Omaha's last outlaw

Few know the story of the criminal Pat Crowe and his once-famous kidnapping scheme, but Omaha author Andrew Hilleman wants to bring the legend back to life. Hilleman knew the story would be a great basis for a novel because, “You just couldn’t make this stuff up.”

By Micah Mertes / World-Herald staff writer

Sunday, January 29, 2017


The book


“World, Chase Me Down” by Andrew Hilleman
Paperback and e-book; 332 pages; published by Penguin Random House

Events


Andrew Hilleman

Book signing
Andrew Hilleman will sign copies of his book at 1 p.m. today at The Bookworm, 90th Street and West Center Road.

Pub quiz
Hilleman will be the guest of honor at next month’s Literary Pub Quiz at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Pageturners Lounge, 5004 Dodge St. More info at facebook.com/ptlpubquiz.


“In the history of the city, nothing like this ever occurred before.”


It’s the greatest story Omaha ever forgot: the tale of an outlaw caught between the city’s wild past and its tamed future.
Few know the story of the criminal Pat Crowe and his once-famous kidnapping scheme, but Omaha author Andrew Hilleman wants to bring the legend back to life. Inspired by the local crime, he has written a new novel: “World, Chase Me Down.”
After learning about Crowe, Hilleman quickly saw his outlandish story as a solid foundation for good fiction because, he said, “You just couldn’t make this stuff up.”



Read more
* The life and crimes of Pat Crowe
* Andrew Hilleman picks 10 great Westerns
* Kirkus interview with Hilleman
* Publisher's Weekly review of "World, Chase Me Down"



First, here’s what actually happened ...
In December 1900 two men kidnapped Eddie A. Cudahy Jr., the 15-year-old son of millionaire Omaha meatpacker Edward A. Cudahy, and held him for a $25,000 ransom. One of the kidnappers, Crowe, had a grievance with Cudahy Sr.: Years previous, Crowe’s little butcher shop went out of business after a Cudahy outlet undercut its prices. Crowe vowed revenge, and kept his promise.
The ransom note had promised that if Cudahy didn’t pay the $25,000, the kidnappers would burn out his son’s eyes with acid.
But the ransom was paid, and the boy was returned unharmed less than three days after being taken. Cudahy Jr. said he’d been blindfolded but knew he’d been kept in a country cottage. He said, “The men treated me pretty well but did not give me much to eat. And I did not feel much like eating.”
Kidnapping was an extremely rare crime in 1900 and the story became a sensation. The World-Herald at the time wrote, “In the history of the city, nothing like this ever occurred before.”
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Researching Pat Crowe

Andrew Hilleman did nearly all of his research for “World, Chase Me Down” at Omaha Public Library’s downtown main branch, looking through thousands of Omaha World-Herald and Omaha Daily Bee pages in the third floor’s microfilm room.
His research was scattershot. He’d often scroll through page after page without any specific headline in mind. His aim was to learn about Pat Crowe, but he also just wanted to immerse himself in 1900s Omaha.
Hilleman said he’s computer-illiterate and initially had to get a lot of help from librarians, who taught him how to find material and use the microfilm equipment. He thanks the library in his novel’s acknowledgments page: “Every city deserves a library as devoted to the preservation of its local history as the good folks at Omaha Public Library.”
Lynn Sullivan, a specialist with the library, said Hilleman’s use of library research materials was unusual.
“Usually what people are after is their own individual history: genealogy, family history research,” she said. “They want to look up the history of the house where they live or they’re interested in re-creating the world of their ancestors.”
Though omahalibrary.org now offers a digital archive of Omaha World-Herald issues up to 1983, many historical materials are not online.
You’ve got to come to the library to see the business directories, clipping files, historical photograph collections or books about particular buildings, families and church congregations.
If you dig into the archives, you might discover what Hilleman did: that, as Sullivan said, we were once “a rambunctious town, a frontier cow town, hell-on-wheels type of thing.”

