Tom Dennison Exhibit & River City Empire

Nicole and I were in Portland last week–so I missed this–but a friend of the blog let me know about a couple recent Tom Dennison news items. First, a new permanent exhibit opened last week at the Roman L. Hruska Federal Courthouse in downtown Omaha that relates the intrigue surrounding the 1932 trial of Tom Dennison, and fifty-eight other members of his syndicate, for alleged Prohibition violations. The exhibit touts this landmark trial as it “brought national attention to the methods used by criminal syndicates of that era to promote bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, money-laundering, extortion, election fraud, jury-rigging, bribery, and political corruption.”


Although Tom Dennison was indicted and tried over the course of two months, the trial ended in a hung jury, and  Dennison would never be convicted. Still, this pretty much spelled the end of the Dennison machine. Tom suffered a stroke in early in 1932, and the damage from this was said to show visibly throughout the trial. Later in the year he came down with pneumonia, would be divorced from his teenage bride, and within two years of the trial’s end would be dead. Despite a few attempts to find an heir-apparent Dennison was never able to establish a line of succession and the machine fell apart once he wasn’t there to keep it running.

Pretty interesting stuff. KETV seems to have the story of record here about the exhibit.

Also of note is that Orville D. Menard has a new book coming out in early November from Bison Books. Menard’s Political Bossism in Mid-America, essentially a biography of Tom Dennison that was first published in 1989, is the go-to authority on all matters Dennison. His new book, River City Empire, appears to be a reissue of his previous work, particularly since the page counts only differ by ten, and a foreword has been added. In any event, Menard has mentioned in talks before that he’s still been working on the material since his first came out, so I’m interested to check out the new book. More than anything it’s great to see renewed interest in this fascinating figure of Omaha history–one who just happens to be a main character in my novel!

Weeks of Aug 4 – Aug 21, 2010

-I made some progress on some of the peripheral research surrounding the novel in the last couple weeks. Notably, Sister Joy, an archivist with the Servite Sisters, supplied a very informative response to my guess that Tom Dennison’s mansion might have been turned into one of the buildings that now make up the campus of Marian High School. (In the comments of this post.) However, as Sister Joy illuminated, this was not the case. I’m still not sure where the Dennison estate stood, but the land where Our Lady of Sorrow Convent would be built was purchased in 1920, and mass first celebrated in the building in 1925. Dennison was still active in Omaha at the point, and would be for nearly another decade. So my shot in the dark was wrong. I’ve narrowed it down to either the southwest or southeast quadrant of the intersection, though. And that’s something.

I’ve also been trying to find out more about Dennison’s grave site, but Forest Lawn Cemetery has not been as forthcoming as Sister Joy, unfortunately.

-After nearly a month of research, I jumped back into finishing up the drafting of Part II of Hyphenates this week. Even though I’m a little further behind now than I’d hoped to be, it was my goal to finish drafting by the end of the summer and will still meet that soft, self-imposed deadline. Hyphenates Part II has been somewhat more difficult to write than Part I was, with the principal reason being that I’m now working more intimately with the real life characters than I did in the first 125 pages. It’s one thing to just search around and make up some backstory for Jacob Bressler—my lead character, who isn’t a historical figure, and is only a composite of real people—but it’s completely different to do so for Tom Dennison, a well-known figure in regards to political machines and local history, or Josie Washburn, a turn-of-the-century prostitute and madam in Omaha who published one of the initial first-hand account of life in an American brothel. I’m not really comfortable just making it up when it comes to real people, so I needed to go back and get a handle on the history before I moved on.

That being said, it almost always amazes me how consistently research pays off—and this has been one of the most heartening things in writing a historical novel. Whenever there’s a gap in the story I’m telling, or some inconsistency in character, there’s usually something to be found in an old newspaper or biography or diary that satisfies the gap and shows how the story—both mine and the composite historical record—both makes sense and is fascinating. I won’t get into too many specifics, but, in the case of Washburn, I was able to write a scene wherein she gives an anti-Dennison speech in a Little Italy meeting hall at a critical juncture of the story. It’s pretty awesome.

-As a consequence of said research needs, I’ve been spending some quality time in the microfilm room at the downtown Omaha library reading newspapers of 1917 and 1918. This also happens to be the golden age of comics–which leads to many distractions, of course, but also some really great cartoons. Two of the best, and most affecting, are posted. Both are from the Evening World-Herald.

Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County

“Jacob walked down Pacific with his crew, where traffic had been cut off by the crowds, and he tried to ignore the coalitions around him. Every word spoken by a stranger sounded like an insult to Jacob, some vindictive joke that cut close to his heart. A dozen Russian warehouse workers rested against the hall to eat a quick dinner and they seemed to be talking about Jacob, laughing at him in their native cackle. They wore overalls and denim jackets, floppy felt caps made heavy with sweat and dust. They bit at sandwiches wrapped in newspaper, hunks of cheese and onion pressed between slices of cottage white with black smears of soot rubbed in from their fingers. A tin cup sat between each of their thighs, brimming over with the sudsy head of a beer. Some boy dug into his parents’ secret supply to flit along with a frosted clay jug hugged to his belly, making wisecracks to the men. These were thick-chest serfs whose mouths closed in satisfaction over their food, wiry ones whose clothes puffed over sinewy bodies. The lean ones looked the meanest, lips curling venomously under blood-shot eyes. Jacob thought this as he glanced at them. They were sizing him up, he could tell this. They imagined how much it would take to claim a win in a fight with Jacob and his men. And when one of them whispered something to another, when they leered at Jacob and laughed, he too dreamed how it would go down in a brawl.”

Just Finished

Political Bossism in Mid-America by Orville Menard.


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