Hansen: Omaha's Al Capone and the trial that changed the city's history - Omaha.com
Published Friday, December 6, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 9:59 am
Hansen: Omaha's Al Capone and the trial that changed the city's history
Two new books touch on Dennison
Today, Tom Dennison's name doesn't ring out like Boss Tweed or Al Capone.

But two new books about Omaha — one that begins with the trial of Tom Dennison and one that ends with it — offer new insight into a man who ran Omaha every bit as much as Tweed once ran New York or Capone once ran Chicago.

“River City Empire,” the new edition of a Dennison book by Orville Menard, a retired University of Nebraska at Omaha professor, has just been published in paperback by the University of Nebraska Press.

Menard's book chronicles the life of Dennison, as well as the life of Omaha, in a history that ends roughly at the time of Dennison's trial.

You can buy “River City Empire” at the Bookworm, 87th and Pacific Streets, as well as at other Omaha bookstores and on Amazon.com.

“Cigars and Wires,” a new book by Jon Blecha, a retired Omaha police detective, chronicles the city's underworld from Prohibition — Dennison's heyday — to the 1970s. Menard says Blecha's book is “impressively comprehensive.”

“Cigars and Wires” can be purchased by placing orders with Jack Atkins, who helped research the book. Atkins can be reached at 402-502-0514.

Eighty-one years ago, Omaha's most powerful man took the stand in a trial that changed the course of this city's history.

Tom Dennison, the dapper Irishman who strode to the witness box in November 1932, had for all intents and purposes run Omaha for nearly four decades.

He had never been mayor, and, in fact, he never ran for political office. Instead, he got mayors, city councilmen, judges and even congressmen elected — or defeated — based on how willing they were to bend to his will.

Neither was Dennison a reputable big-business man, the equivalent of a modern-day Fortune 500 CEO. It's a tad difficult to fit in with the black-tie crowd when you are dogged by accusations that you had murdered rivals, robbed trains and become the Capone of the Cornhusker State.

Not that the man on the witness stand was hurting for cash. He moved rivers of liquor during Prohibition, ran several wildly profitable illegal casinos, controlled and profited from the city's 2,500 prostitutes and collected cash from every business — both reputable and underworld — that needed his protection.

He also tampered with juries, stuffed ballot boxes, bought off the Omaha police, installed relatives and cronies into made-up city jobs, allegedly ordered the murder of one of Omaha's biggest businessmen and may have purposely inflamed the racial tension that led to the 1919 race riot and lynching of a black man.

A Chamber of Commerce stalwart he was not. But Tom Dennison was something else. He was untouchable.

Untouchable, until this day in 1932.

“People knew Tom Dennison, but until the trial there was never a deep understanding of exactly what was going on in this city,” says Orville Menard, the author of one of two new books that seek to shed light on Omaha's Dennison-connected past. “In the fall of '32, the people of Omaha found out. All these weeks of testimony ... they exposed Dennison. They exposed his machine.”

To understand just how shocking the Dennison trial was, you need to understand just how difficult it once seemed to unseat him.

In 1899, following a campaign by this very newspaper, the Douglas County attorney raided Dennison's illegal casinos and arrested him. The charges were quickly dropped on a legal technicality. It probably didn't hurt that Omaha's chief of police and its mayor were both Dennison allies.

In 1904, Dennison was arrested again, this time in Iowa, for his alleged masterminding of a train robbery during which $15,000 in diamonds disappeared. This time he stood trial.

Incredibly, Omaha Mayor Frank Moores actually appeared as a character witness on Dennison's behalf and testified that the kingpin of Omaha's underworld was in fact one swell dude.

There were numerous examples of Dennison's associates and employees being arrested. Often, they appeared before judges who had been elected or re-elected with Dennison's help. In other cases, they appeared before jury members who had been threatened, bribed or both. Suffice it to say, the trials of Tom Dennison's men usually ended with them back on the streets of the 3rd and 4th Wards, which encompassed much of Omaha's present-day downtown.

A reform movement intent on cleaning up the seedy area, and pushing Dennison from power, also repeatedly failed at the ballot box.

Dennison backed both Republicans and Democrats who had little in common save for two things. They won. And then they either actively supported Tom Dennison or at least left him alone.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

His grip was strongest in the 3rd and 4th Wards. Most of the voters who lived in those wards were poor immigrants who relied on Dennison's organization for jobs when they were unemployed or groceries when they were starving. Often, they owed Dennison only one thing in return: their votes.

Similarly, Omaha's seemingly legitimate businessmen could always use help getting a new road built or a city inspector to look the other way. They went to Dennison, too, and then they owed him a single thing in return: campaign contributions.

The result? “Tom Dennison's politicians were always in the majority,” says Menard, the author of “River City Empire,” a book about Omaha's underworld history that ends with Dennison's trial.

The assassination of Omaha businessman Harry Lapidus in 1931 — an event that I'm planning to write more about — began to change things.

For one, it prompted federal agents to open a wide-ranging case and to wiretap dozens of bars, casinos, brothels and other businesses connected to Dennison.

And those wiretaps, in turn, led to the indictments of 59 people. The one that grabbed the headlines: Tom Dennison, charged with conspiracy.

During the trial, a team of prosecutors led by Edson Smith — the father of Judge Laurie Smith Camp, currently the chief judge for the U.S. District Court in Omaha — succeeded in publicizing evidence of decades of Dennison's wrongdoing. The trial, ostensibly about bootlegging, became a referendum on the man who had ruled Omaha for four decades. In some way, it became a referendum on the city itself, which had allowed it to happen.

It should surprise no one that Dennison's trial ended in a hung jury after two jurors mysteriously refused to convict despite mountains of evidence.

The truth, though, is that the verdict didn't really matter. The court case itself — the dirty laundry it aired — caused public opinion to swing sharply against the Dennison machine. Anti-Dennison reformers swept the next election. Dennison, by then 72 years old, understood that he was finished in Omaha.

Shortly after the election, he moved to California. He died in 1934, his decades-long stranglehold on power finally broken. For most of those years, they couldn't break Omaha's most powerful man at the ballot box or dent his businesses' bottom line.

“So they broke him through the courts,” Menard says.

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.

No injuries after fire at midtown's old Mercer Mansion
19-year-old arrested in connection with March shooting
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Keystone XL pipeline backers blast 'political expediency' as foes hail ruling to delay decision
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Nebraska senators to study tax issues over break
Portion of Saddle Creek Road closed after water main break
Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Police identify 21-year-old shot in ankle near 30th, W Streets
Cult murderer's death row appeal denied, but execution in limbo
Beau McCoy strikes Obama doll in TV ad; Democrats are not happy
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
Interstate construction to cause lane shifts, closings in Omaha area
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »