On this day In South Omaha, Nebraska on February 21, 1909, thousands of Greek immigrant families fled their homes in that city’s Greektown neighborhood after an organized community-wide effort to burn down Greek homes and businesses engulfed the city.
The episode has gone down as one of the ugliest chapters in U.S. history when an entire community of people — most of them newly-arrived immigrants — were targeted because of their ethnic background by the “native” population.
Contrary to popular belief that Greek immigrants were welcomed with open arms and quickly assimilated into the fabric of American life, the native-born Americans not only found the Greeks to be taking “American jobs,” but also discovered the Greeks’ behavior to be clannish, dangerous, immoral and ”un-American.”
In the events that led to the anti-Greek riots, a Greek man was arrested for being in the company of an American woman. While he was being apprehended and taken to the police station, he was involved in a deadly altercation with the police officer who arrested him.
The chaos and destruction that followed — tens of millions of dollars in damage to property and an entire ethnic community banished, disappeared and fleeing for their lives overnight throughout the midwest and mountain states — has gone down as one of the ugliest racist and discriminatory incidents in all of American history.
The New York Times carried an article about the riot stating that 3,000 “American” men looted Greek homes and businesses, beat Greek men, women and children and burnt down every building in the area.
The entire population of Greeks in South Omaha were warned to leave the city within one day or risk the ongoing wrath of the mob. Within a few days, all the Greeks living in South Omaha fled the city, moving to Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Salt Lake City.
The Omaha Daily News, justifying the exodus of the Greeks wrote, “Their quarters have been unsanitary; they have insulted women… Herded together in lodging houses and living cheaply, Greeks are a menace to the American laboring man.”
The in-depth article below was submitted by John G. Bitzes, a history teacher at Bryan High School in Omaha, Nebraska, and is a shortened version of his master’s thesis at the University of Nebraska. Bitzes has also taught history classes at that university.
Bitzes provided the following summary to explain the contents of his article.
The Anti-Greek Riot of 1909 in South Omaha and all its consequences presented another example of irrational human behavior. South Omaha was home to the packing industry, and the Greek immigrants provided a source of cheap labor. Resentment of their place in the local community, suspicion of their cultural differences, lack of involvement by local police, and yellow journalism contributed to the brief but deadly and destructive riot that took place within the span of less than nine hours and resulted in a Greek flight from the community.
Read Blitzes’ in-depth research article below
On Saturday, February 20, 1909, the headline of the Omaha World Herald read “Ed Lowery, South Omaha Policeman, Is Shot and Killed By Greek.” The bold type was followed by an article which left no doubt that the Greek community of South Omaha, numbering over a thousand, and not John Masourides the alleged slayer, was really responsible for the conditions and law violations which were inevitably to end in such a tragedy.
A petition was initiated by Joseph Murphy, a South Omaha civic leader, circulated and printed in two of the three major local journals, the World Herald and the Daily News. The inflammatory petition called for a general meeting of South Omaha’s citizenry to discuss ridding the community of the “filthy Greeks.” It read:
Whereas, Many instances of their flagrant disregard and insolence of our laws and ordinances of this city have occurred during the past years, and…
Whereas, The so-called quarters of the Greeks are infested by a vile bunch of filthy Greeks who have attacked our women, insulted pedestrians upon the street, openly maintained gambling dens and many other forms of viciousness, and…
Whereas, on the evening of February 19, these conditions culminated in the cowardly and brutal murder of officer Ed Lowery, one of the most highly respected citizens of this city.
Therefore be it resolved that we the undersigned citizens and taxpayers of the city hereby believe that a mass meeting should be held on Sunday afternoon, February 21, 1909 at the city hall to take such steps and to adopt such measures as will effectually rid the city of the Greeks, and thereby remove the menacing conditions that threaten the very life and welfare of South Omaha.
The petition quickly picked up five hundred signatures.
The city’s third major journal, the Omaha Bee, was more temperate and objective in its presentation and included an editorial supporting law and order. The mood in South Omaha, however, was not one of calmness but of steadily mounting hostility which propelled the community toward violence and arson.
The early Sunday editions of the World Herald and Daily News continued to play on the killing. The Herald ran a stirring “Proclamation of Mourning” by South Omaha Mayor Frank Koutsky and an article some portions of which read as follows:
Grief unspeakable watches beside the bier of the martyred hero today.
A Greek, one who in his own native land was never accorded the privilege of lifting up his head and looking outward or upward murdered Officer Lowery.
His [the Greek’s] life was filled with the brightness of freedom and his pockets filled with the easy gold. He was made to feel that he was a human being. He grew fat in arrogance and pushed aside the native sons or used them as mere rungs of his ladder of success.
And then when a gentle hand sought to restrain him for a moment from wrong doing his thought was only to kill, to kill craftily.
And he killed.
Thus, yellow journalism provided the media for the agitation of a usually peaceful community, which soon permitted itself to degenerate into a vindictive mob causing injury to scores, inflicting thousands of dollars in personal and property damages, resulting in flight of some twelve hundred Greek citizens and immigrants from South Omaha, and straining the United States’ relations with Greece, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, all three of which demanded indemnities and got them.
In addition, the reports of the South Omaha violence set off at least two other anti-Greek demonstrations of a violent nature in Kansas City, Kansas, and Dayton, Ohio, within a week of the Omaha incident.
Race riots or attacks upon “‘foreign” minorities certainly were and are not new in history, including that of the United States. In 1814, Boston had a riot against Spanish sailors and in 1829 against Irishmen and Negroes.
