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Little Chicago: Cemetery tour a successTell North Platte what you think
Photo by Terri Davis graphic
Photo by Bulletin file photo
Traci McKeon as Mrs. W.R. Maloney
Photo by Bulletin file photo
Daisy May Toft as Myrtle McHugh
Photo by Bulletin file photo
Lynette Niles as Dr. Marie Ames
Photo by Bulletin file photo
Carolyn Clark as Annie Cook
Photo by Bulletin file photo
Bill Kackmeister as Albert Hastings

More than 425 people flocked to the North Platte Cemetery to see presentations by 13 local actors representing the movers and shakers of Little Chicago in the 1920s and 30s.

Library officials had to scramble to keep up with the number of souvenir books sold at the ever-growing, popular event.

North Platte in the 1920s and 30s was a wide-open town. Many illegal businesses were allowed to operate here including bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, blackmail and even murder.

The town quickly became known as “Little Chicago” and piqued the interest of real mobsters from back east. Crime syndicates from Chicago and New York sent men to North Platte to get a piece of the action.

Vice was big business in Little Chicago and the local police force was regularly bribed to look the other way, which they had no trouble doing. The local government was weaker and little serious effort was sustained to change the way some North Platte businessmen operated.

Money was made fast and easily. Bootlegging alcohol was by far the most profitable in the 1920's; this was because of the prohibition of alcohol. Gambling was another business that paid off and most bars kept rooms in the back where cards and dice were regularly played.

Prostitution was rampant and no one, including the madams and prostitutes themselves, even tried to disguise it.

It is the shadow of those colorful characters who helped shaped those Little Chicago days in North Platte that are featured in the North Platte Library’s cemetery tour this Saturday. Called “Movers and Shakers of Little Chicago,” the tour will feature notorious characters will astounding stories to tell.

Played by 13 local actors dressed in period costume, the actors will tell each character’s story in his or her own voice and near their grave in the North Platte Cemetery.

Some stories are funny and some are tragic but all helped shape North Platte during that period when it became notoriously known as Little Chicago.

Elmer Baker

Deputy County Treasurer – Convicted arsonist

Played by Colin Taylor

To many Lincoln County residents Elmer C. Baker was a model citizen and only took the fall for others for burning the Lincoln County Courthouse down in 1923.

Others thought Baker was guilty of the arson and burned the courthouse to cover up his and other’s criminal acts.

The truth may be lost in history.

Rumors swirled at the time.

North Platte was nicknamed “Little Chicago” for its abundance of bars, gambling and houses of ill repute. The vices were allowed to exist by law enforcement at the time and it was said that even the Chief of Police was on the take from the mobsters who ran the town.

North Platte residents knew that all was not what it seemed and suspicions were peaked after the courthouse burned to the ground and all county records were loss.

County Treasurer S.M. Souder had been embezzling money from the county. Auditors were due in on Monday morning to examine the county’s books.

Souder bought a number of oil cans a few days before the fire. They were found in the burned out courthouse once the fire was out.

Most Lincoln County residents did not believe it was a coincidence that all financial records were destroyed.

Baker, the long-time Deputy County Treasurer, was indicted for arson less than two months after the fire destroyed the courthouse and everything inside. After highly publicized trials, both Baker and Souder were found guilty of embezzlement. Only Baker was found guilty of arson and sentenced to from 3 to 10 years in the Nebraska prison.

Baker continued to fight from jail and appealed his case all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court to no avail.

After five years in prison, Baker requested a pardon in 1928. He was consider a trusted and model prisoner and had been granted a leave to travel to Omaha for cancer treatments and allowed to return to North Platte for seven days to attend the funeral of his wife in 1926.

Nearly 150 petitioners asked that he be granted a parole citing the fact that he had been a model county employee and citizen of North Platte for 50 years.

The pardon was denied.

Baker was finally released from jail in February 1936 after a hearing and returned to North Platte to live with his mother. She passed away three years later and her will gave everything, including the house Baker lived in with her, to Baker’s brother-in-law.

Baker only lived a one year more. He died alone and unemployed in a room at the Palace Hotel at the age of 71.

W.R. Maloney

Undertaker – Civic leader

Presented by Traci McKeon as his wife

William R. Maloney was a respected businessman and civic leader involved in matters of the city, county and state.

