The 1894 murder in South Omaha of a young white woman named Maud Rubel resulted in a lengthy pursuit of suspects. Although Rubel’s “doctor” without a medical degree was initially believed to be the murderer, the police soon suspected another man, an African American, of the crime. The case and its legal implications are discussed in Tommy Thompson’s “Who Killed Maud Rubel? A Case of Black and White in Omaha, 1894,” which appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Nebraska History magazine.
Sixteen-year-old Maud Rubel’s body, with a fatal head injury, was discovered in May 1894 in a nearly deserted building under the Tenth Street Viaduct in Omaha. Her shoes, dress, hat, and two rings were missing. Initial theories suggested suicide or a robbery gone awry. An early suspect in the case was “Doctor” William P. Brown, who had recently treated Rubel and was suspected of being intimate with her. However, suspicion soon shifted to Samuel E. Payne, an African American porter at the nearby Drexel Hotel, who (like Brown) had been seen with Rubel before her disappearance.
The case attracted extensive newspaper coverage as witnesses came forward who had seen one or both suspects with the victim. Some of Rubel’s possessions, including her shoes, purse, and jewelry, were found in the house of Belle “Sugar Lump” Clark, Payne’s mistress. The next major development in the case came when Payne reportedly confessed to the murder, saying that he had struck Rubel after a sexual encounter but had not intended to kill her. Dr. Brown, no longer considered a suspect, was released.
The city of Omaha waited uneasily for Payne’s trial in district court that fall. It opened on November 15, 1894, with every seat in the courtroom occupied. Payne took the stand on November 27 to deny his guilt. He recanted his confession, claiming that he had been tired and did not understand fully what was happening during his interrogation by police. After conflicting testimony and the prosecution’s declaration that “anarchy . . . and mob violence” would follow a verdict of not guilty, the case went to the jury. On November 29 the jury declared Payne guilty but recommended against execution.
Payne spent the next ten years in the state penitentiary. He was pardoned in 1906 by Governor John Mickey. J. L. Kaley, the prosecutor who had sent Payne to jail, later wrote to the governor on Payne’s behalf, pointing out that aside from the questionable confession, there was only circumstantial evidence against him. The case remains of interest because of its reflection of racial attitudes in Omaha during the 1890s and of their operation in the criminal justice system.