the police raised in 1911 and found young Ms. Pokorni in a greatly debilitated state. According to the police, Wagner had befriended Annie at the Lange hotel, promised to help her learn English, told her of a job that paid better than chambermaiding, and then … well, white slavery was the charge.

Things got a bit complicated, as Pokorni fled Omaha for Colorado, where she married. She refused to some back to Omaha to testify, and so the locals, without a witness, released Wagner. The feds were supposed to pick up the case, but local officials forgot to tell them they had released their suspect. It took several months to track Wagner down, and she was found just as she loaded her trunk to exit the city.

The Dance Instructor

Professor Gaynore knew that dance could be an emotional affair. In November of 1887, when he was hosting a Saturday night dance, there was a fight. Two young men argued over the affections of a young women in the alley behind the dance on Dodge Street. One of them was named Piper and the other was called “The Kid,” both were about 18, and both were armed. Piper shot The Kid in the leg, shattering his bones.

John M Gaynore opened his Academy at 1515 Dodge on October 6, 1890, offering all the latest dances, including the polka. There’s no evidence Gaynore had any sort of accredited degree, but, then, back in 1890, anybody who wanted to could call themselves professor. Gaynore came from Philadelphia, where his father had also been a dance instructor, although there wasn’t enough money in it for a man to make it his profession.

Not in Omaha.

Gaynore’s primary occupation seemed to be as a house painter. He also made money teaching swimming at Courtland beach. Even in this modest endeavor, he was called professor.

By the time the professor opened his school, he had been throwing masked balls in the city for a decade, generally without shootings. Gaynore moved among the city’s elites, teaching social dance to the likes of meat packing magnate Jack Cudahy and department store scion Hugo Brandeis. He taught the children of Buffalo Bill their first dance steps. He taught dance to Lilly Williams, who later became a champion women bicyclist. He was a beloved local character, as was his pet terrier Daisey; so much so that when Daisey was stolen by thieves, it made the newspaper.

The professor himself made the paper when he was jumped by thugs while walking to his residence 1209 Arbor Street, and he at once marched down to the police station to demand a license to carry a gun, stiletto, or any other weapon that would insure him a quiet walk home. The paper did not report whether the thugs who attacked him were dancers.

In the winter of 1888, the World Herald visited his dance school in a story with a marvelous subhead: Terpsichorean Innovations as Described by one of Omaha’s Professors of the Art; Waltzes and Polkas Which Bewilder the Beginner – Society Women Who Practice Winging and Ragging.”

The professor and the World Herald reporter watched advanced students display the smartest new social dances. “The polka that is now being danced is also a very pretty thing,” the professor told the writer. There are two ways in which it is danced. You see now that it is a kind of three hops before the swing. The other is a sort of hop-skip, two, three. It is among the new dances of the season.”

The Professor also privately taught a few of the more daring ragtime-inspired dance.

“Wing and jig dancing are getting to be great fads this season,” he said. “I have six pupils, four of whom are society girls, leaning ‘winging’ and ‘ragging.’ … Who are they? Oh no, I couldn’t mention their names.”

Let us move forward to 1915, and to the house of Joseph Sykes, 2023 Spencer Street. On May 21, you would find a 22-year-old servant named Ada Swanson, although, if you found her on that date, you would find her dead. Somebody had taken a hatchet to her head, and she lay in the basement until discovered by Mrs. Sykes. The house was otherwise undisturbed, and so theft was probably not the motivation. Police turned to witnesses.

One of these witnesses was John M. Gaynore, who was painting the house when the murder happened. He told the police he had seen a stranger, who came into the house and said he was there to fix the pipes. Ada Swanson then took him into the cellar. Even in this article, the World Herald refers to Gaynore as Professor. A suspect was pulled in by the police, an admirer of Swanson who might have had cause to hurt her, but he gave an accounting of himself for the time of her murder and it held up under investigation. On June 4, the coroner closed his inquest, and Ada Swanson’s murder went unsolved.

By 1919, the old social dances had quickly gone out of fashion. The professor, who had once been at the forefront of dance trends, was nonplussed by the new wave of jazz dances that had swept the country. “It’s good enough for the bowery,” he declared, “but it has no place among gentle folks!” And so once again he offered dance classes: The waltz, the quadrille, the polka.