During the Civil War the Irish lynched Negroes during the draft riots in New York City. Interesting are the facts of the Department of Records and Research at Tuskegee Institute which show that in the span of eighty years (1882-1962) 1,294 whites and 3,442 Negroes, or a total of 4,736, died at the hands of lynch mobs in the United States.
Nor were riots new in Omaha’s history. Omaha witnessed two other riots, one before and one after the anti-Greek riot of 1909. The first occurred in 1891, when a Negro named George Smith, suspected of assaulting a five-year-old girl, was lynched. Negroes reportedly joined the lynch mob of some five hundred to help kill the man.
Today, it is an accepted fact that Smith was innocent. The famous “Court House Riot” of 1919 was a race riot in all its ugly manifestations. Will Brown, the victim, could have fared better in the Coliseum of second century Rome. The event almost took the life of the mayor when he tried to save the doomed victim and required the use of troops to prevent further anti-Negro violence. In 1909, however, the target was the Greek.
It cannot be said that South Omaha had the first anti-Greek riot in America. The Times and the Evening News of Roanoke, Virginia, probably reported the first anti-Greek violence in the United States when they described a mob of hundreds attacking Greeks and their establishments in that city in July, 1907.
Law and order was quickly restored, however and the lawlessness was not permitted to get out of hand as was the case of South Omaha, where there seemed to be reluctance on the part of community leaders and the law enforcement body to prevent or halt the violence, at least in the beginning.
In 1909 South Omaha was a separate municipality with a population of over 20,000. It had its own separate commercial district and was largely sustained by the payrolls of the meat-packing industry and the railroads.
The first decade of the twentieth century was a period of considerable labor unrest in South Omaha’s packing industry. When the packers refused to meet labor’s demands in 1904, a strike ensued and a number of Japanese and some Greeks were imported to work as strike breakers.
The strike failed and the “foreigners” continued to be employed. At that time the railroads were utilizing contract labor, especially Italians, Greeks and Hungarians. Cases of Greek contract labor and peonage in violation of Federal law were reported in a number of midwestern cities, including Topeka and Kansas City in Kansas and Des Moines in Iowa. There was no doubt of it existing in Omaha.
In 1907 the Omaha Examiner pointed out that if California had a Japanese problem the people of Omaha had better review the growing Italian, Greek, Bulgarian, and Serbian problem in their own back yard. It specifically attacked the Italians as ignorant, anarchistic and vicious.
Still, in 1909, the Greek was relatively a newcomer to both Omaha and South Omaha. The first sizeable groups arrived about 1906, and by 1909, the total Greek population in both South Omaha and Omaha approximated two thousand (This figure fluctuated; there were times during the winter months, when railroad gangs wintering in the area brought the figure closer to three thousand). While both cities shared the Greek colony, South Omaha drew most of the laborers – some twelve hundred.
The native not only found the Greeks to be interfering with what he believed to be a just wage, but he also discovered the newcomers’ behavior to be, in his estimation, clannish, immoral and ”un-American.”
In Omaha, the Greek colony was concentrated in the Third Ward, east of Thirteenth Street, between Leavenworth and Nicholas streets. In South Omaha, the colony had moved into a predominantly Irish district, known at that time as “Indian Hill,” which was the area roughly from Twenty-seventh to Thirty-first along Q Street.
In both districts the Greeks kept very much to themselves. They established their own grocery stores, confectionaries, shoeshine parlors and coffee houses. As in Greece, the coffee house was the center of Greek social life. There the Greeks read issues of the Greek newspapers, usually the Atlantis or Greek Star (published in New York and Chicago respectively), drank thick Turkish coffee from a demi-tasse, argued Greek politics, and played cards.
The back room was often the scene of gambling, usually at cards. The language of the coffee house was Greek. Few Greeks were interested in learning English because most were waiting for the day they would return to their poor native land to live luxuriously on their American earnings. Often their earnings went home to support their families and to furnish doweries for their daughters and sisters.
Of the two thousand Greeks residing in the area, few were members of family units, as the men could not afford to bring their wives with them. As many were saving their low wages either to send for their families or to live on after returning to Greece, the men often shared expenses by living four, five, or even more to a room.
Most of these men were between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, and naturally they found the local women of interest. Too often, however, they insulted, or it was thought they insulted, women as they passed the Greek rooming houses, and brawls between Greeks and the other men of the community were not uncommon.
Another contributing factor to a growing tension between the native and Greek was the fact that “Q” Street became ”Greek Town,” especially during the winter months when the railroad gangs were idle and had plenty of money in their pockets. It was difficult to compete with the “foreigner” in the labor market, especially when he was willing to accept almost any wage. Many were idle, however, and idleness bred mischief.
The Greek laborer had admirable qualities. Industry and the railroads employed him because he was a hard worker and obedient: He exhibited thrift as a common laborer or as an entrepreneur. Greek investment in some thirty-four to fifty groceries, bakeries, fruit stands, restaurants, and confectionaries was estimated to be as high as a quarter of a million dollars.
The Greeks were Eastern Orthodox, and in 1909 after two years of effort the foundation had been laid for a church, St. John’s, at Sixteenth and Martha streets, which represented “an outlay of $8,600, exclusive of the interior furnishings. The Reverend Konstantinos Harvalis came to serve the community spiritually, holding its firs services in the new structure on April 9, 1909.
