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The unsolved mystery of Omaha's masked man with manners
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The unsolved mystery of Omaha's masked man with manners

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Take a glance at a few neons signs gracing Omaha.

Politeness was in his game.

He’d use the King’s English while conversing with those in the house.

“Good night,” he’d say after yet another haul.

He wrote open letters to a newspaper.

He was Omaha’s gentleman burglar of 1919.

In the middle of his one-man crime spree, he visited the home of Thomas J. Donahue on South 32nd Avenue near Hanscom Park one early October morning.

“Lay still. Don’t get up. I am just going to take what you’ve got,” Donahue was told, the burglar standing at the foot of the bed.

The intruder started to search the room, according to World-Herald reporting. Donahue slipped from his finger a diamond ring worth $1,000 and secreted the gem beneath the sheet.

“Where’s your pocketbook?” asked the intruder. Told it was on top of the dresser, the burglar found it contained $5, left the money in the wallet and tossed it contemptuously back where it had been.

Mrs. Donahue’s sister, a Miss Carberry, was living with the family of five daughters. She screamed when he came to her doorway. Mrs. Donahue confronted him.

“You had better go in there with that woman and quiet her,’’ he said. “Her nerves seem quite upset.”

“I shall stay with my children,’’ Mrs. Donahue said.

Ten-year-old Margaret, the newspaper reported, considered the burglar’s visit a lark. “She recently had finished reading a book called ‘Editha’s Burglar,’ wherein the tiny heroine meets a gruff thief in her home. Margaret awoke to find a refined edition of the storybook burglar right at her bed.”

“Why didn’t you come to an afternoon tea?” Margaret asked. “It is not nice of you to call at this time of night.”

Virginia, 6, said, “Oh, I heard about you and I always wanted to see you.” The burglar obliged. He “chivalrously” leaned over and lifted his mask enough to show his chin and mouth.

Mary Ellen, 12: “You’re the gentleman burglar. I have heard about you, sir.”

Frances Elizabeth, 4: “I wish that you’d come over here. I can’t keep this little tot (Catherine, 2) in bed.”

After all the pleasantries, the burglar found Mrs. Donahue’s jewel box and walked off with a reported $3,750 in gems that included a two-carat diamond.

“Good night,” the robber said as he walked downstairs. The Donahues went to the phone to call police. No use. The telephone wire had been cut. Another part of his M.O.

Weeks later, “The Gentleman Burglar” wrote to the Omaha Daily Bee for the second time and included his version of the Donahue heist.

His short take: “I made a pretty good haul at Donahue’s, didn’t I? And I enjoyed the visit immensely. Those kiddies of his are 100 per cent, each of them. Miss Carberry, though, should consult a good nerve specialist.”

T.G.B.’s police blotter apparently began during the summer. On the first line was the D.C. Bradford home at 39th and Harney Streets, where only the housekeeper and a nurse were inside. The take? More than $1,000 in jewelry.

The next morning, Mrs. Lawrence J. Kearney chatted with him as he was taking $10 from her husband’s pants pocket and his watch from the dresser in their home on Mercer Boulevard. As he searched the dresser drawers in 16-year-old daughter Dorothy’s room, Mrs. Kearney said, “You won’t find anything in here. He replied, “Sorry to doubt a lady, but I’ll see for myself.”

While 11 detectives were scouring the city’s west side looking for him, he robbed a home on Florence Boulevard miles to the northwest. He took $75 from the library table drawer and $3 from a 9-year-old’s iron bank.

“Omaha’s gentleman burglar is in danger of getting himself seriously disliked. His activities, however, are not attracting much attention from the police,” was a squib on the Daily Bee’s Aug. 10 opinion page.

The one-man crime wave kept going. A.J. Blakely, who owned gas stations, used a revolver to chase off a barefoot burglar in his home at 42nd and Douglas Streets who hadn’t found Blakely’s $700 in receipts from that day. Two homes near Dewey Park were burglarized the next morning, netting two watches and $93.

Five days later, H.O. Edwards at 34th Street and Poppleton Avenue lost $5.50 in a face-to-face encounter.

“Is that all?” the burglar said sullenly. “That’s all,” Edwards replied. It wasn’t all. Before awakening Edwards, the burglar had taken $400 in jewelry.

The W.R. Pratt home at 21st and Lothrop Streets was the next target. After taking $375 in jewels, he looked for the wallet in Pratt’s pants. “What do you do for money? There’s only $3 in your pockets.” Pratt: “I write checks.” Burglar: “Hmm. I’ll take your checkbook then.” And with a “Good night,” the burglar softly closed the back door.”

Omaha police thought they had their man in early September. He was held for eight days and released when no evidence against him could be produced. The man had fit the description of being tall (5-foot-11), slight build (180 pounds) and a long, pointed nose. A large quantity of watches, rings and scarf pins were found in his room. On his person, he had more than a dozen pawnshop checks and 13 money order receipts for addresses in Kansas City and St. Joseph, Missouri. But the man had alibis for all of it.

A day after that man’s release, The World-Herald reported that a gentleman burglar stole almost $500 in jewelry and cash from a home near Miller Park. This time, police found fingerprints on the window sill. But was it the same man? The Omaha Daily News waited a month before labeling a suspect as a gentleman burglar, this for an attempt at a home on 34th Street and Woolworth Avenue.

In between these two reports, the managing editor of the Daily Bee received and printed the first letter purportedly from the gentleman burglar:

“Why they dubbed me ‘Gentleman Burglar,’ I do not know? What is a gentleman, I ask you? There are many the term fits and perhaps, in a way, come inside the meaning of the word. A wealthy man is called gentleman because he has money. A poor man of culture and learning likewise is a gentleman though he be out at elbows and his linen frayed and torn.

“I am not rich, neither am I destitute, thanks to a sleepy police force and a more-or-less versatility. I have a little learning, some culture and know my way about. Why, you ask, do I prostitute my true instincts and training and education to a life of criminality, to entering home of respectable citizens at dead of night and making off with what is not mine? Damned if I know. Perhaps it is the excitement that goes with the work.

“You see I play a lone hand. No ‘fly moll,’ no anything but me.”

After the Donahue burglary, the burglaries and the trail cooled off. Then the Daily Bee received a second letter that it printed Dec. 1. It had been dated Oct. 29. The writer claimed he had forgotten to mail it before going on a game-hunting trip “where deer and moose roam.”

He tweaked the Ak-Sar-Ben coronation ball — he claimed he was there — in part for it taking place only days after the lynching of Will Brown at the Douglas County Courthouse. He tweaked the Cornhusker football team — “What’s wrong with the University of Nebraska boys? All the material of the world for a top-notch team and yet — well, they don’t. Screw loose somewhere.”

Signing it T.G.B., he promised to write again. He apparently never did. Newspapers attributed several more burglaries into the next summer, one at the home of Dr. C.C. Criss — the founder of Mutual of Omaha — to a gentleman burglar. Were those the work of the original or a copycat?

Another arrest was made, with the suspect crowing to an accomplice that he had been a “gentleman burglar, stick-up and automobile thief around Omaha for a long time” before escaping custody. He ended up convicted of a holdup in Kansas City, Missouri, but never confessed to any Omaha crime.

So who was that masked man with all the manners? We’ll never know.

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