Professor John M Gaynore’s last appearance in the World-Herald came in 1921, where the newspaper reported that the elderly dance instructor had traveled to Atlantic City to participate in a dance marathon. He had to dance continuously, along with other dancers, for as long as he could endure. He had to maintain perfect form, even when switching partners. There were nine other male contestants, and they waltzed.

The second place contestant managed to dance two hours and thirty two minutes before dropping out. But Professor Gaynore kept on dancing. Three hours after the content began, he was still dancing, his form still perfect.

The prize, the World Herald told us, was a cash purse “of comfortable size.” But, as he moved into his forth hour of dancing the waltz, I suspect that Professor John M. Gaynore, the dancing instructor who had spent years teaching Omahans the quadrille, the schottische, the polka, wasn’t in it for the money.

Sheelytown on Parade

His name was Joseph Sheely, he owned a meat packing plant in South Omaha, and he had a neighborhood named after him.

Sheelytown was just north of the Union Stockyards. 24th and 25th streets ran through it, and there was Creighton Boulevard to the north and Vinton Street to the south. In the 1860s and 1870s, the neighborhood was mostly Irish, who had settled Omaha after the railroad came through and found work as semiskilled laborers in the stockyard.

And then came the Czechs and the Poles, a trickle in the 1870s that increased to a steady flow as organizations such as the Polish Roman Catholic Union and the Burlington and River Railroad advertised that Omaha was a good destination for jobs.

These new immigrants made Sheelytown their own. In 1961, an early resident named John Rakowski reminisced about the neighborhood in the pages of the World-Herald. He remembered Polish weddings: “The parties afterward would last three days and nights – sometimes four. Two hundred or three hundred people would show up.” He recalled eating kolacz, pierogie, and czarnina, a soup made from duck’s blood. And he remembered that guests would dance the polka.

There were Saturday night dances at the Polish Hall, which used to be where El Museo Latino is now. “There were quite a few Saturday night fights,” Rakowski told the newspaper. He blamed the Irish, who still had a presence in Sheelytown, and would come to the dances looking for girls. Who would win the fights, the reporter for the World-Herald asked. “The Poles, naturally,” Rakowski answered.

A look through the pages of the World-Herald confirms this. An April 21, 1926 article bears the title “Sheelytown Sheiks Use Fists on Invader.” The story tells of R.H. Copsy – an English last name common enough among Anglo-Irish – who was squiring young Corienne Major about town when he was assaulted by John Kaingior, who told police he was the girl’s “rescuer.” Corienne did not feel she needed any rescuing, saying “I’m going to keep right on going with whom I please!” To which R.H. Copsy offered a feeble “Ditto.”

Sheelytown Sheiks could put up their dukes as much as they wanted, they never really managed to get rid of the Irish invaders. There was, for instance, J. William Scott, called Bill, who was Scotts Irish and then worked for Warren Buffett. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 1977, Buffett joked about Scott’s work habits: “Bill spends most of his day playing handball and rehearsing with his polka band. I like to call him the world’s richest polka player next to Lawrence Welk.”

Scott had his own band, the Polonairs of Omaha, and played trumpet. He started when he was 10 years old and his father bought him a used horn, and for some reason he gravitated toward polka. “I’ve always been crazy about polka music,” he told the Ashland Gazette in 2011. “I still love it.”

The Polonairs put out a few albums, including one that nods to Omaha History, called “Sheelytown on Parade.”

And what parades there were! A 1903 World-Herald tells of a Labor Day parade that featured five thousand marchers, with maybe 15,000 lining the streets of South Omaha to watch. One thousand members of the amalgamated meat cutters of Local No. 72 marched, dressed in white shirts and black trousers, all carrying canes.  In the nearby park, now called Spring Lake, then called Syndicate, paradegoers watched various amusements. “The fat men’s race was probably the most exciting,” the newspaper reported.

That probably depends on your perspective. Six bands marched in the parade, two from south Omaha. For some, watching rotund men run through a park was the high light. For others — for the many hundreds, the thousands even, who had transplanted themselves across the world to end up in a packing plant in South Omaha, the big bass drum and the oompa oompa of the brass recalled the homes they had left, across an ocean, almost on the other side of the world.

For them, the bands might have been the most exciting.

The Buckingham Theater’s Red-Eyed Legacy

There was once a theater called Buckingham, located near the corner of 12th and Dodge, and it’s terrible tale is mostly hidden away in the prehistory of this town. While the Omaha Daily Bee started publishing about the time the Buckingham ended, the newspaper makes scant mention of the place, but for occasional stories indicating its awfulness, including one from March of 1885 detailing the miserable circumstances of an actress at the theater.