But underneath his proper and distinguished image was a dark side, many believe, that allowed the culture of Little Chicago to flourish for years.

Maloney was an ambitious man and talented too. In 1902, at the age of 20, he went to work for C.A. Howe in his furniture and hardware store. After awhile he got into the undertaking business and earned $28 a month.

Maloney continued to work for Howe and Howe was so impressed with Maloney’s skills he sent the young man to the Hohonoschuh School of Embalming in Omaha to improve his skills.

Maloney was lured by the high salaries at the Union Pacific Railroad and joined the railroad as a brakeman for four years. But he finally decided that his fortune lay with Howe so he quit the railroad and went into business with Howe. He bought one-eighth of Howe’s business and his status began to grow.

When Howe died in 1914 Maloney took total control of the business and renamed it the W.R. Maloney Co.

Maloney was a good friend of Annie Cook who ran the County Poor Farm west of North Platte. He was a regular visitor at the Poor Farm and was said to have taken care of the many mysterious deaths that occurred there.

As chairman of the North Platte Cemetery Association, he was well known for his style of cutting corners when it came to burying the poor county residents. Many believe Maloney kept secrets that allowed the nefarious activities of Little Chicago to go unnoticed by most people.

In June of 1946, a dedication was held at the lake south of North Platte in honor of William Maloney being the original director, organizer and vice president of the Platte Valley Public Power and Irrigation District. The lake was named Lake Maloney in his honor.

Maloney, his wife Erma and their daughter Maureen lived in the large pink house located at 504 West Fourth Street, which still stands today.

Dorsey and Burdette Leypoldt

Father – Son

Presented by Kevin and Tristan Winder

Burdette Leypoldt was a lot like his father Dorsey.

Burdette was one of the top tennis players in Nebraska. He played football, acted in high school plays and was on the yearbook staff at North Platte High School.

After graduation Burdette opened a business – the E-Z Park Root Beer stand on East Third Street.

Burdette seemed to get a lot of his ambition from his father Dorsey.

In 1895 Dorsey started what would become a very successful hay and grain business. The business had several partners through the years with Dorsey always at its head. Eventually Dorsey dissolved all the partnerships and was the sole owner. He had field operations all over central and western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. A few years his gross volume exceeded $2 million.

Both father and son were enjoying their businesses when an unexpected tragedy changed everything.

On June 22, 1931, Burdette was at work serving root beer and hot dogs when there was a large explosion from the kitchen. Press reports at the time indicate it was a gasoline explosion but don’t explain further.

Burdette suffered severe burns over most of his body. His father, Dorsey, immediately donated large amounts of his own skin in the hopes that the skin grafts would save his son’s life.

But only a few days after donating the skin, Dorsey died of blood poisoning from the operations.

Burdette lived a week more then succumbed to his injuries. Unconscious, he never knew the sacrifice that his father made trying to save his life.

Josephine Johnston

Wife – Madame

Played by Denise DiGiovanni

The movers and shakers of Little Chicago often thumbed their noses at laws.

The Ritz Bar, located at 605-1/2 Locust Street (now Jeffers Street), continued to operate and thrive even during Prohibition.

The Ritz was run by Charles and Josephine Johnston, husband and wife. Charles ran the saloon and pool hall downstairs while his wife Josephine ran the Lotus Room on the second floor. She managed the women who occupied the rooms.

The Ritz made Charles and Josephine rich by standards of the time.

Married in 1907, the couple seemed well suited for their occupation until Charles’ death in 1936.

Josephine then hired Verne Austin to run the bar and pool hall while she continued to manage the Lotus Room.

After she died in 1938, at age 52, her wealth became obvious to family members. Josephine left the bar to Verne along with her Lincoln Zephyr Coupe. She gave her three brothers $1,000 each and all her jewelry to her sister-in-law Clara Owen and Clara’s three daughters. Josephine’s land and postal bonds went to her sister, Mary Barbara.

Myrtle McHugh

Wild woman – Wife

Played by Daisy Toft

Myrtle Pease McHugh was a wild woman.

Born in Arnold, she spent her entire life in North Platte except for a short stay in Commanche Oklahoma where the unmarried 17-year-old teenager gave birth to a daughter, Lula Belle Blackburn.