Nevertheless, the Greek was a stranger and an intruder to most people. The Omaha Bee captured the thoughts of the anti-Greek element when it concisely stated:
The thing that sticks in the crow [sicJ of the anti-Greek element is that they work cheap; live even more cheaply in groups; are careless of many of the little details that Americans set much store by; once in a while are impudent, ignore the restrictions of American law that lay heavily on the true patriot-in short, do not mix, are not “good fellows” like the citizens we get from northern Europe, for instance.
Joseph Pulcar, editor of the Daily News, had this to say:
Their quarters have been unsanitary; they have insulted women; in other ways they have made themselves offensive in the eyes of the great majority of the people of South Omaha, too.
Herded together in lodging houses and living cheaply, Greeks are a menace to the American laboring man-just as the Japs, Italians and other similar laborers are.
Thus, South Omaha in 1909 was an anti-Greek tinderbox, and an incident was all that was needed to set it aflame. John Masourides was chosen by fate to provide the immediate cause of a riot which was to engulf the Greek colony of South Omaha in flame, violence, and terror.
Who was John Masourides? He was a Greek, who in about 1906 arrived in the United States from a small village outside the city of Kalamata in the state of Messinia (Peloponnesus), Greece. He was thirty-six years of age when he left home. He came from a section of Greece where the people had known violence for centuries.
They believed themselves to be the descendants of “Leonides and His Three-Hundred.” Their greatest pride was that no conqueror had ever really subjected the people of the mountains of the Peloponnesus, and that it was there that the first successful blow was struck for Greek Independence on March 25, 1821, after the area had been occupied by the Turks for almost four centuries. In most ways Masourides was a typical Greek immigrant.
He was dark and of medium height, wore a mustache, could speak no English, but could read and write some Greek. He left behind a wife and four children and made his destination Sunrise, Wyoming, where he planned to join his brother Gust. In Wyoming, John worked as a miner for several months after his arrival. The brothers then decided to come to Omaha to start a grocery and confectionary. This they did in South Omaha.
In 1908, John went to Kansas City but returned a short time later after his brother decided to emigrate to Alexandria, Egypt. Returning to South Omaha in early February, 1909, he found that Gust had already left. Meanwhile, the police in South Omaha “had kept their eyes” on John, because police records showed him to have been arrested for gambling. Also, he was reported to have been in the company of a minor, Lillian Breese.
Miss Breese had no visible income except for money she received for tutoring Greeks interested in learning the English language and the money her mother occasionally sent her from Grand Island, Nebraska. Masourides had met Lillian through a Mrs. George C. Kamas, the German born wife of a Greek. After he had tried to get Mrs. Kamos to teach him English, she suggested he make arrangements with Miss Breese to organize a class. Tuition was to be four dollars a month. By February 19 she had given John three lessons and “instructed her pupil to secure a first reader.”
Masourides’ questionable relationship with this seventeen-year-old girl led to his arrest for vagrancy by officer Lowery on the evening of Friday, February 19. The officer had been ordered to answer a complaint received from tenants in the block where Miss Breese and her six-year-old half-brother Willy Bell had been renting a room. It was on the way to the police station that the fatal incident occurred.
A series of rapid events ended in the wounding of Masourides and the fatal wounding of officer Lowery. At the two subsequent trials there were conflicting testimonies as to what happened. Witnesses claimed Masourides shot first. John claimed that he attempted to throw his pistol away to avoid being held for carrying a concealed weapon and was forced to defend himself once the officer began firing.
At the station, Masourides was given first aid and then taken to the South Omaha Hospital a little after midnight. Foreseeing a possible lynching, South Omaha authorities decided to transfer the prisoner to the Douglas County jail in Omaha. A vengeful mob of some five-hundred, which had gathered after the killing, chased the ambulance and threatened the prisoner with violence.
As the ambulance approached the city limits, the mob rushed the vehicle but failed to secure its prey only because the horses were “whipped up into a dead run.” Several shots were fired but they were wild intended to frighten rather than to do bodily harm. Talcing a roundabout way the police managed to get Masourides to the Omaha police station, fearing an attack on the county jail.
The officers, performing their duty, succeeded in protecting their prisoner that Saturday morning; however, the mob felt cheated. The tinderbox was lit and awaited the fuel which was to engulf the South Omaha Greek colony in flame and violence. Organization and motives were needed for the mob element, and the journals and prominent South Omaha leaders inadvertently provided it.
It was not easy for the people of South Omaha to forget the death of Edward Lowery, who had died in the line of duty at the age of forty-two; surviving were a wife and two children. Born and reared in Ireland, Lowery arrived in Chicago., Illinois, in 1887.
There in Chicago he met and married an Irish girl from his home town in Ireland. The following year the couple moved to South Omaha. Within seven years they were the parents of two children, Kathryn and Leo. Lowery found his first employment in South Omaha with the Cudahy Packing Company’s lard department, where he soon rose to the position of straw-boss.
When the strike came in 1904, he refused to continue working and joined the strikers; consequently, he was unemployed for a short period. Before the year was out, he joined the South Omaha police force as a patrolman.
As a police officer he was well liked, respected and considered a strict law enforcer. He was also kind and understanding: for instance, he often cared for heavy drinkers, seeing that they got home safely. By 1909 the future of the Lowery family looked bright. They had a comfortable home at 2413 G Street. Kathryn, nineteeen, was a freshman at the University of Nebraska, and Leo was in grade school. Then the tragedy struck.