The actress was named Minnie Woodford, and she came to Omaha from someplace else, promised a job and a salary by the theater’s proprietor, Jack Nugent, who had brought the first successful minstrel act to Omaha five years earlier. After a month of work, she went to Nugent to ask when she would get paid, and he responded by insulting and the assaulting her. This, The Bee noted, was common practice, and the actresses were left adrift with no money and no option but to leave Omaha and go back to wherever they came from.

Beyond this, The Bee had little to say about the theater. The World-Herald attempted to offer a history of the venue in 1894, when the Buckingham building was razed, a few years after a tragedy that closed the theater. They told of Jack Nugent, who they said had once been a good man from a good family, and had started a series of theaters in small wooden buildings: The St. Elmo Variety Theater, located at 112-14 South 12th Street, and the Theater Comique, also on 12th. Jack ran these joints with his two brothers, Jim and Bill, and two half brothers who would only answer to nicknames: Henny and Tootsy.

Despite having a wife who, the Herald, informs us “kept him as straight as any woman could,” there must already have been some bad in Jack, as his theaters are remembered as brutal places. “It was no unusual thing to hear of a man being murdered there every week,” Edward Francis Morearty wrote in his book Omaha Memories in 1917. He also called it “one of the toughest joints between Chicago and Leadville,” and, according to Morearty, then mayor C.S. Chase ordered the place shut down, and Jack simply changed its name to the Buckingham.

The World-Herald locates the form of Jack’s fall, and it is the form of a woman, Nellie McIntyre, a “bleached variety actress from Denver” who Jack lost his head, and his wife, over.

The Herald describes Jack’s business as consisting of painted women cajoling men to buy overpriced alcohol, overcharging them, and then threatening them if they refused to pay up – a pattern of behavior confirmed by several complaints published in the Bee.”[A” black eye and a torn coat” was a trademark of his place,” the World-Herald wrote.

“The popping of corks and the crack of revolvers kept the police close at hand,” the story continued. And this is how the story of the theater ended: Sometime around 1885, Jack got into a fight with a customer, Frank O’Kinchel, and the theater manager, C.A. Sinclaire, and guns came out. After several shots, Jack’s brother Jim lay on the floor with a bullet in his forehead. “When the policemen came,” the World-Herald reported, “some of the bulldogs kept there were feasting on Jim’s blood and brains.”

Shortly thereafter, the theater was taken into public custody, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union petitioned to take over the property and turn it into a Gospel Mission. It remained in their custody for several years, offering its services to the collection of gamblers, rogues, and degenerates who frequented the many saloons and gambling halls in the neighborhood, until the building came down in 1894.

Jack’s legacy of badness outlived his theater – there’s a puzzling story from the Daily World from 1885 about Jack Nugent paying a man $800 to kill a man named Colonel Watson B. Smith, which Nugent declares nonsense, pointing out that he was on the road with the McIntyre and Heath Minstrel Show at the time of the killing. In September of 1887, Nugent is arrested after nearly robbing a man at a saloon and then drunkenly wandering upstairs to assault a woman. In October of 1887, the Daily World reported that Nugent became demented after taking medicine, and had escaped friends and fled to Council Bluffs.

And, then, for the most part, Jack is gone, not to resurface until 1894, where he is uncovered helping out at revival meetings for a pastor named Savidge. Nugent’s wife had attended a few of these meetings over his objections, and so he had locked her out, but then had changed his mind and was now converted.

But there was one legacy of the Buckingham still uncovered, and it was a terrible one. It came to the surface by the thousands in 1912, according to the World-Herald. An old junk shop called Ferer’s was to be partially torn down to make way for a new sidewalk, and inside workmen discovered wagins filled with old bones and covered with steer hides. When the workmen went to move the wagons, a torrent of albino rats streamed out from underneath. The workmen killed 200 with clubs, but the rest escaped. Underneath the building, investigators found a honeycomb of tunnels and nests, leading all the way down to the Missouri River.

These were the progeny of a small group of albino rats that had belonged to an actress at the Buckingham, who had lost them one night when the cage was left open, and had never been recovered. And to this day, they never have. If you see an albino rat in the streets of Omaha, it may still be a legacy of the Buckingham, the city’s most murderous theater.