Crowe was — to say the least — a scoundrel. Even before the kidnapping, the Iowa-born Crowe had racked up a long list of crimes. He robbed Omaha streetcars and held up trains. He evaded authorities and escaped from jail (twice). He was suspected — though never convicted — of murder. He unquestionably did shoot an off-duty police officer in the thigh during a gunfight along South 16th Street, but he was later acquitted on the grounds of it being possible self-defense. (Really.)
After the kidnapping, Crowe eluded authorities and Pinkerton bounty hunters for nearly five years. He was finally captured in Butte, Montana, and on his way back to Omaha to stand trial, he drew large crowds at each train-station stop. One North Platte resident said his visit drew a bigger crowd than President Teddy Roosevelt.
The state called 92 witnesses against Crowe. There was enough evidence to put him away, but that’s not what happened. His lawyers mounted a Robin Hood defense: the impoverished, beleaguered butcher versus the rich, heartless meat baron. Class strife had made Crowe a folk hero and soured sympathy for Cudahy Sr., and the jury acquitted Crowe of the crime — to the outrage of dignified society.
The crime, trial and verdict were not only frequent fixtures of The World-Herald’s front pages throughout the early 1900s, but the story also captured national media attention, including that of the New York Times and Washington Post.
Following Crowe’s acquittal, the Post wrote, “Evidently, Omaha is not a desirable residence for persons of means who have families. Quite as evidently, it is the happy hunting ground of savages and malefactors.”
One savage/malefactor, Crowe, lived out most of the rest of his life as a free man, writing his memoirs (in which he confessed to his crimes) and lecturing across the country. Many years after the abduction, as the now-grown Eddie Cudahy was getting married, Crowe sent his old captive a congratulatory telegram. It read, “Nobody can wish you greater happiness in the hands of your new kidnapper than do I. Here’s hoping you cherish no ill will over our former escapade and enjoy this one.”

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Omaha author Andrew Hilleman spent a great deal of time researching his forthcoming book, "World, Chase Me Down," in the microfilm room of Omaha Public Library's Main Library, 215 S. 15th St. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

Accused kidnapper Pat Crowe, circa 1900. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Edward Cudahy, Jr. and his two sisters, circa 1900. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society

This story was full of such absurdities — so many it would be hard to fit them all into a single book. Just ask Andrew Hilleman.
Hilleman, 34, wrote a fictionalized account of the Cudahy kidnapping from Crowe’s perspective. Much of the novel is invention, but the details of the kidnapping, the manhunt and the trial are mostly accurate. “I wanted to stay as close as possible to the main events,” Hilleman said.
“World, Chase Me Down,” Hilleman’s debut, was originally a much longer book that covered the full breadth of Crowe’s life and exploits. But the 700-page book wasn’t selling. Hilleman was rejected by 30 publishers. To sell the book, he first had to cut it in half, paring down the narrative to the essentials of the events leading up to, surrounding and following the kidnapping. The result was a fast-paced and darkly funny adventure yarn, which Hilleman finally sold to Penguin Random House.
Hilleman’s first published book is in fact the fifth one he’s written. He came across the Crowe story while failing at his fourth book.
While the Omaha native and Creighton University grad was getting his master’s in fiction at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, he was also writing a novel about Omaha political boss and racketeer Tom Dennison.
“The Dennison novel was terrible,” Hilleman said. “But while I was doing research for that book, I stumbled upon the Crowe story. I gathered little bits here and there. The more I found out, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a better Omaha story than the Dennison book.’”
After earning his degree, Hilleman and his wife, April Hilleman, moved back to Omaha, where they now live with their 1-year-old daughter. Home again, Hilleman dug into the Crowe story and began writing the book. And the Dennison book wasn’t a complete wash. Hilleman made Dennison a character in “World, Chase Me Down,” salvaging what he could from the “scrap yard” of that earlier effort.

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Crowe's escapades

Passages from Hilleman's novel, mapped

Cudahy mansion, near 37th and Dewey Streets, circa 1900. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Hilleman did nearly all of his research at Omaha Public Library’s main branch downtown, poring over microfilm of Omaha World-Herald and Omaha Daily Bee covers from more than 100 years ago. From the headlines and stories, Hilleman not only learned about Crowe but also gleaned the language, culture and history of a city in transition.
“Growing up here,” Hilleman said, “you think it’s a pretty placid place for the most part. It’s very domestic now, a great place to raise a family. But back then it was much more rowdy.”
When asked why the Cudahy kidnapping had become such a historical footnote, Hilleman said it could be because it was such a short, if intense, turn of events. It also might be a slice of history that Omaha doesn’t want to remember, let alone celebrate. The first line of Hilleman’s novel has Crowe pondering his own place in history:
“In the history of all things, good stories one day become old stories and then cease to be told at all, and I suppose mine is no different.”
In hindsight, Crowe looks like the last hurrah of an anarchic time, for the country as a whole but specifically for Omaha. His tale was the city clearing its throat before embarking on a much safer century.
“This time period was pretty important in terms of Omaha’s history,” said Garneth O. Peterson, a historian who has extensively studied the era. “The 1880s were a significant decade for Omaha. It’s really when the city decided it was going to climb out of being the Wild West and become a metropolitan center. We got the railroad. We got the Union Pacific bridge. We grew and developed so much industry.”
Omaha had entered the modern world. Crowe hadn’t gotten the memo.

