“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:15). It made little difference to Pilate which Jew was executed, as long as someone died that day. That’s often how powerful systems operate. As far as Pilate was concerned, Jesus’ real crime was like that of Barabbas — “walking while Jewish.” In the same way, the system of white male supremacy often seeks a sacrificial victim regardless of the nature of the evidence — as long a some black person dies to reduce white anxiety and restore white hegemony.
Twelve-year-old Alta Braun left her home on Tremont Street in LeMars, Iowa, at about 7:30 on Monday evening, August 20, 1917. She was going to stop at her grandparents’ home and then take in the merry-go-round at the corner of 7th and Main. The Yankee Robinson circus was in town. She took the dime her father, Chris, had given her and headed off for an evening of fun. The events that followed were reported in detail in the pages of the LeMars Sentinel, the local paper of record.
Alta was last seen some time between 9:30 and 10 p.m. She had been to the merry-go-round and the Vienna bakery, where she bought a nickel bag of candy. She headed home, candy in hand, and walked most of the way home with Mrs. Adney. Two blocks from there, in the darkness of the railroad tracks, she was raped and murdered by a person or persons unknown.
The memory of Alta Braun has been preserved by loving family members for over one hundred years. It is through their diligent efforts that this story is posted online and researched for family genealogies. This little girl was the victim of a horrific crime, and I don’t intend to treat her as simply an object lesson.
She was treated as a disposable object by the person or persons who raped and murdered her and left her body in the dark along those tracks in LeMars. They had no thought for her panic-stricken family and the generations of those who remember her and were deprived of her love and her gifts as a person.
I do not wish to compound that crime. So, I am grateful to be able to know this story and to name Alta Marie Braun as a victim. It only adds to the tragedy of her story that it became another example of systemic racist practice and policy.
Alta Braun’s body was discovered the next morning by residents who notified the police, the sheriff, and the county coroner. She had by then been reported as missing from home. She had been sexually assaulted and then strangled with her own black underskirt. The August 24 edition of the Sentinel reported that the Yankee Robinson circus was in town “and the sheriff and the police are working on the theory that the crime was committed by one of the employees or one of the tough characters usually in the wake of a circus.”
The paper noted that the evidence was “meager,” but it took only a short time for the crime to be “otherized.” Local anxiety was reduced immediately by assuming and asserting that the murderer was a stranger, an outsider, an “other.” Sheriff Maxwell followed the circus to its next stop in Correctionville, south of Sioux City, to pursue the limited leads.
The otherization became focused on one of the black employees of the circus. “A local man reported on Tuesday evening to Mayor McLain,” reported the Sentinel, “that he had heard a negro at the merry-go-round make an obscene remark to a companion that he would get that girl before he left town.” This sort of remark, whether it was actually said or not, fit the white narrative after the era of enslavement that black men were dangerous beasts who could not control their animal desire to rape and murder white girls and women. In this situation, the remark and its assumptions were simply accepted and never really questioned.
That statement, “that he would get that girl before he left town” however, was not the end of the
sentence, which concluded by saying “but it is a question whether his remark applied to the
victim.” Nonetheless, equipped with this report, Mayor McLain paid for the man to take the train
to Cherokee to share this information with the sheriff.
The concerned citizen, still anonymous in the news article at this point, reported that “he had
located the negro who made the remark and asked the Cherokee marshal to arrest him.” So, we
have the first black suspect. The marshal, however, refused to take action unless the county sheriff
made the request. The sheriff could not be found in Cherokee, and no arrest was made. Nor is there
any further mention of this first black suspect.
Not everyone was ready to limit the suspects to black circus employees. “The local authorities are
working on other clues on the theory which it is stated is supported by Chris Braun, the father of
the victim,” the LeMars Sentinel reported on August 28, “that the crime was committed by some
one [sic] in Le Mars familiar with the habits of the girl and acquainted with the location of the
ground where the dastardly outrage was perpetrated.” Nonetheless, the primary focus of the
investigation was on the black circus employees.
By Thursday, the sheriff had tracked down a black man named Edward Nelson, who had been
arrested by a Northwestern railroad detective as Nelson washed his clothes in the river near Carroll
in southwest Iowa. Now we have a second black suspect. The first report was that he was washing
blood off his clothes, but that report was found to be without merit. A sheriff’s deputy retrieved
Nelson from Carroll and housed him in the Woodbury County jail in Sioux City, perhaps to avoid
any potential for lynching in LeMars.
Edward G. Pearson, the man who first suggested a black suspect, was unable to connect Nelson to
the crime, and Nelson was ultimately released—in mid-September! The “Sioux City papers”
suggested that Nelson had been brought to LeMars to be met by a lynch mob, but the Sentinel
reported that such transportation had not happened. It is unclear if the Sioux City papers were
reporting or provoking.
At this point, the anxiety was palpable. “Half a dozen theories and numberless purported clues have been furnished to the county attorney,” the Sentinel reported, “by well meaning [sic] volunteers.” The panic in LeMars was becoming palpable. The county board of supervisors and the city council offered $500 each as rewards for evidence in the crime.