Hot Tamales! Part four: Tamale Desperadoes and Decline

image

If the World-Herald is to be believed, the 1930s were a time of tamale desperadoes, beginning with a grisly kidnapping and murder:

In 1931, in Ohio, a former Omaha tamale vendor named David Blackstone was arrested and charged with theft, murder, and rape. He was a participant and one of the most violent offenders in a ghastly case called the Torch Murders, in which four teenagers near Ypsilanti were abused and murdered after a robbery, then placed in their car, which was set on fire.

In the meanwhile, back in Omaha, tamale vendor Frank Hughes was accosted by three men who drew guns on him and forced him into a car. They put a sack over his head, tied his cart to the bumper of their car, and drove him to Elmwood part. There, they robbed him of $2 and drove off, presumably with his cart still attached to their car.

And in April, a federal narcotics agent arrested a tamale vendor named Albert Jones, who, as the World-Herald coyly put it, sold “other merchandise” alone with his delicious wares. The other merchandize? Dope.

In June, 65-year-old Moses Saunders was attacked and beaten at 28th and Franklin Streets by two men. The men then stole his tamale cart, which was later found empty. This would be a recurring story. Carts that were stolen were always found empty, as you will see.

On July 1 of 1933, an Omaha tamale vendor named Jack Kelly was arrested in Council Bluffs and then ordered out of the city. Ostensibly, the problem was that he had no license to sell in the city, but he claimed otherwise. “It’s just plain jealousy,” he told the World-Herald. Vendors in Council Bluffs, according to Kelly, “squealed on me because I was cutting into their business.”

Kelly didn’t have a license in Omaha either – no such licenses existed at the time, and it wasn’t until March of 1934 that City Commissioner Dan Butler proposed such a license, part of a sweeping collection of food service reforms recommended by public health director Millard Langfeld. The City Council voted on this proposal in April, and suddenly the world of hot tamale peddling wasn’t wide open anymore. Vendors would have to register with the city and pay $5 per year for their license.

Even with a license, tamale vending was a dangerous business. In November of 1937, four youths attacked the cart of vendor John Meadows, looting it and stealing the tamales; two of the kids were arrested while still snacking on tamales, while the other two were picked up when checking in on their friends at the police station under the pretext of looking for a lost dog. Tamale stands remained a target for misbehaving youths – in September of 1944, a 68-year-old tamale vendor was attacked by five teen-age patrons when he served them and then asked for payment.

It wasn’t just misbehaving youths that targeted tamale peddlers. In August of 1940, a customer named Clarence Robinson took out his anger at an unsatisfactory tamale by repeatedly kicking the cart. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” he told the judge.

Newspaper references to tamale carts tapered off in the 40s, although ads offered carts that sold popcorn, hot dogs, and tamales, suggesting that street vendors were no longer limiting their wares to just the spicy corn dish.

In fact, we know of one man who sold something else, even though he oughtn’t have:  Joseph Vavra, who made a little extra money on the side. Similar to dope dealer Albert Jones,  he sold liquor along with his tamales, which netted him a 30-day suspended sentence in December of 1941. The tamale business was at the start of a long decline.

There were vendors who hung on, though. In 1957, the World-Herald reported on Lew Bennett, who supported his family with a tamale cart while hobbling around on an ancient peg leg. Readers were so moved by this story that they pooled their resourced to buy Bennett a proper artificial leg and found him a new job at a basket company in Florence, taking one of the remaining tamale vendors off the street.

What few carts were left were still targets of crime. A February 27, 1958 story in the World-Herald tells of a theft downtown. “Detectives Thursday feared for the contents of a hot tamale cart,” the story told readers, which was just a repeat of what the story’s title already communicated, and which we could have assumed: “Hot Tamale Cart Probably Empty.”

By February of 1959, hot tamale vendors were a subject of wistful nostalgia. An author named Pat Murphy Garst wrote an editorial dewily looking back on his childhood years. “[W]e children swarmed in and about the houses playing a game called ‘green light,’ listening hopefully for the first distant cry of the hot tamale vendor,” Garst wrote, sounding like he was describing a phenomenon long past.

They weren’t completely gone, though. As late as 1961, people were still stealing tamale wagons. On November 25, the police found the remains of a cart that belonged to a 77-year-old vendor. “There were no tamales in the wagon,” the World-Herald reported. In 1964, the paper reported on a “Hot Tamale Phantom” who repeatedly stole carts, four attempts in the month of December alone.