When Myrtie, as she was known, returned to North Platte she fell under Little Chicago’s influence. She began to hang out with, then date, then marry a notorious gangster Patrick J. McHugh.

Life as the wife of a gangster was rough but Myrtie took to it quickly. McHugh taught his young bride how to be a Madame and soon she became the proprietor of the Madison Rooms at 511-1/2 North Dewey.

McHugh eventually left Myrtie for a one-legged prostitute named Violet XXX.

The couple never divorced but lived apart and committed crimes for many years in North Platte.

Myrtie died at the age of 55 in 1949 after a brief five-day illness.

Dr. Marie Ames

Abortionist – Divorcee

Played by Lynette Niles

Dr. Marie Ames must have treated thousands of patients during her 36-year medical practice but she was mostly known to the residents of Little Chicago as the doctor to the prostitutes.

Ames was born Marie Antoinette Sloan in Illinois and attended the school for Christian Workers in Springfield Mass. She then taught school in Yankton S.D.

After marrying Albro J. Ames in 1895, they both attended Creighton Medical College in Omaha and graduated in 1901. During her medical studies at Creighton, Ames was superintendent of the Presbyterian Hospital in Omaha.

Both doctor Ames came to North Platte in 1905. In 1913 Ames sued her husband for divorce. The next year Ames was involved in a court case to recover diamonds she had given to her new fiancé, William Dolson.

The next year, Dr. Ames reputation would forever change. She was subpoenaed into court for performing an “illegal operation.” Court papers charged that Ames had performed a criminal abortion on a Kearney woman which resulted in her death.

On June 27, 1914, the Lincoln Daily Star reported that the charges against Ames had been dropped.

For the next 10 years, Ames appeared to be a kind and gentle doctor who helped the sick, infirmed and ill. But, like so many residents of Little Chicago, she had another side.

Ames was the doctor to the prostitutes. She had a staircase on the back side of her house that the young girls would use when her services were required.

The house, now located on B Street, was located at the time at 310 East Fifth, the location of Sears today.

In 1927, more legal troubles emerged for Dr. Ames. The Nebraska Attorney General’s office filed papers accusing Ames of performing illegal operations on June 23, 1925 and Oct. 5, 1927 in North Platte. The charges were eventually dismissed when Ames did not renew her medical license.

Ames passed away, at age 74, on Sept. 6, 1937. She was survived by three nieces, whom she raised, and an adopted son, Roy Melville Ames.

John Harold Sollars

Clerk – Suitor

Played by Jason Gale

It seems that on the rare occasion that officials in Little Chicago did try to stop bootleggers, they couldn’t even get that right.

John H. Sollars was 23-years-old clerk at the Higbee and Keyes store in North Platte. He took a liking to a local schoolteacher, Goldie Robb.

Sollars took Robb for a drive on a Friday afternoon on May 14, 1926. Driving south to North Platte, they came upon a roadblock with two cars parked crossways on the highway. Men were yelling for them to stop.

Sollars, wanted to protect his sweetie Robb, thought the men were drunks so he stepped on the gas and veered around them, speeding away.

As they passed the men began shooting at them.

Sollars was shot through the back, the bullet entering the lower part of his stomach and lodging in his pelvic bone.

Robb, noticing Sollars was hit and barely conscious, helped him drive the rest of the way into town.

They stopped at the Rincker Drug Store where Dr. Whurele then rushed Sollars to the hospital. Whurele notified the sheriff’s office and a deputy and the Lincoln County Attorney took a statement from Sollars.

Sollars died an hour later.

The Chief of Police told the County Attorney that commissioned four men to stop bootleggers in the county. A policeman, Ed Green, was ordered to go with the men in plain clothes. Three men had fired on Sollars thinking he was a bootlegger. The men were named Runyon, Johnson and Frohm. Runyon and Johnson were known for stopping bootleggers, Frohm was a Union Pacific Railroad officer.

Frohm was acquitted of all charges since he fired his gun into the air.

After lengthy and well publicized trials, Runyon was sentenced to seven years in prison and Johnson to six years, even though Johnson fired the fatal shot that killed Sollars.