In spite of the mob’s attempt to lynch, or at least to frighten, Masourides during the early hours of Saturday morning, everything seemed quiet later in the day. Unrest and frustration, however, were part of the South Omaha atmosphere. The petition and the newspaper articles were contributing factors in arousing the populace, and before two o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday, February 21, 1909, one thousand interested people had gathered on a vacant lot east of South Omaha’s City Hall.
Shortly after two o’clock the meeting was called to order, and Henry C. Murphy, Joseph Murphy’s brother, was made chairman by acclamation. By then the crowd was estimated to be three thousand. Mounting an improvised platform, Murphy, who was of Irish parentage and former city attorney, “eulogized the life of the deceased officer, generally condemned the morals and habits of the Greeks, dwelled particularly on molesting of women, and ended his speech by asking for action against the Greek menace. He said:
It is about time for the citizens to take steps to rid the city of this menace. We should use means to get the corporations hiring this class of labor to desist. We should immediately lay this matter, with the great necessity of the case, before these corporations.
Murphy’s statements brought two important resolutions. The first came from John Nightingale and concerned the Greek element in general. It was seconded by Al Hunter, the secretary of the meeting. The World Herald later carried it as follows:
It is currently reported that the so-called Greeks, a large number of whom are employed in the packing houses of this city, have brought with them to this city not only a condition of outlawry and viciousness, but that a large percentage of them are suffering and their bodies are affected by vile, loathsome and contagious diseases, and that a large number of them are suffering from syphilitic and other taints and yet are permitted to handle food and eatable products consumed by the people of this city and the public at large.
I, therefore, move you, Mr. Chairman, that a thorough investigation be made as to which packing houses be given the widest publicity possible in order that the ravages of disease with which these men are infected shall not be transmitted to unsuspecting people
The following men were to form the committee for approaching the packers: H. C. Murphy, Judge Caldwell, Maurice Hinchey, Frank Dolozal, H. B. Fleharty, A. J. Burth, John Nightingale, John McEntire, Police Chief Briggs, and Al Hunter.
The second resolution was introduced by Al Hunter and called for the public mourning of Edward Lowery:
Standing today in the presence of an atrocious and brutal murder of one of South Omaha’s leading citizens, who died at his post of duty by the hand of a scurvy Greek assassin, I deem it but proper that this body adopt a resolution calling upon all patriotic and law-abiding and liberty loving citizens of this city to recognize the hours from 8 to 12 o’clock a.m. on Tuesday, February 23, 1909, the funeral hours of the late Edward Lowery, as hours of mourning and sorrow.
That citizens generally in all walks of life be permitted and requested to abstain and to refrain from the performance of labor or the pursuit of any business during those hours, when the gallant officer is receiving his last earthly rites, and that as a mark of appreciation and a testimonial to our high regard for the faithful, true and loyal officer that as many as possible of our citizens join and participate in the obsequies over the dead body of Edward Lowery.
Other speakers were to follow Murphy. Jeremiah Howard, a born Irishman and well-known labor agitator, and J. P. Kraus, both representatives to Nebraska’s lower house, followed Murphy with “speeches of the same tenor. Then came Frank Dolezal, “a man of influence in Bohemian circles,” and John Hinchey. “Howard’s speech,” the Bee reported, “was characterized by bitter denunciation not calculated to calm the crowds.” He insisted that the government take action not to permit Greeks to handle meat. Kraus “asked that the Greek conditions in the city be taken up with the state labor commissioner.”
Hinchey made a motion “that the laws governing the carrying of concealed weapons should be carefully looked into and more thoroughly enforced.” Hinchey’s motion was carried. Others continued to speak to the crowd until approximately three in the afternoon when a sizeable segment of the human mass broke off and degenerated into a violent mob as it approached the Greek quarters.
Ironically enough, to honor the birth of America’s first president, the Omaha Bee of February 22, 1909, carried a quotation from Washington’s Farewell Address. It read:
The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.
Too bad the quotation was not carried on the front page of every Omaha newspaper Sunday morning, the day before when the fired-up crowd, shouting “Kill the Greeks” or “Remember poor Lowery” swarmed into “Greek town,” spreading terror, violence, and destruction as it went from one Greek establishment or boarding house to another. The mob, which consisted of five-hundred to a thousand defiant men, women and children, began by marching west on O Street from the site of the meeting and then south to Q Street, where it began its attack on the unsuspecting Greeks. Soon the length of Q Street from Twenty-fourth to Twenty-eighth was a mad scene of over one thousand rock-throwing rioters and curious spectators. It was difficult to tell who was the rioter and who was the spectator.
The Greeks, shocked and overcome, tried to flee for their lives, but their efforts too often ended in their falling into the hands of the mob, which invariably subjected them to insults and severe beatings. In desperation, one victim fired bird shot into the crowd, wounding two boys superficially, but the shooting served only to further infuriate the menacing mob, which withdrew to seek weaker prey.
The rioters split up into two groups after the shooting. While one segment moved west on Q over the viaduct, another went north to Twenty-fifth from Q to attack Nick Mega’s grocery and meat market. Mega’s establishment was the first non-Greek, yet foreign, business to be attacked. From that moment it was dangerous to be a “foreigner,” which meant attacks on Bulgarians, Hungarians, Ottoman citizens, ltalians, Poles as well as Greeks.
