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The explosive impact of Omaha's underworld

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Frank Myers must have stood straight up in bed and thought, “Oh, no, not again!”

Living north of Fontenelle Park, Omaha’s police commissioner heard the city’s latest bombing, the 11th in a little more than two years.

This one was the explosion at the yet-unopened Italian Gardens tavern at Sixth Street and Poppleton Avenue in the Dahlman neighborhood on Oct. 10, 1934.

The suspect(s)? Some would have had motives. There were 40 neighbors who signed a petition protesting the new tavern. And there was the Omaha underworld, still alive even after Omaha boss Tom Dennison’s death in February 1934.

Benna Marcuzzo built the Italian Gardens for her son Mondo. Another son, Angelo, was one of the donors of a “spectacular ‘gates ajar’ floral arrangement” sent the week before to the funeral of murdered racketeer Clarence Hanfelt. At the top of the arrangement was a clock, the hands fixed to 3:30 (which was the hour the murder was believed to have taken place). Gilded letters pated to a filmy orchid ribbon spelled “The Sad Hour.” Another ribbon bore the names of the donors — Tony Oddo, Sam Bonacasso and Angelo Marcuzzo.

The World-Herald reported that the Italian Gardens wasn’t expected to handle Hanfelt’s line of beverages. But police were working on the theory of a connection between the murder and the bombing.

The list of earlier bombings as detailed in the newspaper is interesting.

June 26, 1932: An explosion demolished the Turf cigar store and two other buildings of 14th and Douglas streets. Loss: $150,000. Police Commissioner Roy Towl: “All leads are being checked and no stone will be left unturned in the probe. I am determined to get to the bottom of this mystery and time and expense be no object.” No arrests.

March 31, 1933: A bomb rocked Baseball Headquarters, 413 S. 15th St. “A last-minute attempt to discredit me before the election,” said Police Commissioner John Hopkins. No arrests.

June 18, 1933: Culver cigar store, 2030 Harney St., wrecked by bomb; nearby window smashed. Mayor Towl and Police Commissioner Myers held long conference at station; had nothing to announce. No arrests.

July 1, 1933: A bomb was thrown through the window of the Metropolitan pool hall, 1516 Capitol Ave. Damage slight. No arrest.

May 28, 1934: A bomb exploded in front of the Fox Hunt Club, 1512 Howard St., which was to be opened that night. Little damage. No arrests.

July 4, 1934: The Orpheum Cleaners, 1509 Harney St., was bombed, supposedly in a cleaners’ price war. Little damage. No arrests.

July 6, 1934: Southside Cleaners, 5009 S. 24th St. Little damage. Police Commissioner Myers: “These bombings must stop. There is no room for such racketeering in Omaha. I am counting on the detective bureau to solve this thing in the next few days. No arrests.

July 9, 1934: A building at 2929 Q St., property of Stanley Zager, which had just been remodeled as a beer garden and which was to open for business in a few days, was wrecked by a dynamite bomb. Zager had planned to sell “26-ounce beers.” Shrapnel from the explosion shattered a score of windows in the Armour and Co. office across the street. Inspector A. C. Andersen and other officials on scene to speed investigation. No arrests.

July 28, 1934: A bomb blew a hole in the roof of the Mug House, 2001 Cuming St., injuring two women and doing considerable damage. Beer war blamed. No arrests.

Sept. 24, 1934: Some damage was done to the Log Cabin, Seventh and East Locust Streets (outside Omaha jurisdiction) by a bomb placed at the door. No arrests.

Beer war? Coming out of Prohibition, two firms were said to be fighting for the beer trade in Omaha. The first casualty was the octagonal beer bar in Peony Park’s new beer garden the morning of June 9, 1934. Another front was the size of draft beers. Tavern owners generally poured 10- to 14-ounce steins. Zager dared to offer 26-ounce pours for the same price.

Cigar stores? They sold tobacco products, but moreso they were fronts for illegal gambling. Place a bet on a horse race or sit in on a poker game. These places also housed race wire services, which provided results from tracks nationwide.

While no one was ever charged in the 11 incidents, and the next few years were relatively calm, the summer of 1938 brought a new “war” and a new spate of bombings came. This time was a “bookie war.”

Omaha had licensed bookmaking through occupation taxes in Omaha in 1937, although against state law. Daily Racing Form publisher Moe Annenberg’s Nationwide News Service was providing race results to three major Omaha bookies, Eddie Barrick (Omaha’s “millionaire” bookie), Sam Ziegman and Sam House. Ziegman and Casey Gaughan started their own wire service.

Omaha repealed its bookmaking ordinances in March 1938, doing little to stem the now-illegal practice. And the feud between the Nationwide and the Ziegman-Gaughan news services intensify. And got violent as three gambling outlets using the upstart local service were bombed.

On July 11, the Bell cigar store at 15th and Dodge Streets was the first. The bomb was essentially a large firecracker, with black powder filling a cardboard roll. More sound than fury. But strong enough to tear loose the Bell’s screen doors, knocking out the glass and damaging the neon sign.

Fred “Snorts” Weyerman, the Bell’s proprietor, told police he had no idea why his store was targeted. It wouldn’t be the last time, either. Nine suspects were questioned, no arrests.

Six days later, a neighborhood bookie joint at 30th Street and Ames Avenue and the Track, recently renamed from the Royal, cigar store at 204½ S. 14th St. (the W. Dale Clark Library block), were bombed. At the North Omaha site, damage was confined to one wrecked piano and another partially wrecked. Downtown, the bomb shattered a stone slab two inches thick in the stairway landing of the Track, blew out a window and wrecker a water fountain and counters. Three men sleeping inside the store were uninjured. This time, nine men were jailed for investigation but no charges were filed on the bombings. The only convictions were for bookmaking from that year’s city crackdown on gambling.

The Bell was targeted again, 14 years later, and with Weyerman still its proprietor. Windows were blown out on Jan. 24, 1952. That was about two months after a homemade bomb exploded outside the Empire Grill at 28th and Dodge Streets. That café also had ties to Omaha’s gambling community.

Another series of bombings, apparently unrelated to “wars” involving dry cleaners, beer or bookies, occurred in late 1965 extending into 1966.

The explosions were at Harold’s Super Market on East Locust, the Buy Rite Home and Auto Supply and Mills Cleaners at 30th and Ames, the Shaver’s grocery at 42nd and Grover Streets, the Skagway store (twice) at 72nd and L Streets, a car in the Admiral Theater lot at 40th and Farnam Streets, the Holiday gas station at 30th and Bedford Avenue, the Blackburn Center at 24th Street and Ames, a car near the old Immanuel Hospital on 36th Street and the Ames Bowling Center, where 275 people were inside when the bomb went off in a men’s restroom, at 56th Street and Ames.

Again, no arrests. Not even with a $3,700 reward fund, which included $1,000 from The World-Herald and $2,000 from the Associated Retailers of Omaha. Nothing suggests the reward was ever paid.

A good read on Omaha’s underworld is retired Omaha police sergeant Jon L. Blecha’s book, “Cigars and Wires” (second edition, 2015). Very hard to find, it is available at the Omaha and Ralston libraries.

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