Annie Cook

Wife – Murderer

Played by Carolyn Clark

Annie Cook, wife of Frank Cook of Hershey, demanded respect from everyone around her. Her greedy desire to create wealth and buy the land of her neighbors made her mean and overbearing. She ran the County Poor Farm and demanded the poor people she put up work for nothing.

She greased the palms of corrupt politicians and exploited both Lincoln County and the poor people she housed.

In 1896 she gave birth to a daughter, Clara. To Annie, Clara was just another employee and she put the young woman to work in a house of ill repute Annie owned and ran in North Platte.

Annie’s husband Frank was so disgusted by his wife he moved into the barn.

Annie later killed her own daughter after she threw a lid off the cast iron, wood-fired cook stove. Annie and her daughter had been fighting all morning

But Lincoln County Attorney Collis Bell, whom many believe was corrupted by the powerful Annie Cook, told news reporters an inquest was not necessary because the death was purely accidental. He said cause of death was suffocation after an aged inmate mistakenly poured poison into the medicine she took.

Many other mysterious deaths took place at Annie’s Poor Farm but none were ever investigated.

Albert Hastings

The Al Capone of North Platte

Played by Bill Kackmeister

Albert Hastings was a popular man. He owned Platte Valley Realty and sponsored many civic events in town including Golden Gloves boxing.

But Hastings was also a feared man. He was notorious during the Little Chicago days for his control of the North Platte underworld.

Hastings was the lone godfather of the criminal world in Lincoln County.

In order to stay under the radar of the law, Hastings had numerous policemen and a few key municipal and county government officials on his payroll.

During Prohibition, if Hastings learned that a bar was getting whiskey from a source other than his, that bar was mysteriously shut down and the owner beaten by men in uniform.

Hastings took his cut from every underground establishment he could and had his hand in all sorts of vices.

People generally knew he had criminal ties, rumors floated about daily. But Hastings was genuinely well liked by many. It was said that if you were on his good side, he would do anything to help you. If someone couldn’t get a loan from a bank, Hastings would probably loan the money. Of course, his interest rates and other “payment requests” often led to other criminal activities.

Hastings helped many people get a home but sometimes at a high price with his “I scratched your back now you scratch mine” attitude.

Hastings was happily married to his wife, Lena, and they had four boys and one daughter.

Whether he was a good guy helping out the poor man or just a criminal thug in it for the money, Hastings shaped the image of North Platte as Little Chicago.

Lizzie Knox and Marie Lunkwitz

Mother – Daughter

Played by Vicki Pleiss and Sharon Owens

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Louise Petske Knox was Annie Cook’s slave … and her sister.

When Cook left Denver to move west of North Platte, she convinced her parents that her little sister Lizzie’s mental status was so low that she would never get married. She convinced her parents to send Lizzie to live with her and Frank Cook.

Lizzie arrived here in 1900 and her life of abuse and servitude to Annie began.

Lizzie ran away with a man named Joe Knox in 1901 and married him. Knox had come to rescue Lizzie after he received letters from her describing the horrors of living with Annie.

Lizzie and Joe had a daughter, Mary, in 1902.

In 1905, Annie convinced Lizzie to bring Mary to visit and Lizzie fell for the trap. As soon as she arrived at Annie’s farm, the abuse began again. Annie held Lizzie and Mary captive and ran Joe off with a gun. After a few more attempts, Joe gave up. For the next 19 years, Annie and Mary served as virtual slaves to Annie but in 1924, Mary saw a way to escape.

One evening Annie was trying to force Mary into prostitution. Mary refused. A fight ensued and Annie stabbed Mary with a butcher knife. Mary bolted from the house and kept running until she got a ride into North Platte.

Mary went on to marry three different husbands throughout her life, all of them dying before she did. She spent her life worrying about her mother but unable to do anything about it. She finally got her chance in 1952 when Annie finally died.

Hearing the news, Mary rushed to the farm and brought her mother home. She hadn’t seen or spoken to her in 28 years and yet they lived less than 10 miles apart.

Mary made sure her mother’s final years were spent in comfort. Before she died, she gave her daughter her final wish.

“When I die, don’t bury me next to Annie,” Lizzie said.

She got her wish.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 9/22/2008
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