What were the law enforcement authorities doing in the meantime? One victim, Miss Mary Demos, a co-owner of the Demos Brothers Confectionary, later deposed that when she called the police station to summon help against a threatening mob, the officer answering “laughed at her over the telephone.” Her shop was subsequently wrecked and looted by a group which she claimed included police officers. Shortly after her terrifying experience, she was hospitalized for a nervous condition.
At about five o’clock that evening, Mayor Frank Koutsky, who had left the meeting before it ended to visit his ailing brother, was on his way home, when he met anxious members of the Fire and Police Board.
Describing conditions, they told the mayor that Douglas County Sheriff E. F. Brailey was cooperating with South Omaha’s police to bring matters under control. Also, W. C. Lambert, chairman of the Board, and commissioners Wesley P. Adkins and A. H. Murdock stated that they had issued orders to close all saloons and “telephoned Governor Shallenberger advising him of conditions, though not asking for assistance for the state which he [the Governor] informed them would be promptly forthcoming at their request.” The request was never made. After the report by the Board, Mayor Koutsky spent an hour in the police station and then went to his home, only a short distance south of the station, where he remained the rest of the evening.
South Omaha Police Chief John Briggs found it difficult to organize the city s police force once the mob action started. Later, he stated that he had been caught completely unawares. In fact, he had participated in the meeting, which proved to be the fountainhead of the riot, and even accepted a committee position.
Chief Briggs had listened to the speeches and made no effort to “admonish them [the speakers] to be careful nor did he advise them to stop speaking.” As soon as the rioting began, Briggs notified the Fire and Police Board but remained with the rioters hoping to keep things under control until assistance could arrive. Accompanied by police officer Shields, he tried to reason with the crowd.
The two officers did not on any occasion use their clubs or revolvers against the rioters. In fact, Briggs later deposed, wherever he and Shields went “the mob obeyed orders.” Their control disappeared, however, when the mob began to split up and move in different directions.
At five o’clock Sheriff Brailey arrived “with some deputies and remained until the trouble was over at midnight.” By six o’clock all members of the South Omaha police force, which included two captains, two detectives, two jailers, and twelve patrolmen, were on duty. By then the riot was completely out of control and enjoyed the encouraging cover of darkness.
In desperation the South Omaha authorities requested the assistance of the Omaha police, but Chief Donahue, at home and ill at the time, ”took the view that the public safety would be better subserved by ‘keeping out of it.’ Omaha’s Mayor Dahlman endorsed his chief’s inaction and stated: “I think it would be unwise for us to take a hand in it now.”
The reason for the refusal was said to be that Omaha did not wish to “disconcert” the South Omaha police and that the introduction of Omaha police could have incited more trouble. Precautions, however, were taken. Omaha police Captain Dunn prepared for a possible assault on the county jail, which now housed a wounded and frightened Masourides. Also, Dunn gave orders for officers to use force in the event the South Omaha rioters tried to cross the Sixteenth Street viaduct.
The Governor’s assistance had been refused and Omaha refused to lend its assistance; thus, the rioters continued their reign of terror and arson into the night. With darkness came fire. Now, the Greeks who refused to submit to beatings were burned out of their dwellings. By nine o’clock Brailey had increased “his force of deputies to forty” but without any effective results. That hour found thirty wounded and bleeding Greeks in the South Omaha jail. The police station had been turned into a hospital.
The poor sufferers, always hatless, sometimes barefooted, and in one instance clad only in underwear, unable to speak English, in jail as their only refuge to save their lives after being already half killed by mobs of strangers on a foreign soil, they suffered their pains with stoicism and uttered not a word or cry, though trembling piteously.
Shortly before midnight the mob action began to subside rapidly, and the police began to make arrests. Soon the jail housed twenty-five persons suspected of violence and destruction of private property. Almost immediately friends and relatives tried to free them on bail. Chief Briggs refused. By midnight the riot had all but died out, and, with the exception of a few isolated instances, the police and firemen were in control.
The mob, however, had had its moments because for some six to nine hours:
…with revolvers and club and brickbat, with torch, with blows and abuse the ruffians march(ed) from place to place, crushing in windows, drinking the stolen liquors [sic] from wrecked saloons, stealing merchandise, assaulting those whom they sought, until the blood flowed like rivulets from cruel wounds, in one instance shooting a respectable groceryman through the leg, and in another dragging a terroNtricken youth, clad only in his underwear, from a street car where he had sought refuge, and beating him still more.
Such was the way hundreds of South Omahans spent their Sabbath on February 21, 1909. The passing of midnight brought a new day – Washington’s birth date, which began the revelation of the riot’s consequences.
The sun rising on Monday, February 22, 1909, shed its ray on a quiet South Omaha. The riot was over, the fires were out, and preparations were under way for officer Lowery’s funeral. There were those, at the same time, who had doubts about the peace. Monday evening Governor Shallenberger alerted the National Guard in Omaha in an effort to discourage or control any tendencies toward another anti-Greek outburst, especially following the Lowery funeral scheduled for Tuesday morning.
Troops and police were not the only factors contributing to a quiet South Omaha. Actually, there were no Greeks to attack-they had fled or gone into hiding, and Masourides was out of reach. At nine-fifteen o’clock Monday morning, John Masourides, shackled, handcuffed, and on a stretcher, was taken from the county jail under heavy guard to Burlington Station, thence by rail to the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
Of an estimated thirteen hundred refugees, only about two hundred fled to Omaha. At eight o’clock Monday morning the South Omaha refugees were joined by several hundred of their countrymen in the combination restaurant-pool hall of Gus Abariotes at Sixteenth and Howard streets in Omaha. The meeting’s object was to adopt a course of action.