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Peterson, who now lives in the Twin Cities and works for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, previously lived in Omaha, where she got a graduate degree in history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and later worked as a city planner for 10 years. She also served as president of the Douglas County Historical Society and wrote on topics such as the Cudahy kidnapping. (Her must-read 1976 article on the case can be found at bit.ly/2k9btfY.)
What struck Peterson about the Crowe story, then and now, was how heavily the political sentiment of the time weighed on the public’s perception (and on the eventual acquittal) of the kidnapper.
“With this massive growth and big industries coming into Omaha,” she said, “it created a polarization between the rich and the poor. All of these packinghouse guys were living in their big houses over in the Gold Coast and Cathedral neighborhoods, and their workers weren’t being paid terribly much. People saw Pat Crowe as a modern Robin Hood, and he exploited that. And the public ate it up.”
Around the time of the Cudahy kidnapping, South Omaha was the third-largest packing center in the world, and Cudahy Packing was the largest of the packers in Omaha, employing about 2,000 men. (Omaha’s population was nearly 103,000 at the time.) The company’s success had made the family extremely wealthy. Cudahy’s net worth was not revealed publicly, but he was repeatedly labeled a millionaire in the press at a time when working-class resentment was running high.

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Cudahy Packing Plant, Omaha, circa 1900. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

World-Herald illustrations of Edward Cudahy, Jr. and Sr. around the time of the kidnapping.

As Hilleman delved deeper into Crowe’s story, the outline of an all-too-relevant us-versus-them conflict began to emerge. Big guy versus little guy; the 99 percent versus the 1. The inequality component was the ace up the sleeve of Crowe’s legal defense. And it became one of the central themes tying Hilleman’s novel to today.
“Inequality is the heart of our political discourse,” Hilleman said. “And I hope that really resonates with readers. I realized immediately that this history matters to us now. The story’s almost 120 years old, but this has been going on forever, and it’s going to continue going on.”
Of course, Hilleman’s not saying he condones what Crowe did, but he couldn’t help finding the outlaw to be sympathetic and likable, as evidenced by how Hilleman writes him. Though much of his characterization is artifice, the fictionalized Crowe is an antihero of eloquence and humanity, remorseful over his mistakes yet unable to stop making new ones.
He’s the kind of character (and this is the kind of book) that could make a great movie. Perhaps hinting at this, the cover of “World, Chase Me Down” includes the rave blurb from a writer whose historical novel went on to become an Oscar-winning blockbuster: “The Revenant” author Michael Punke calls Hilleman’s book “a rollicking read.”
When asked if the book had been optioned for a screenplay, Hilleman paused for a moment. Then he said he didn’t think he could discuss that at this point. He could at least say this: If Pat Crowe’s story ever did become a movie, he’d love to see Jason Segel cast as the hero.
The primarily comedic actor of “How I Met Your Mother” and “The End of the Tour” might be just the guy to capture the dark humor of Omaha’s old, forgotten farce.
micah.mertes@owh.com, 402-444-3182, twitter.com/micahmertes

Pat Crowe. Photo from Library of Congress.

Pat Crowe mugshot.

The life and crimes of Pat Crowe

We don’t have enough space to include all the odd and sometimes amusing details of Pat Crowe’s life of crime or the historical context surrounding it. But we wanted to share some of the more notable particulars we found in our archives. The World-Herald (as well as its two competitors at the time: the Omaha Daily Bee and the Omaha Daily News) covered the kidnapping, the manhunt and the trial aggressively. The many stories now provide not only juicy tidbits about the crime but also a rich portrait of the city at the time.
What follows is some of the most fascinating stuff we found.
Note: If you want to get a better grasp of the story, read historian Garneth O. Peterson’s invaluable account at bit.ly/2k9btfY and, of course, read Andrew Hilleman’s novel. You can also search through The World-Herald archive at omaha.com/archive or at omahalibrary.org/resource-center.