And that was it. Sure, tamales occasionally continued to appear in the newspaper – usually in the form of recipes for hot tamale pie, a homemade casserole version of the meal. But the tamale vendors and their carts were gone from the streets of Omaha. By March of 1978. the World-Herald was quoting a home economist who claimed that “[a]n American child probably wouldn’t taste a hot tamale.”

She was wrong, of course. Because while there have been Mexicans in Omaha since the city was founded, the population has been steadily growing since the 1980s, and doubled from 1990 to 2005. While tamales are eaten throughout Central and South America, the meal probably dates back to ancient Mexico, with the Aztecs and the Mayans, and the dish remains a popular comfort food in Mexican communities everywhere, including Omaha.

I said at the start of this article that the tamale is due for a revival in Omaha, but in many ways that revival has already begun. It’s mostly found in Mexican restaurants now, and it’s possible to mistake the tamale for being a food that is new to Omaha, brought to town by recent immigrants.

But Omahans have been eating tamales for at least 118 years, and it’s time we claimed it as one of our traditional regional dishes. Let’s get those carts out on the streets again, and then let’s go steal one and leave it empty.

Hot Tamales! Part three: The Red Hot 20s

image

December 14 of 1921 saw the world of tamale peddling turn murderous when two tamale men, Ely Lewis and Joe Weston, got in a fight after a game of blackjack. Lewis repeatedly beat Weston, drawing a hand of 21 three times when Weston held 19. “You can’t take money here like that without a gun,” Weston declared, and when Lewis leaped at him to fight, Weston crushed his skull with an axe.

The World-Herald began referring to Weston as a “hot tamale king,” the first appearance of this title, which they would apply several times over the coming years. “Convict ‘Hot Tamale King’” the paper titled a March 2 story in which they reported that Weston had been found guilty of manslaughter after 18 hours of jury deliberations.

The newspaper also repeatedly identifies both the killer and the victims as African-American ( “negroes,” in the language of the era; a longstanding a troubling tendency to identify the race of criminals, but only when they weren’t white), which points to a transition that had happened in the tamale business. Omaha was one of the terminus cities for the “Great Migration” of 1.4 million semiskilled African-American laborers north, and one of the results of this was that that the tamale business now had many black vendors.

And so we hear of “Mack,” an African-American tamale seller who, in July of 1923, was robbed by two “plutocratic” ruffians on 14th and Dodge St. They pulled up in a fancy car, stole the light from his cart, and robbed him of several tamales before making their getaway. The story is not explicit, but its use of the phrase “plutocratic” suggests the thieves were white, and this would be unsurprising. The Great Migration had a social cost, as the late teens and 1920s saw a massive uptick in racist organizations and behavior. Black people in Omaha were frequent victims of acts of contempt or violence by white people, some murderous, some larcenous, some official.

There was, for example, Sulton Warren, a tamale peddler on 24th Street who had the misfortune to doze off next to his cart on September 26, 1925. The police arrested him and charged him with “obstructing a public walk.” Warren’s punishment? Five days in jail.

It is possible to overstate racial tensions of the era, however, and I don’t want to do this. Another African-American tamale man, Frank Golden, was treated with almost paternalistic affection by the World-Herald, who declared him another tamale king. When Gold died in 1932, the World-Herald offered a big feature story on the man, who claimed to have “lived in Omaha longer than any other Negro,” had seen the body of Abraham Lincoln as a boy, had participated in the Klondike gold rush, and had introduced the hot tamale to Omaha. He was buried with a crowd of mourners numbered in the hundreds, and the Chief of Police was among them.

The World-Herald looked into the economic of the tamale trade in September of 1929, focusing, perhaps unsurprisingly, on a white businessman named Earl Henry Morning, who had gone from rags to riches by hawking his watch and starting a tamale business. In a few months he had grown the business, and now had a small army of men selling tamales from pushcarts, as well as a tamale café at 1912 Lake Street. He was then making about $2,00 per month – the equivalent of $27,000 in today’s money, or an annual income of $324 thousand. The paper present this as a story of industriousness and ambition, but it is also possible to read it another way – that the tamale trade was cheap and easy to break into and unexpectedly lucrative. It’s easy to see why semiskilled migrant African-American workers would be attracted to it, and equally easy to see why white businessmen might rise up as competition.

And the thefts continued. On November 15, 1930, tamale vendor W.C. Saunders was making a delivery at 2215 N. 27th Avenue when somebody stole his cart. His whole cart, tamales and all.

NEXT: TAMALE DESPERADOES AND DECLINE

Hot Tamales! Part two: The Turn of the Centuy and Two Tamale Poems

image

I am a fan of something called newspaper doggerel, a regretfully forgotten poetic form consisting of imperfect and often deeply sarcastic poems sent in to newspapers, or authored by newspaper men, addressing the news of the day.

The tamale first found itself embedded in a poem by Will A. Argyle of the Omaha Bee on February 13, 1901. Argyle was feeling deep sympathy but also profound irritation for Walt Mason, a writer and editor given to versifying, who Argyle called “the poorest newspaperman in Nebraska.” Mason had apparently been critical of Edward Rosewater, publisher of the Bee, and to this Argyle took exception. “Walt Mason is a deluded man,” Argyle charges, and composed the following poem:

Backward, turn backward, oh Time in your flight
And give Mason his reason again for tonight.
The old Hot Tamales have ceased to be hot;
Oh, Lord, give us the days when they will be not.

The lowly hot tamale again made a local appearance in an example of newspaper doggerel from the World-Herald on December 7 of 1902. The subject was a rather minor scandal in the war department involving a man named Russell Alexander Alger, who was made Secretary of War but resigned a few years due to general incompetence. He was the subject of the following poem, which the author claims Alger himself carved into his desk before vacating it.

“‘Embalmed Beef’ Alger? – Never mind.
They’ll rue them of their folly.
For in a jiffy they will find
I’m now a hot tamale.”

Aside from inspiring poetic flights of fancy, the tamale continued doing good business – so much so that in October of 1907, according to a story in the Omaha Bee, a “young man, whose first name is Harry, and whose last name has been forgotten by his employer,” decided to make a little money on the side. He worked for a tamale peddler named W.F. Rutherford, and Harry showed up for work a little early, set out the tamale stand on Ninth and Capitol Avenue, proceeded to do pretty good business, and then took off with whatever he made, along the previous night’s till, before his boss showed up. The total take turned out to be $16, which is nearly $400 nowadays.

Tamales were by now popular enough to inspire a series of riddles in the Omaha Bee, which appeared on March 21, 1908, taken from a church social where they had served tamales and had a member dress as a tamale vendor. Among the riddles:

— Why is a tamale like an egg ready to hatch? Because there is a little chicken in it.

— Why is a tamale like a dude between two ladies? Because the swell is in the center.

And the following riddle, which manages at once to use an anti-Italian epithet and give a sense of the ethnic makeup of many tamale peddlers:

— When do tamales cause darkness? When dagoes (day goes) make them.

Tamales weren’t just lucrative for individual peddlers, but were also good business for the Cornhusker State. So much so that in 1909, Mayor “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman received a letter from California requesting as many corn husks as the city could provide at a price of $75 per ton, according to the Loup City Times Independent. The husks, of course, were intended as a covering for “the humble bur toothsome hot tamale.”

And where there is money, there is crime. 1916 brought a rash of food crimes – the World-Herald reported on November 30 that about of ton of food had been stolen over the course of a week, including hauls from tamale vendors. The thefts included 100 hams and 40 turkeys, and the paper opined that the thieves should “invite their luckless brothers to dinner” for Thanksgiving.

NEXT: THE RED HOT 20S

Hot Tamales! Part one: The Victorian Tamale

Tamales aren’t as hot in Omaha as they used to be. The town doesn’t offer any sort of tamale festival, newspapers don’t pick the city’s best tamale, and the cornmeal delicacy doesn’t even appear at many regional restaurants.

It’s due for a revival, and not merely because the tamale, wrapped in cornhusk, is ideal for the Cornhusker state. It’s also one of Omaha’s first food fads, and a longlasting one. Omaha went tamale crazy for more than 60 years, and the streets of the city were filled with tamale vendors – a profession, as we shall see, that was pretty rough-and-tumble.

But first, what is a tamale? The World-Herald offered a recipe on March 19, 1923, which I will reproduce, although I have altered the layout to make it easier to read. The recipe is as follows, and, although the food was almost always referred to as a “hot tamale,” the fact that one teaspoon red pepper was the only spice used in 40 tamales points to Omaha’s longstanding trepidation toward spicy food:

HOT TAMALE RECIPE

White part: Mix one quart cornmeal with one pint warm water, add one teaspoon salt and one half pound soft lard to make soft dough.