The meeting had the protection of Douglas County Sheriff Bailey. Local Greek leaders such as N. J. Mandanis, L.B. Cokoris, and others tried to cairn and caution their fearful and at the same time angry countrymen. N. J. Mandanis warned them against meeting “violence with violence” and asked them to rely on the law for protection.
Assessments of the damages caused by the rioters ranged all the way from $35,000 to over $280,000. Claims were submitted by native Americans as well as foreign nationals. The natives owned the properties which housed the Greeks and their businesses and made claims covering approximately fifty damaged buildings.
The Greek claims were by far the greatest, ranging as high as $288,130.34.77. Within a week after the riot, demands were made that the city of South Omaha be held accountable for the riot and the devastation it caused. The Greek colony of Omaha, through the Pan-Hellenic Union, engaged the law firm of Sullivan and Rait with offices in Omaha.
Three days after the riot, James Rait of the law firm notified the Greek claimants that they could not “possibly recover any damages from the city of South Omaha.” The State of Nebraska, he counseled, did not provide that municipalities be held “responsible for mob violence.” The Ottoman Embassy demanded indemnities of $1,984 be paid to sixteen Turkish subjects, including the family of Nicholas Jimiks, who was allegedly beaten to death during the riot.
Indemnities requested by the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Greek representatives in Washington came to a total of $161,498.50. Six years after the South Omaha riot, the Senate appropriated $41,030 to satisfy the claims: $1,030 to be paid to the governments of Turkey and Austria-Hungary and $40,000 to the government of Greece.
The Edward Lowery family submitted no claims because there was no police pension fund or insurance. The mother had to provide for her family by taking in boarders. The family did not escape the payment of the funeral. Although there was a Lowery fund started the day of the riot, it reached only $505 on March 21, 1909, and Catherine Lowery saw none of it. The Lowery family received approximately $150 from a benefit musicale held at South Omaha High School later that year.
South Omahans joined to give Edward
Lowery an impressive funeral. “The funeral cortege,” it was reported, “was one of the longest ever seen in South Omaha.” Father Moriarty of St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic
Church delivered the funeral sermons during which he stated:
The church can only deplore the affair of Sunday… The church can only and will only sanction what is lawful. Certainly there is punishment due to the man who committed this crime, but it is for the laws of the country and the state to mete out this punishment and not a self-appointed band of citizens.
In the aftermath of the violent outbreak, no one of any prominence accepted as valid the spirit that came out of the Sunday meeting or the destruction and terror which followed. There were, however, qualified regrets, which reflected the deep-seated dislike some harbored for the Greeks even after the great storm.
Realizing that the rioters should be punished, Douglas County and South Omaha authorities began to consider the prosecution of those responsible. Douglas County Sheriff E. F. Brailey moved cautiously, expressing the belief that it seemed best “to let things quiet down a bit.” Those arrested at the time of the riot, twenty-five in all, were released the next day, but were told to return February 24.
Those guilty of participating in the riot, County Attorney James P. English said, were to be tried by police court while those destroying property were to be bound over to district court. Complaints against the two hundred rioters were filed in South Omaha’s police court. Consider able time was spent collecting evidence.
On April 7 an information was filed in District Court against seven men under the charge of “unlawful assembling”: William Chandler, Charles Brown, August Tanner, Thomas Waddell, W. L. Trobaugh, Dewitt White, and Thomas Halman. In the end not one rioter was convicted in either police or district court.
Victor Rosewater, editor of the Bee, took a firm stand against the riot, striking out at the riot’s spirit of vengeance, the disregard for law and order, the use of yellow journalism, “the incendiary appeals to race prejudice,” and the weakness of the law itself.
The Omaha World Herald became more specific in its views concerning the “scenes of violence and brutality,” which characterized the rioting. The mob, it asserted, represented the “dregs” of South Omaha and not its good citizens. The editorial of Joseph Pulcar of the Omaha Daily News condemned the riot, but strongly qualified its attitude toward the Greeks. The Greeks, he wrote, were “a menace to the American laboring man – just as the Japs, Italians, and other similar laborers are.”
Speaking to a Bee reporter, South Omaha City Attorney Murphy admitted that a wiser person would have done more to pacify the crowd which he addressed Sunday, but he denied the responsibility for instigating the riot that followed. He insisted that there was a Greek problem long before the meeting and that the number of prominent business men of South Omaha who signed the petition calling for the meeting reflected the local demand for action to alleviate the conditions which were causing the friction between the native American and the “insolent Greek.”
Murphy was contradicted, however, when another principal speaker at the Sunday meeting, Jeremiah Howard, a state legislator, stated that the riot issued from the meeting. While speaking to the assembled crowd, Howard realized the possibility of his audience degenerating into a mob, but he was afraid to utter words of caution for fear he would move his listeners to violence through the power of suggestion.
Although Henry C. Murphy, was to make another lengthy statement to the press, state legislators Howard and J. P. Kraus had comparatively little to say. Kraus flatly refused to discuss the matter with the press especially after one of his friends made the remark, “I did not know you were such a Marc Anthony [sic] .” At the opening session of Nebraska’s legislature, however, Kraus immediately “rose to a question of personal privilege.” Speaking before the House, he flatly denied making a speech at the Sunday meeting and stated that his only contribution was a resolution directed to the governor and the Nebraska labor commissioner. He went on to defend Representative Howard who, he said, had not used exciting language in his speech.
