October 29, 2022 | Last updated May 3, 2023

Jury Duty

It’s safe to say that jury duty isn’t the most enjoyable thing in the world. But for one Omaha jury in February 1893, things got so bad that they actually went on strike!

“It is painfully apparent to the man who is called upon to serve his country in the capacity of a juror in district court that very little pains have been exercised to ensure the comfort of patriots in that line of duty,” said the Lincoln Weekly News on June 29, 1893. A few months earlier, on February 18, the Nebraska State Journal had noted that a group of Omaha jurors were on strike:

The jurors in Judge [Cunningham R.] Scott’s [court]room made a complaint today against the kind of food being furnished them, and the outcome of the protest is liable to raise a pretty row. It is, and always has been, a custom to lock up the juries while deliberating on the separate cases, and not allow the members to repair to their respective homes until the verdict has been reached. Such being the case, the county has been obliged to furnish such jurors their daily meals while so deliberating, and in order to have a place where the men could be fed the commissioners have always invited bids for furnishing these meals.

At the last letting the Grand Central hotel [at Fifteenth and Jackson in Omaha] was the lowest bidder, the proprietor agreeing to supply all of the meals at the rate of 25 cents each. During the time of the holding of the last term of court there were no kicks registered on the fare, but now there is a long drawn wail which has become public. For several days the rumblings of the storm have been heard coming from a number of empty stomachs.

This morning the men who have been feeding at the place above mentioned declared a rebellion and stated that if they were to be kept there they would break away. Judge Scott, before whom the appeal was made, said that he could not allow his jurors to work upon empty stomachs and that he would not keep them at a place where they were put on half rations. The jurors were with the judge and at once they flashed a paper setting forth the wrongs that they had suffered. This paper was signed by all the men who had been fed at the Grand Central, . . . The court took the document and stated that he would lay the case before the county commissioners and if those gentlemen would not act in the premises the jurors would be discharged and sent to their homes.

The News, in its June 29 article also criticized the “catch-as-catch-can fare and miserable sleeping accommodations” then given sequestered jurors and said, “It would be a much more equitable plan to allow the jurors to enjoy the comforts of their homes and the society of their families, while the litigants and their lawyers may be locked up to enjoy the scant accommodations of the jury room. This would certainly come as near preventing corruption of jurors as does the present system.”

Image(above): Fourteen men, identified as the Ossenkop Jury. The photo was taken in 1909 (RG3384.Ph000010-000112)

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