Red part: Mix one cup meal with one teaspoon salt. Heat one half pound lard and one half quart can tomatoes with one teaspoon red pepper and one cup water.

While still hot, add the cornmeal and boil this to make a dough. Cut two pounds boiled chicken into small pieces. To make each tamale spread one tablespoon white dough on cornhusks and one teaspoon red dough and pieces of chicken about one-forth the size of the tamale. Wrap each tamale in cornhusks and steam one hour. This recipe makes 40 tamales.

THE TAMALE ARRIVES

The tamale came to Omaha sometime at the end of the Victorian era. At this time, local newspapers started publishing comical stories about people’s panicked reaction to the hot food, such as a May 6, 1895 World-Herald story about an Atlanta newsboy who endeavored to eat eight tamales and was so distressed that he ate a pound of butter while his workmates considered calling the fire department.

Tamales had also made it into the popular amusements of the era. In fact, Omaha’s  first newspaper reference to hot tamales was connected to entertainment: On October 9, 1894, the Omaha Daily Bee wrote about two comedians, Conroy and Fox, who had a show called “Hot Tamales.” (Its slogan? “Hot Stuf – Nuf Sed.”) It played at the 15th Street Theater for a few days and received generally favorable reviews.

As to the food itself, a writer from the Bee went to Atlanta for their fair in December and was very taken with it, describing in florid details its midway, where “hot tamales are vended at every turn.”

“The Sidewalks of New York,” a show at the Creighton theater (now the Orpheum) in February of 1896, had a whistling hot tamale vendor who was “loudly cheered,” according to the World-Herald. November saw international singing superstar May Irwin at the same venue, singing a song she cowrote with George M. Cohan, “Hot Tamale Alley.”

As far as I can tell, the first news appearance of a local tamale seller was one John Corby, who sold weinerwurst (what we now call hot dogs) and tamales from a can atop a gasoline lamp; he made it into the World-Herald in November of 1895 when his lamp exploded, causing minor damage. This was a recurring risk with tamale stands, by the way – years later, in 1928, a tamale vendor named Alex McIntosh was badly burned on his face and right hand when the kerosene tank on his cart exploded. On December 27, 1929, a tamale cart simply exploded on 24th and Leavenworth.

Corby’s tamale cart almost immediately had a competitor in a fellow named H. Brown, who in December of 1896, while making a delivery, had his pockets picked. He reacted badly, according to the World-Herald, accusing the woman who had ordered the tamales and having her arrested for larceny. “The woman in turn declared that Brown insulted her,” The World-Herald reported, “that he caused her arrest in revenge for her resentment of the insult, that he has now ruined her character, and that she will make things warm for him.” The hot tamale was new to Omaha, but it was already making trouble. There was more trouble to come.

And, at the end of ‘96, the body of a tamale seller turned up in the Missouri river, floating outside of Bellevue. This was August Diem, 60 years of age. He was an indigent who had recently spent time at the poor farm, a charitable institution that provided shelter and work for the needy. Diem had peddled pig’s feet and sausages to area restaurants and sold weinerwust and hot tamales on Douglas Street. “There are no indications of foul play,” the World-Herald informed readers on December 31 – he would, however, not be the last tamale seller to wind up dead.

By 1897, tamale sellers frequented downtown, enough so that the World-Herald referred to them collectively in a January 24 story about a frigid night, describing the sellers as shielding their carts with their bodies to keep their food from freezing. H. Brown made another appearance in the World-Herald the next month when two men attempted to steal chicken from his tamale stand – he threw  them to the ground and, as the paper reports, “besides giving them a thumping, held them [for the police].”

The tamale business was a relatively lucrative one as the century turned, as demonstrated by our next tamale fatality, Mr. John Hall, who died of natural causes in August of 1900 and whose friends buried him to save him from a pauper’s grave. They puzzled about his savings, according to the World-Herald, as he should have had plenty of money: He average $2 to $5 per day selling tamales and was supposed to have $1000 squirreled away. In today’s money, that’s between $50 and $120 per day, with a savings of about $25k. Not a king’s ransom, but a respectable income in a profession that attracted disrespectable men.

NEXT: PART TWO, THE TURN OF THE CENTURY AND TWO TAMALE POEMS