Adams County in 1900

by Dick Witt

Adams County in 1899 was not far removed from the frontier. But it was also a place with aspirations for a distinguished future. Although country folk and villagers expected progress in the new century, Hastings especially tried to put on the airs of an urbane city, and boosterism was rampant among its leaders. Little wonder. With the establishment of Hastings College in 1882, construction of the Kerr Opera House in 1884 and erection of the courthouse in 1889, the city reached new heights of civility and sophistication. By the summer of 1899 the Hastings Daily Republican noted that over 200 buildings in the city were under construction or improvement. And in the 1880s and '90s, politicians like Congressman James Laird, Nebraska Attorney General C.J. Dilworth, Adjutant General A.V. Cole and future Governor and U.S. Senator Charles Dietrich enhanced the reputation of the county at the state and national levels.

What was Adams County like a hundred years ago? Most noticeably, the county's first generation of residents had already seen more than its share of excitement. Key events included the arrival of the Burlington railroad and organization of the county in 1871, deadly blizzards in 1873 and 1888, the infamous "theft of the courthouse" from Juniata in 1878, diphtheria epidemics in 1878 and 1893, the Olive Trial and great downtown Hastings fire in 1879, the lynching of Cass Millett's murderers in 1883, the building boom of the 1880s (which included construction of the "Hospital for the Incurably Insane" in 1887), the depression of the 1890s and visits by President Benjamin Harrision and President-to-be William McKinley in the 1890s.

Hard times reduced the population of the county by nearly 5,500 in the 1890s. But at 18,840 people in 1900, Adams County had come miles from its 1870 census of just ten settlers. Most county residents still lived on farms or in small towns (not until 1920 would more people live in Hastings than the rest of the county combined. Then as now, corn was the dominant crop in 1899, but Adams County was Nebraska's largest wheat-producing county that year. Hogs were the livestock of choice by more than three to one over cattle. In 1900 there were 1,949 farms in the county (compared with about 700 today), only thirty of which had more than 500 acres (compared with over 40% today).

Newspaper stories tell much about what mattered in Adams County at the turn of the century (and since eight daily or weekly papers were published in Hastings alone in 1899, there were a lot of stories to be read). But the newspapers also remind us that the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Topping the headlines was America's involvement in an international conflict, the Spanish-American War. Even though the first Adams County soldiers left for Florida in July, 1898, they did not reach Havana until January 3, 1899, and did not return to Nebraska until April of that year. Months later local boys were still fighting in the Philippine Insurrection which followed the war. One of them, Arthur J. Edgerton of Hastings, died of dysentery on New Year's Day, 1900.

Just as today politics was front page news throughout 1899. In Hastings, municipal ownership of the Electric Light Company was a big issue. The privately owned power plant at First and Denver was up for sale when the city council voiced opposition to the purchaser. The owner, Charles G. Lane, then published notice in the Hastings Daily Republican that electric production would cease on August 15th if the sale was delayed any longer. He made good his threat, and the council was forced to appropriate $600 to illuminate a downtown carnival in September. After a two month campaign for a bond issue, voters approved $20,000 to build a city light plant at the present location of Hastings Utilities. The new "first class plant to be run in connection with the waterworks" was completed by December, 1900. Since then public utilities have been the rule in Hastings.

In the same November election "the Fusionists" bested Adams County's perennial source of power, the Republicans. Fusionists, sometimes known as "Demo-Pops" (a combination of Democrats and Populists who supported William Jennings Bryan for the Presidency in 1896) had also carried the county in 1897, much to the dismay of the Daily Republican's editors. The newspaper's headline on November 8, 1899 told the outcome: "ALL SHOT TO PIECES! Fusionists Take the Whole Platter in Adams County. Republican Leaders Slowly Recovering from the Shock." The story went on to report that future county treasurer Harry C. Haverly "was elected -- to stay home" under the Fusionist landslide. While this should not have been such a surprise in Adams County after the turbulent political times of the 1890s (which nearly saw Hansen farmer John Powers elected governor of Nebraska on the Populist ticket in 1890 and had Bryan himself speak in Hastings, Juniata and Kenesaw in 1899), the Hastings Tribune of December 29, 1899, reported that the Fusionist victory led to birth of a new reform party,the Unionists, which attracted disgruntled Republicans and Democrats alike.

