Hansen Writes on Tom Dennison for the Omaha World-Herald

dennisonSome more Tom Dennison content to share, as Matthew Hansen’s column in yesterday’s Omaha World-Herald gives an overview of Dennison’s forty year career as political boss in Omaha. The column focuses on the 1932 Prohibition trial of Tom and his associates, and features a few quotes from Dennison expert Orville Menard, whose book River City Empire was recently reissued.

ORDER KINGS OF BROKEN THINGS, A NEW NOVEL ABOUT DENNISON-ERA OMAHA!

While the article doesn’t really offer a whole lot of new information, it’s certainly worth a read. Here’s a highlight:

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.

From the sounds of things, Hansen will be devoting more of his column space to Tom Dennison in the future–the gangland murder of Harry Lapidus in particular–so that’s something to look forward to. Hansen has really done a great job since taking over as a columnist earlier this year. Some of his stuff has been pretty compelling, in both goof-ball and more touching ways, so I’m excited he’s turned his attention to this era of Omaha history.

Found: Tom Dennison’s House

Tom Dennison’s Northwest Omaha home at 7510 Military Ave. Pictured here in 2006, shortly before it was demolished.

[Please note, some of the information on this page is outdated. See this link for updates.]

It took a while, but I was finally able to track down the exact address (and approximate location) of Tom Dennison’s estate house! More accurately, Gary Rosenberg, Douglas County Historical Society archivist, was able to track it down. Thanks, Gary and the DCHS!

The address? 7510 Military Avenue.

ORDER KINGS OF BROKEN THINGS, A NEW NOVEL ABOUT DENNISON-ERA OMAHA!

Tom Dennison was first listed as living in the house in 1931, just three years before he died. He didn’t live there long, and his involvement in Omaha politics and crime was all but through by then. This was his retirement home. He raised wire-haired terriers on the back acres. He lived there with his daughter, Frances, and her husband, Vernon Ragan. This was during Prohibition. The house was surrounded by cyclone fencing, there were security guards, Dennison kept a sub-machine gun under a blanket on the seat next to him in his car. (It’s fascinating how Prohibition transformed the political machines of the early 20th Century (which mostly focused on gambling, prostitution, and government-centered rackets) into deadly criminal syndicates. In earlier decades, Dennison lived in the city (at 1507 Yates, among other places). He stood on the sidewalk and fed pigeons in the morning. They did a lot of bad things in those days too, but the machine never engaged in gangland killings until Prohibition. The Omaha Race Riot of 1919 is potentially a different matter altogether.)

Dennison remarried late in life, but his young wife, Nevajo Truman, never lived in the same house as Tom. She lived at 2201 Country Club Avenue with her mother. Tom would come by and visit most every day, but that’s as far as that went. Such a strange and sad sounding relationship.

Tom Dennison with his second wife, Navajo Truman.

Last year I hypothesized that Dennison’s house was put to new use as part of Marian High School–specifically the convent–but was disabused of that notion by Sister Joy (another devoted archivist, this time with the Servite Sisters). I wasn’t too far off, however. As told by my sister-in-law and Marian alumna, Sara Magnuson West, the house was still on the Marian campus until recently, although she didn’t remember if it served a purpose there. She remembers that it was back by the motherhouse, where the nuns live. Maybe it was torn down when the soccer field and athletic complex was built? Gary Rosenberg tells me that the building was demolished in 2006, approximately.

I’d greatly appreciate it if you could share any information, stories, memories, or rumors you might have of the building. Do you know what it was used for, if anything, by Marian? Do you know anything about the history of the house? Do you have friends or family who went to Marian, or taught there? Maybe they know something? In the picture above, the house appears to have been kept in good shape, there were security lights installed, the windows were maintained. I’d imagine this effort wasn’t for nothing.

If you know something about this house, please pass it along.

A/V Club-Ken Burns’ Prohibition: The Time is Now

Has everybody (or anybody) been watching Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary Prohibition this week? It’s really fascinating how much the face of the United States was changed in order to bring about Prohibition–and how it was largely anti-German sentiment surrounding America’s entry into World War I that was finally “the home run” for Prohibitionists, as most of the brewers were German-American, of course.

Below is a section that is period-relevant to the book I’m working on. The bit on the anti-German wave and World War I starts around 8:13.

For some reason I have real trouble getting stuff from PBS to embed correctly, so here’s the link: http://video.pbs.org/video/2082716396. Hopefully that works, and I’ll keep trying.