Sheriff Maxwell learned that a black man in north Omaha was in jail under suspicion for what appeared to be a similar crime. Charles Smith had also been an employee of the Yankee Robinson circus but left that job “because he couldn’t get any pay.” Smith was jailed on the charge of raping and murdering Mrs. Claude Nethaway, “wife of a farmer near Florence.” Pearson once again could not identify Smith as “the same negro” (LeMars Sentinel, August 31) who made the supposed remark about “getting that girl.” If that black man ever existed, he was reported to have left the circus at Creston, Iowa, without any indication of future destination or plans.
Smith ceased to be a person of interest in the Braun case. He was not so fortunate in the case of
Nellie Nethaway. Claude Nethaway had reported his wife missing on the afternoon of August 26.
Her body was discovered with her hands bound and her throat cut. The Omaha Police department
was in charge of the case. “OPD almost immediately had a suspect,” Bristow writes. “A black man
had been seen in the neighborhood earlier that afternoon. A man matching his description,” Bristow continues,” was soon arrested in Blair [Nebraska], and admitted having hopped a train in Florence.
The evidence against Charles Smith was nearly non-existent. Many of the local authorities were convinced that the scene had been staged to frame someone for the murder and that fake evidence had been planted as part of this project. “The coroner’s jury concluded that Nellie Nethaway was murdered by an unknown person,” Bristow reports, “but recommended that Smith be held for further investigation.” He notes that Smith was charged with murder even though there was no further evidence and the prosecutors expressed public doubts about getting a conviction.
A first trial failed to get a unanimous verdict and leaned toward acquittal. The judge ordered a second trial, and “in February 1918 a second jury voted to convict on essentially the same evidence” (Bristow, page 8). Smith was conveyed to the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, where he died just four months later, on June 12, 1918. “Newspapers did not report it,” Bristow notes, “and his prison record does not include the cause of death.”
Claude Nethaway was a central figure in the lynching of Will Brown in downtown Omaha less than two years later. Nethaway was, according to historical assessments, likely guilty of the murder of his own wife in 1917. And he was certainly one of Will Brown’s murderers in 1919. He was not punished in either case. That story will be told later this week.
If there is a fiend in the story, it is Claude Nethaway. He was likely an abusive husband. He was a blatant, public, and vocal white supremacist. His second wife divorced him and escaped his violence. Yet, as Bristow writes, “he was known in the press as an ‘eccentric Florence real estate man’ and received a pleasant obituary at the time of his death” (Bristow, Page 12). Nethaway was never in danger of lynching. Not only did he put an innocent black man in prison (and took the life of Charles Smith in that way), but he was central to the “Crucifixion at Omaha.” And this life history merited “a pleasant obituary.”
The only publicly recognized danger was otherized and colored black because blaming and killing the other made the locals feel safe and superior. Two men escaped that system and one was caught in the web of white supremacy. Being black was itself a crime then and now. We should hear the vibrations of the New Jim Crow, the otherizing of danger and crime in our time on an historic scale.
I tell this story, however, for its deeper connections. It is the story of people regarded as disposable. Alta Marie Braun was used and discarded, as was Charles Smith—and Nellie Nethaway. Edward Nelson and his anonymous colleague walked the edge of the lynching cliff but escaped when reason overcame race for at least a moment. But each and all of these people are united in their instrumentality, their objectification as bodies to be consumed and then cast away like the husk and cob of an ear of corn. Alta, Charles, and Nellie are unseparated and equal in their untimely, unjust, and unnecessary murders.
These three, and millions like them, are united in their social status—pawns in the games of the white, male power structure. It is sheer speculation on my part, but I think Smith was caught up in the machinations of the Dennison political machine in Omaha. Claude Nethaway was either already connected to that corrupt, racist regime or he was made beholden to it when he was passed over as the prime suspect in Nellie’s murder. Later he made good on that debt as he led the lynching of Will Brown. Two black men died to save his life and give him the chance for “a pleasant obituary.”
Little Alta was likely a victim of local violence rather than that of some outside, “black beast.” Reporting at the time speculated on such a likelihood. Again, I speculate, but the actions of the local LeMars authorities look and sound like so many similar attempts to shield a white man from accountability by offloading the crime onto a convenient black man. That was almost always the fact in cases of rape. Edward Nelson came within a hairsbreadth of being disposed of through the workings of the local white supremacy system. And he would have been used up and discarded, it seems, if some local media outlets were to be believed.
Unseparate and equal in life, in class, in status—and in death. It was and is the reflexive strategy of the supremacy system of whiteness to pit poor whites against blacks in order to protect the system and its privileged participants. It took no effort at all to shift the gaze of law enforcement from possible white suspects to handy black victims. The perpetrators disposed of the victims. The system disposed of the black surrogates.
After all, in the minds of the system, any Black man would do.