Tom Dennison Scholar, Orville Menard Dies

I wanted to note the passing of Orville Menard. For long-time readers of the blog, Menard’s name should be a familiar one. I’ve mentioned his work on Tom Dennison and the history of political bossism in Omaha many times in this space, as its been a crucial source in researching my novel. I’m very thankful for his wide adnd varied contributions on the subject and was saddened by the news.

His book on Dennison–River City Empire: Tom Dennison’s Omaha–was just reissued last November by Bison Books.

The Omaha World-Herald ran this profile of Menard last week, detailing Menard’s career as an academic, writer, family man, and mentor of, among others, Chuck Hagel.

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.

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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.

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.”

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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!