The day following Kraus’ statement before the House, a special committee of the Nebraska House of Representatives gave Howard and Kraus “certificates of excellence,” because their behavior at the meeting preceding the riot was not found to be “serious or unbecoming members of the august law making body of the State.”
The Greeks quickly disappeared from the city’s largest industry, the packing houses. Acting Manager Bowers of Armour and Company reported that all the plant’s Greek employees had asked for their pay and left town.
Bowers denied that the industry was responsible for having brought Greeks to South Omaha. He later made the following biting statement to the press:
It is false that any filthy or diseased men handle food products. The United States government prevents that. All of those statements were gotten up by the leaders of the petition calling a mass meeting last Sunday. It was done for the effect on that crowd. One of the worst features of the trouble is that the Roumanians and the Austrians, who were among the best workingmen in the packing houses, have also disappeared. About two-thirds of our Roumanians are gone. We want that class and will have them protected.
There were other reactions to the riot by the local citizentry. Mayor Koutsky regretted permitting the meeting to take place. South Omaha Police Chief Briggs labeled the meeting as “the cause of the riot” and deplored it. H. J. Pinkett, a Negro, writing to the “Public Pulse,” accused the South Omaha mob of disgracing the state of Nebraska:
It is too bad that we have to admit that our civilization is so veneered and that men cannot see that the real crime is committed by the men higher up who foster and encourage those agencies which bear crime and shame and misery and death. These are the real offenders against the state; the ones to be punished for the wrongs committed by the creatures of their system.
Omaha Mayor Dahlman bore censure when he appeared before a meeting of “the current topics department of the Women’s Club.” Most members insisted Omaha officials should have acted to prevent the riot. They condemned South Omaha officials and the upper classes in general for allowing matters to reach such a state of anarchy.
The news of the South Omaha anti-Greek riot traveled quickly to all corners of the United States. Of seventeen representative newspapers checked in various parts of the country, eleven carried the news of the riot on the front page, four reported the incident elsewhere in their papers, and two, the Christian Science Monitor and Kansas City Star, did not mention the riot at all. Reactions varied from concerned editorials to reports of violent anti-Greek demonstrations causing considerable property damage.
Violence was reported in Kansas City, Kansas, and Dayton, Ohio, newspapers and was said to have involved several hundred rioters in both instances. The Chicago Record-Herald ran full columns under the caption, “Bloodshed and Ruin Mark War on Greeks.” The Record Herald’s publisher and editor, Frank N. Noyes, condemned the logic of race riots, and then stated:
With a fine patriotism the orators discriminated between Greeks and Americans, the assumption being that all the members of the mob at the mass meeting were Americans. Apparently, however, the Americanism of some of these speakers is of recent origin, and it is a fair inference that among the crowds of rioters were many persons who have not perfected title yet. But all felt the deeper thrill when the eloquence was poured forth. They were not Greeks, anyway, which was the equivalent of being Americans or barbarians as the Greeks might say. The fact that they were different from the Greeks was enough to make a common bond for that particular brotherhood, especially when it became clear that the Greeks were to be attacked and pillaged and that the assailants might enjoy the strength that comes from union.
On February 22, the Denver Post carried the story of the riot and gave support to a leader of the Greek colony in Denver, Leonidas K. Skliris, who was referred to as an “intellectual Spartan.” Skliris claimed that the anti-Greek riot in Omaha was caused by foreigners. He said:
Just run over the names… J. P. Krause [sic]…..…….. he added with fine sarcasm; Frank Dolezal, a leading Bohemian of Omaha, and – it is a laugh – Attorney H. C. Murphy. A great line of American ancestry for you, isn’t it? Think of our Hibernian-American Murphy getting up and inciting a riot against a race of people for the crime of one man.”
The Shreveport Journal of February 22, 1909, carried a short frontpage account of the South Omaha incident, but the editor wrote:
We note with interest that Mr. O’Shaughnessy of Omaha objects to the “Greeks taking America.” As if the O’Shaughnessys and the O’Tooles and other Irish had not already grabbed it.
The San Francisco Chronicle not only gave front space to the South Omaha riot, but had much to say with regard to unwanted foreign groups in general. The east coast, its editor said, had yet to learn the lesson that the influx of undesirable races had to be stopped for the benefit of the American nation and its heritage.
The Fort Worth Record gave front-page attention to the riot with no apparent objection to the news that some four hundred Greek refugees from South Omaha were traveling to Fort Worth to work in its meat packing industry. The Record’s editorial page reflected the belief that man inherently preferred his own kind; thus when he felt that someone inferior intruded, he was very apt to express resentment in one form or another. The editor went on to warn, however, that license for violence in anycase left American society open to greater dangers, which could jeopardize our way of life. Thus, he wrote:
We have on the one hand the natural and understandable racial or popular feeling, and on the other the inevitable evil consequence of its indulgence. The condition is an admonition to both the native and the alien classes, to be careful and tolerant.
The editorial concluded by warning ambitious politicians against exploiting the foreign vote through the use of flattery, because the newcomer’s lack of proper understanding of American social and political values could make his vote dangerous to the very institutions Americans sought to preserve.
