Cigars and Wires Bootleggers, Bookies, Brewers: Omaha’s Sometimes Sordid Past Remembered 11/21/18 10:30:14 AM
Top: Jeremy Wilhelm visits with Jack Atkins Jr. about the photographs in the book “Cigars and Wires.” Above: John Atkins (left) and Lou Greenberg of the Manhattan Brewing Company meet for a drink at the Rio Cabana nightclub in Chicago in 1945. Greenberg was a close associate of Al Capone and of Frank “the Enforcer” Nitti, Capone’s successor.
Cigars and Wires
Bootleggers, Bookies, Brewers:
Omaha’s Sometimes Sordid Past Remembered
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
Cigar smoke and fascinating stories of the early Omaha underworld filled the air last Wednesday night at the Omaha Bar Association’s special event “Cigars, Cocktails and Counselors: An Evening Looking Back at Omaha’s Early Underworld.”
“Best OBA event I’ve ever been to,” attorney Tom White said.
He wasn’t the only one. The buzz was generated by historian John Atkins Jr. and Jon L. Blecha, author and former Omaha police officer, who wrote a book titled “Cigars and Wires: The Omaha Underworld’s Early Years.”
It’s 466 pages tell the stories of the seamy side of Omaha history, from 1911 to the late 1970s. Many of the memories came from someone who witnessed it at the knee of his father. Atkins’ father, John Atkins, was one of Omaha’s most successful bootleggers in the 1920s and 1930s.
Guests lounged in leather chairs as they sipped their (licit) beverages and smoked their Padrones, filling the air with a haze at the Safari Cigar & Lounge in West Omaha. They snacked on Italian appetizers from the restaurant next door, Lombardo’s.
The warm-up before the talk gave attendees a chance to mingle and catch up.
The crowd was decidedly eclectic.
Many faces had not been seen often at OBA events, while some were perennials. Veteran lawyers mingled with members of the Young Lawyers Division. But all listened attentively and had plenty of questions after the hour-long presentation.
As Atkins Jr. talked, spinning one tale after another, a series of pictures flashed on the screen behind him. Sitting in front of him were dozens of clippings and old photographs of many of the mobsters and racketeers who were involved in the Omaha underworld.
He took listeners back to the era of Tom Dennison, Omaha’s mob boss and his cohort, Mayor Jim Dahlman. Bootleg booze, along with illegal gambling, took place in “cigar stores” and pool halls. Brothels were plenty and payoffs were common to police and judges. The “independents” were the ones usually found murdered.
One intriguing tidbit from Atkins Jr. included information on a photo he flashed on the screen of a man’s shoe that looked like it was fitted with lifts.
The explanation was much better: At a bootlegging operation conducted around the Stockyards, everyone who entered wore cow’s hooves on their shoes, so if authorities came looking, all they saw were the hoof prints of cattle. That’s a story you can’t make up.
He also told the story of racketeer Clarence Hanfelt, his dad’s business partner in the United Beverage Company. They were Omaha’s wholesale beer distributor, located at 12th and Leavenworth. They had gone legit after Prohibition ended, putting their bootlegging business (mostly) behind them.
But Hanfelt apparently displeased their Chicago mob suppliers.
He was murdered on his front steps on the evening of October 4, 1934.
He and Atkins had been arguing at their office about $1,165 missing from the safe. Hanfelt’s girlfriend (he also had a wife) had been out partying and returned home late that night. She drove directly into the garage and took a tunnel into the house, never noticing her boyfriend on the front sidewalk, dead from two shotgun blasts to the face.
He was not discovered until the next morning, when a neighbor went over to tell her he was lying there. Immediately upon Hanfelt’s death, Atkins took over the company.
It raised a few eyebrows, although there were an abundance of possible motives for Hanfelt’s murder. The business prospered, their Hamm’s beer outselling all the local Omaha breweries’ product combined.
The murder was never officially solved. But about seven years ago, Atkins Jr.’s sister told him what the family had been told.
“The Chicago boys sent a man with $500 to kill him,” she told him, “because they didn’t want to do business with him.” The “Chicago boys” included Al Capone and Frank “the Enforcer” Nitti.
While young Atkins Jr. was unaware of the more extreme aspects of his father’s illicit business, he frequently made the rounds with him and met many infamous underworld figures.
He only became aware of his father’s “business” after his father’s death in 1973 when Merle Fimple, a friend of his dad, “called me into his office and said ‘Sit down, I want to tell you about your dad, stuff that you don’t know about.’”
That’s when he learned about Hanfelt’s murder, Jack said.
The principal illicit endeavors in Omaha were bookmaking, bootlegging, prostitution and gambling (with some murder), but that became less attractive to the Omaha underworld as Las Vegas grew.
When asked about today’s underworld in Omaha, Blecha declined to comment. As a former police officer,
he said he was uncomfortable disclosing things that might have ongoing investigations.
OBA Executive Director Dave Sommers said he plans to have a podcast of the event up on the OBA website soon.
Editor’s Note: To buy a copy of “Cigars and Wires: The Omaha Underworld’s Early Years.” ($26), call John Atkins Jr. at 402-502-0514. He will hand deliver it in Omaha.