Hansen: Ruins of Omaha gangster underworld buried beneath Union Pacific - Omaha.com
Published Monday, September 23, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 11:55 am
Hansen: Ruins of Omaha gangster underworld buried beneath Union Pacific
If you go
The Bell Hotel will be one focus of a lecture, on Omaha's mysterious and murderous history, sponsored by the Douglas County Historical Society.

The lecture, titled “Mysteries of Omaha,” will also feature presentations on a forgotten ax murderer and Omaha's “Mystery Girl.”

When: 2 p.m. today

Where: Building 10 of Metropolitan Community College's Fort Omaha campus

Cost: Free for historical society members; $5 for nonmembers

Sometimes I stare out the newsroom's west windows and watch people do actual work in the glittering glass office building across the street.

I'm peering into the Union Pacific Railroad's corporate headquarters. It's a headquarters where Omahans make the trains in 23 states run on time and then eat a healthful lunch at a cafeteria featuring an 87-item salad bar.

It is an outstanding place. It is an upstanding place. It is a place where middle managers wear pressed slacks and ID badges and count calories.

Which is funny, because that glittering glass tower is built upon the ruins of a very different kind of headquarters.

For decades, this site housed a bordello, an illegal bookmaking operation, a backroom casino and at least one secret passageway for quick getaways.

It suffered countless police raids, two bombing attempts and at least one unsolved gangland-style murder.

The men who ran it and frequented it — men with nicknames like “Snorts” and “Snooks” and “Nosey” — did not count calories. They counted cash that the tax collectors would never see.

The blue sign out front once glowed in the downtown sky, beckoning to lousy husbands and degenerate gamblers and this city's big-time gangsters and small-time criminals.

The Bell Hotel. The Bell Cigar Store.

The epicenter of Omaha sin.

“If they dodged the bullets, they went there,” says Jack Atkins, a retired Omaha businessman and the son of one of Omaha's most notorious bootleggers. “Nobody's hands were clean. Nobody's.”

The Bell, which opened around the time of the Great Depression and managed to stay open through the Korean War, is one subject in a monthlong series put on by the Douglas County Historical Society and titled, quite accurately, “Murder, Mysteries and Mayhem.”

There was plenty of each at the hotel and related cigar store, owned and operated by Fred Weyerman, better known as Snorts. Snorts drove a big Cadillac, smoked big cigars and operated one of Omaha's biggest underground casinos.

In one backroom of the cigar store you could find an illegal all-night card game that attracted Vegas-connected operators such as Paul Weyerman — that would be Snorts' brother — and Kansas City mob-connected criminals like Charles “Snooks” Hutter.

Another backroom is where Snorts' bookmaker took bets on horse races, boxing matches and baseball games. That's where nervous gamblers could get inning-by-inning updates on the Yankees or the Dodgers — that would be the Brooklyn Dodgers — via telegraph wire.

And if you were connected enough, you could walk through a secret back hallway into the Bell Hotel, whose front entrance indelicately faced north onto Dodge Street.

The hotel offered cheap weekly rates on rooms. It also featured a rotating cast of prostitutes.

All of this was Omaha's worst-kept secret.

“Oh, everybody knew,” says Atkins, who remembers shoveling snow off the sidewalk at Snorts Weyerman's house and receiving $20 — a huge sum in the 1940s and '50s. “If you wanted to meet a lady of the evening, that's where you would go.”

Your safety wasn't necessarily guaranteed.

On July 11, 1938, a bomb exploded in front of the property, injuring no one but surely shaking up the various scofflaws inside.

In 1943, the aforementioned Nosey Barone, a notorious thug, assaulted a man named Henry Sorkin inside the cigar store after Sorkin refused to lend him money to open a nightclub.

Nosey also promised Sorkin, “I will beat you up every time I see you,” according to a new book about Omaha underworld history written by retired policeman and author Jon Blecha.

Sorkin responded to that threat Dec. 17, 1943. He responded by shooting Nosey dead in another downtown Omaha cigar store.

On Jan. 24, 1952, another bomb exploded. This one — believed to be the handiwork of a rival bookmaker —shattered the cigar store's front window.

And yet, despite blaring World-Herald headlines and frequent police raids, the Bell Hotel somehow managed to stay open. I have images of $100 handshakes dancing in my head.

But not even greased palms could prevent a crackdown — and the ultimate demise of the hotel — after what happened April 20, 1953.

That night, Eddie McDermott, the owner of a second-rate nightclub and a regular at the cigar store's card room, pulled up to the hotel, dropped off his date and went to park in a neighboring garage.

He was discovered hours later with two bullet holes in his head and $1,350 in cash still tucked safely inside his wallet.

When Omaha police showed up, the first man they saw was a fellow officer — a soon-to-be ex-officer by the nickname of Muscles — running from the scene.

Inside the card room, the police found Snooks Hutter, the man with known Kansas City mob ties. That city's organized crime outfit, as well as Omaha's gangsters, had at least one shared reason for wanting ­McDermott to disappear: He was planning to open his own rival bookmaking operation.

Snooks had an alibi. They all did.

In 1956, Omaha's police chief told The World-Herald: “Professional jobs like this are well planned. The killer skips town and the gun disappears. Gangsters, live ones, don't talk.”

By then, the Bell Hotel was no more. Police had raided it for a final time in 1955, busted up the prostitution ring, found the secret passageway between the hotel and the cigar store and shuttered the hotel's front door.

The cigar store actually operated into the 1960s, when Snorts Weyerman decided to retire and ride off into the sunset ... to Las Vegas, where his brother Paul owned a minority stake in a casino you may have heard of.

The Horseshoe.

The city of Omaha, much like Snorts, went legit. Today it's impossible to imagine a well-known brothel operating on a prime piece of downtown real estate. Hard to imagine an underground casino operating on the spot where a Fortune 500 train company chugs out profits.

But it happened, swears Creighton University senior Connor Hussein, who spent his summer internship at the Douglas County Historical Society researching the Bell Hotel. Connor, age 21, will speak about the Bell during the historical society's “Murder, Mysteries and Mayhem” event today.

It did indeed happen, Connor said, and the research was ... amazing.

“You hear about Al Capone, you hear about Prohibition, but it turns out we did something, too,” he says. “We had our organized crime! We had our gangland-style murders! Just like Chicago!”

Connor pauses.

“Not exactly like Chicago, but kind of.”

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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