* * *

The Cudahy ransom letter made reference to the 1874 kidnapping of 4-year-old Charley Ross, which is considered to be the first publicized kidnapping in American history. Charley was never found, and the kidnappers never arrested. Pat Crowe’s kidnapping of Edward Cudahy Jr. is thought to be the first publicized ransom kidnapping in America in which the money and the victim were safely exchanged. “The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings” by Michael Newton cites the event as the first “successful” ransom kidnapping in the U.S.

* * *

Cudahy’s prompt payment of the ransom drew a lot of criticism. The World-Herald ran responses from papers across the country, many of which feared “an epidemic of kidnapping” would follow. Cudahy “has acted as a bad citizen,” said the San Francisco Examiner. “The fact that he has paid this large sum of money to the child stealers has lessened by so much the safety of other children.”

* * *

Crowe kidnapped Cudahy Jr. He confessed to the deed multiple times before and after his acquittal. But he was never actually charged with kidnapping due to Nebraska law. At the time, kidnapping carried a sentence ranging from two to seven years in Nebraska but was applicable only when there was intent to transport a victim across state lines. Crowe never took Cudahy out of Omaha. Another Nebraska crime on the books was child stealing, but that applied only when the child abducted was 10 years old or younger. Crowe was eventually charged and acquitted of robbery. The Nebraska Legislature later amended the law to authorize a life sentence for kidnapping with the intent to receive ransom and the death penalty if threats of bodily harm were made. The person who introduced the bill — and I’m not joking — was Sen. Frank T. Ransom.

Years before Crowe was caught to stand trial, another man, James Callahan, was charged with being Crowe’s conspirator. Cudahy Jr. identified Callahan as one of his captors from the witness stand. But, like Crowe, Callahan was delivered a not guilty verdict. Cudahy Sr. said the outcome of the trial was “incomprehensible.”

* * *

In 1932 the world saw the most famous kidnapping case of all time, the abduction of the Lindbergh baby. As Crowe had first-hand experience in such matters, he offered advice to Charles Lindbergh: “Pay the kidnappers anything they demand to get the baby back alive. After the baby is returned, let the police step in. Lynch them, burn them or quarter them. But get the baby back first.”

* * *

Despite Crowe’s many crimes he was celebrated as a rock star by some of the press and much of the public — it’s why he got acquitted, after all. The Omaha Daily News called Crowe “one of the few really spectacular and truly named desperadoes” of his time. The World-Herald said he was “one of the most picturesque criminals in the country because of his daring and the magnitude of his adventures.” Businesses ran advertisements in The World-Herald playing off Crowe’s celebrity.

Even before the kidnapping, Crowe had been the topic of sensational headlines in The World-Herald:
“Pat Crowe shoots man in Denver and gets away with ease”
“Crowe sustains his reputation of being a dead-hard man and handy with a gun”
“Was it Pat Crowe? The identification of the Denver murderer not absolute”

* * *

These were headlines that ran during just the first two weeks following the kidnapping:
“Crowe jumps from train before it reaches station and is reported in the streets”
“Police swoop down but Pat Crowe is gone”
“Pat Crowe is everywhere: Police are seeing him all the way from Chicago to the town of Boston”
“Disguised as a woman, he is chased in the city by the lake by an officer who knows him.”
“Crowe on way to Europe. Scotland Yard detectives told to look for him”
“Pat caught yesterday by sleuths who chased him over Pine Ridge”
And the next day’s headline: “Crowe was not captured”

In the summer of 1901 the New York Times reported that Crowe was in Johannesburg. Years later Crowe would say he was there fighting with the Boers in the Boer War.

* * *

Much later, long after the trial, Crowe worked as the sideshow attraction for a flea circus at a Times Square penny arcade in New York City. For the attraction, Crowe would sit on a chair and stare at people while another man recounted (and embellished) Crowe’s exploits.

* * *

When Crowe, 69, died in October 1938 after suffering a heart attack at a Harlem lodging house, The World-Herald ran a front-page obituary.
He had lived two lives, the obit read. “The first was the career as a bad man. During that time, he was the nation’s greatest criminal. Tall, handsome, tiger-like, he laughed in the faces of police and usually got away with it.”
Crowe’s second life was as a reformed member of society. “But,” read the obit, “it was a curious reform, depressing rather than inspiring.” By the end, Crowe had “wound up a bum, a panhandler.”
When ambulance workers removed Crowe from his lodging house on the day of his death, they found little in his room but “books and books” of yellowed newspaper clippings.

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