Nebraska voters adopted a prohibitory amendment to the state constitution in 1916, and it took effect in May 1917, two years before the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed liquor nationwide. Problems soon emerged. Bootleggers appeared to supply the thirsty with now illegal alcoholic beverages; saloons instead of closing, went underground; and some experimented with home brew. Crime, spurred by these activities, became rampant. An unparalleled wave of robberies, assaults, and homicides occurred in Omaha during the era before the Twenty-first Amendment ended national prohibition and statewide prohibition was voted out in November 1934.
Nebraska newspaperman Will M. Maupin (1863-1948) in 1931 sought to deflect criticism of Omaha by noting that Omaha’s record of unsolved homicides was no worse than that of Lincoln. Maupin, then staff correspondent for the Omaha World-Herald, noted on December 31, 1931: “Omaha is not alone in the matter of ‘black records.’ Lincoln can come very close to matching Omaha in homicides that have never been solved. The difference is that Omaha’s killings have been confined to comparatively recent years, while those of Lincoln stretch over 40 years. Based upon population, Lincoln has had more mysterious homicides in the last 40 years than Omaha. . . .
“It was in December, 1890, that John Sheedy, nationally known gambler and racetrack man, was murdered in his own back yard at Thirteenth and P streets, Lincoln. The identity of the person who slugged Sheedy to death has never been disclosed. Monday McFarland, a Negro, and Mrs. Sheedy, wife of the murdered man, were arrested, charged with the killing. It was charged that Mrs. Sheedy employed McFarland to commit the murder. Separate trials were secured and McFarland was defended by Colonel [J. E.] Philpott [and L. W. Billingsley]. McFarland has confessed the killing, and that he had been induced by Mrs. Sheedy to kill Sheedy, but he was acquitted. Judge [Allen W.] Field, presiding judge, ruled that the confession had been obtained under duress, and refusing [refused] to admit it as evidence. Mrs. Sheedy also was acquitted.” For more information on this celebrated case, see Timothy R. Mahoney’s “The Great Sheedy Murder Trial and the Booster Ethos of the Gilded Age in Lincoln, Nebraska” in the Winter 2001 issue of Nebraska History. The entire article is now online on the Nebraska State Historical Society’s website.
Maupin mentioned several more unsolved Lincoln homicides: “In the summer of 1901 John J. Gillilan, prominent real estate dealer was murdered near his home. Various theories were advanced, the chief one being that he was killed in an attempted holdup, but no clue was ever obtained that led to the arrest and trial of any suspect.” Gillilan was also a former member of the Nebraska Legislature, serving as a member of the state’s House of Representatives from 1891 to 1893.
“On January 22, 1921, Adrian Barstow, prominent grain and lumberman, was killed between his garage and his home at 1445 South Twentieth street. The murder was definitely fixed at a few minutes before midnight. Barstow had put his car in the garage and started for the house. The police finally decided that Barstow had surprised a burglar whose identity he knew, and had been killed. The murderer was never located.”
John and Mary Sheedy were principals in one of Lincoln’s most sensational murder cases.