The Greek community in Omaha sympathized with their South Omaha brethren and martialled both legal and material aid through the local chapter of the Pan-Hellenic Union, a national Greek fraternal society with its headquarters in Chicago. The national chapter sent a telegram to Nebraska’s Governor Ashton C. Shallenberger, who was asked to protect the rights and properties of the Greeks in South Omaha.
Appealing to the American sense of “fair play,” the telegram expressed the belief that it was not within the right of a mob to render justice of its choosing to a foreign community because of the violent act of one of its members. The Atlantis of New York City in giving an account of the South Omaha riot referred to the expulsion of the Greeks as “savage.”
It blamed the anti-Greek acts of violence in Kansas City and Dayton on an “American newspaper,” whose “extensive coverage of [South] Omaha’s scenes of savager … increased the irritation toward foreigners and racial hatreds.” It also brought the labor unions and their leaders under fire for stirring up “troubles and animosities.”
The editor of the Atlantis also had critical words for the Greeks in America. He insisted that the status of the Greek would be enhanced
… if there existed a unity, for which we [Greeks] would defend and work, a unified cry for all those [Greeks] in America. Unfortunately we are unorganized, and undefended, as long as the snakes of discord in the bosom of the Greek communities continue to fight against all that is good.
The Greek Star of Chicago described “terrifying” and “barbaric” scenes of violence and arson instigated by “two representatives and a Bohemian.” It wrote bitterly that it was a “horrifying blow to see Greeks expelled and Greek businesses cast into a Sodom and Gomorrah.” Yet it explained to the Greek reader that although America is a “free country,” it has set definite limits to freedom, which the Greek must identify. It said:
With all this, we [Greeks] have the nerve to complain-to our hosts in this country, without taking into consideration the criminal and detestable acts committed against the Americans. The lessons suffered by our countrymen in [South] Omaha hurt our hearts; however, when we see women, lawyers and representatives attacking the Greeks, we must admit that there must have been many other causes [of the riot] besides the killing of the officer.
United States District Attorney Goss in Omaha revealed two days after the riot that the Government would probably act in the matter; however, he had not received any orders from Washington D. C. Hence, the Greeks began to apply to the Greek minister, L. A. Coromilas, for advice and guidance. He sent Professor Theodore P. Ion, a Greek teaching in the University of Boston, to Omaha. Dr. Ion spoke to a mass meeting of Greeks in Baright’s Hall, advising his countrymen to obey the law, not to resist arrest, and “to abstain from talking to women with whom they had no acquaintance.”
Before Dr. Ion was ready to submit his report to the Greek Minister on July 3, 1909, he had made two trips to Omaha and was convinced that Greek claims of $288,130.34 were valid and payable. His report came to some ninety pages, in which he charged the South Omaha police with brutality in handling the wounded John Masourides after he allegedly murdered Edward Lowery. Ion supported the testimony of Masourides.
On December 20, 1909, Coromilas submitted the report of Dr. Ion to Secretary of State Philander C. Knox, with a letter of transmittal in which he supported the claims of the subjects of His Majesty the King of Greece. The Minister accused the South Omaha officials of gross negligence and lack of action to prevent or halt the riot.
He presented arguments and precedents to support the Greek request for indemnities. On February 3, 1916, Congress approved an appropriation of $40,000, which, in addition, provided for $1,030 to be paid to the government of Turkey and Austria-Hungary for claims submitted by their subjects in connection with the riot.
Once the wrath against the Greeks was unleashed, both Edward Lowery and John Masourides, who together had inadvertently provided the immediate cause, were all but forgotten. The due process of American law, however, had not forgotten John Masourides.
Justice had to make her decision according to the law, and she was to take her time, for several years were to pass before the fate of John Masourides was decided. He received two trials, strangely enough, both between May 25 and 29 of the years 1909 and 1910. The first found him guilty of first degree murder and a sentence of death by hanging was handed down. A motion for a new trial by the defense ended in the decision being reversed by the Nebraska Supreme Court because of (I) insufficient evidence to sustain the verdict and (2) irregularities in procedure.
The second trial found Masourides guilty of second degree murder and sentenced him to fourteen years in the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where he served for five and one-half years. On December 13, 1915, he “was furloughed by Governor [sic] John M. Morehead, and later deported from this country.”
The prison records show that Masourides was finally discharged on March 15, 1920. The last information regarding Masourides indicated that he was in Egypt. As for the Greek colony in the Omaha area, it quickly melted away to a few hundred. The census of 1910 listed 187 Greeks in Lincoln, 486 in Omaha, and Greeks in Lincoln and 59 in South Omaha.
Two to three thousand had made their homes in the area before February 21, 1909. Although the colony did have a period of considerable growth between 1918 and 1926, it never again reached its former size. Slowly the Greeks adapted themselves to their American environment.
The colony, now called the “community,” first organized in 1907, celebrated its golden anniversary on May 4, 1958. In its fiftieth year, the St. John’s Community, numbering some five hundred souls, was found to be in the hands of young Americans of Greek and non-Greek descent, who were very proud of their Greek and Eastern Orthodox background as well as their Anglo-Saxon and Protestant heritage.
When some of the older members of the Greek Orthodox Community in 1963 were asked about the anti-Greek riot, they invariably began their statements with the wish that the episode might be forgotten. By and large, John Masourides, Edward Lowery, and the anti-Greek riot had been forgotten, but the fact remained that the riot and all of its consequences still remained in the record of time as another example of irrational human behavior.
NOTE: Blitzes’ original article features citations. For formatting purposes, the version published here does not include citations. To see the full article with citations, click here.
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