Irrigation issues and school finances were also in the news in 1899. On the same page on December 20, 1899, the Juniata Herald called for a an extensive irrigation study ("The future development of this vast portion of our domain will be greatly advanced a comprehensive compilation of facts relating to irrigation ...") and reported a loss in state aid for Adams County public schools "due to the falling off of the temporary school fund." According to the Herald article, Adams County had the fourth largest student population in Nebraska that year (7,035) and was surpassed only by Douglas, Lancaster and Gage counties. The "falling off" of the fund reduced expenditures from 97 cents per "scholar" in 1898 to 75 1/2 cents in 1899.

Fires and railroads continued to make front page news in 1899. Although the Hastings Tribune reported on June 9 that the fire department had acquired a new "hose wagon," a June 30th Daily Republican editorial titled "They Go to the Fire" criticized city residents for acting like spectators instead of firefighters at a recent barn fire. The biggest fire of the year occurred on November 8th when the St. Joseph and Denver Railway's freight depot at South Street and Denver Avenue in Hastings was totally destroyed. Among the losses were "two fine steel ranges" and "a carload of glass fruit jars." The freight depot was soon rebuilt at a different location half a block east. But the most important railroad story of 1899 was announced on November 15th: the Burlington and Missouri purchased land at First and St. Joseph to build a "large, substantial and attractive depot."

However, Adams County's biggest story of 1899 -- and the one that made national news -- was a tale of romance, intrigue and attempted murder. It was the affair of "Mrs. Morey's Candy". The case began in April, 1899, when a plate of homemade candy was delivered to Mrs. Charles F. Morey, wife a prominent Hastings attorney. The candy, it turned out, was loaded with arsenic, and nearly proved fatal to Mrs. Morey and a friend who had eaten some of it. Suspicion soon pointed to Miss Viola Horlocker, attorney Morey's twenty-six year old secretary. On April 13th she was charged with the poisoning in Adams County District Court. Former Nebraska Supreme Court Justice John M. Ragan was employed to head her defense team.

Local newspapers had a field day with the case and the national media picked up the story as well. Even as it did its part to sell newspapers with the sensational tale, the Adams County Democrat lamented: "Every paper in the United States is telling of the crime and adding some horrible feature to what is already bad enough." Soon two or three pages a day were being devoted to the story in the Democrat, the Tribune, the Hastings Weekly News and other county newspapers.

The trial did not occur until the March, 1900, term of the court. But there was still plenty of interest in the case, and the previous year's publicity was renewed. Overflow crowds caused the Hastings Tribune to propose that "courtrooms should have balconies and private boxes the same as theatres." Things became even more interesting when Miss Horlocker's defense strategy was disclosed: she would plead not guilty by reason of insanity and implicate attorney Morey as the lover who drove her to commit the crime. Following Miss Viola's own tearful testimony about her infatuation with the lawyer and the frequency of their trysts, the case was given to the jury.

After only an hour's deliberation, the all-male jury came back with a not guilty verdict. On March 30, 1900, the Weekly News editorialized that "the fitting ending of this great trial is the verdict of acquittal.... Let [Miss Horlocker] in the bosom of her family, drop from the flowing light of notoriety to find rest and peace, if not happiness, is the wish not only of this paper, but thousands who have eagerly followed the details through the public press." In a postscript to the story, the Hastings Democrat reported on April 6, 1900, that the former secretary left for New York a day or two after the trial "and we doubt that Hastings will ever see her again." Mr. and Mrs. Morey remained together and continued to live in Hastings. They died in the 1920s and were buried in Parkview Cemetery.

All in all though, the end of the 19th Century was relatively quiet in Adams County. After years of economic depression, prosperity had returned and farmers and townsmen alike enjoyed its fruits. To Adams County historian Dorothy Weyer Creigh, the Hastings Street Fair of September, 1899 symbolized the end of the decade, and in some ways the end of the century: "It was a gala week, and thousands of people participated, glad indeed to see the end of the old century, which had been exciting, and the beginning of the new." Then as now, the same can be said of we who look backward to our past and forward to our future.

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