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The Writings of Erastus A. Benson

Natalie Kammerer

Erastus Benson was born in Iowa in 1854, and came to Omaha as a young man. Over the course of his life, he practiced law, taught school, edited a newspaper, was an important investor in Thomas Edison’s early inventions, and was one of the largest real estate developers in early Omaha. We wrote a blog post last year detailing some of his financial and real estate endeavors (notably, the founding of Benson).

A recent acquisition has inspired a second post—in addition to Benson’s civic pursuits, he also dabbled in creative writing! It would appear that, in 1921, “during a term of enforced idleness” Benson was moved to type up a selection of his musings and assemble a book, which he then sent to various friends and family. DCHS recently received an original copy, which was sent to a personal friend of Mr. Benson named Wilbur Crutchfield.

In honor of this unique donation and Erastus Benson’s lasting Omaha legacy, this week’s blog will feature a selection of his writings.

First page of Erastus Benson’s collected writings, typed and distributed in 1921. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

On Reading Newspaper Account of Roosevelt Shooting Big Game In Africa.



The shades of night were falling fast,

As through an Afric jungle passed

A lion with strange conceit,–

He’d have a picnic when he’d meet

T. Roosevelt.


In new-made camp he saw the light

Of pine knot fires gleam warm and bright;

“I will have my mane close shorn

If I don’t get before the morn

T. Roosevelt.”


“Try not to pass,” the tiger said,

For I have heard it “on the dead,”

But Leo shook his frame with rage,

He’s seen a lion in a cage,

T. Roosevelt.


“Stay,” the baboon said, “and rest,

I really think it would be best.”

But Leo roared with beastly pride:

“I’m bound to have in my inside

T. Roosevelt.”


All night he wandered in the brake;

He passed by game of lesser stake;

His mind was fixed, his purpose set,

He’d show the timorous beasts he’d get

T. Roosevelt.


At break of day a sound was heard,

It came from waking beast and bird,

And echoed, “What is coming there?”

A voice rose on the startled air,

T. Roosevelt.


Leo at the startling sound

Went surging forward with a bound;

He saw before him on the heath

A broad smile and a set of teeth,

T. Roosevelt.


He lashed his sides with furious ire

His eyes stood forth like balls of fire.

He crouched him for a furious rush

And with a single blow to crush

T. Roosevelt.


There in the daylight cold and gray,

Lifeless but beautiful he lay,

And on his shaggy form there sat

A hunter with adhesive hat,

T. Roosevelt.


            Our dreams are to what we call out sterner thoughts what our ghosts are to our forms of flesh and blood. You ask if I believe that there are ghosts. Yes, I know that there are ghosts. I would have to doubt my own existence, if I doubted the existence of these shadowy forms.

            In silence at night I hear their footsteps on the stairs and in the halls. I listen to the rustle of their garments, and when I walk beneath the stars at night, they often come and walk and talk with me, and even when I tread the busy streets beneath the noontime sun, they sometimes come and take my arm, and I am oblivious to the forms of flesh and blood about me.

            Not long ago I visited the place where I first attended school. The old school house had been replaced, but the trees were there and though more than fifty years had been added to their growth they looked so low. I knew but I never felt before what the poet meant when he said:

I remember, I remember, the fir trees dark and high,

It seemed to me their slender tops were close against the sky;

It was a childish fancy, but now it’s little joy,

To know I’m further off from Heaven, than when I was a boy.

            School had been dismissed and I was alone. I sat down beneath a tree, and presently I was surrounded by a bevy of boys and girls. I knew them every one. They laughed and shouted and played tag and hide-and-go-seek.

            Among the rest was a little chap with tanned cheeks and disheveled hair. His little hands were chapped and none too clean, and as I looked at those soft chubby little hands that my mother called her pincushions, I wondered how they could have ever grown into these hard and bony ones. And he knew me. He looked and smiled and then the smile faded into a look of disappointment and reproof, such as I hope never to see again.

            That night in the little tavern in the little town (we always called it the Tavern, although no liquor was ever sold), by the side was a grapevine arbor where the people used to gather and gossip and talk over the news and happenings of the day, in my honor the landlord gave me the spare room, and built a blazing wood fire on the hearth. Did you ever stop to think of the influence the open fire has had upon our art and upon our literature, both prose and poetry, that some of your most exquisite books never would have been written but for the open fire, and if you would remove from your shelves every book where some scene was laid before the open fire, you would have little left except your dictionary and books of reference? It would require a bold artist to picture a social group gathered about a steam radiator, or a family kneeling in solemn prayer before a hot air register. (But this is only by way of parenthesis.)

            As I sat in my fire-lit room it came to me that some place, sometime I had read a rhyme on “The Little Old Town That I Left One Day,” and I reconstructed a verse or two to suit myself:

The little old town that I left one day,

Because it was quiet and slow,

Bears the name it bore when I went away

In the days of long ago.

But those who I knew in the little old town,

With its one wide street running up and down,

No longer gather at the tavern where

The grape vines used to climb.

They have ceased to gather and gossip there

As they did in the dear old time.

The little old town that I left one day,

Because it was quiet and slow,

Seems as free from care as it used to be

In the days of long ago.

But the friends I had in the dear old days

Have wandered forth in a hundred ways,

And none that I knew remain;

But as I sat in my chair in the tavern there,

In my fire-lit room in the evening’s gloom,

They were all there again.

Yes, we know that there are ghosts. You cannot see my ghost and I cannot see yours, but I know they are all about you. Some are gray and lay their loving hands upon your head to bless you; some are young and ready for any game or sport; and some have little fingers that are tangled in your hair.

Yes, ghosts there are and ghosts there always have been since the brand was put upon the brow of Cain, and ghosts there always will be as long as we turn to white memories, as long as the cold gray stones lie heavily upon the breasts of those we love.


Did you never buy a gold brick,

Now honest, cross your heart?

Did you never get against it,

When you thought you were pretty smart?

Did you never give your money

To a man who put on airs,

And find that all he’d left you

Was certificates of shares?

Did you never buy a guy’s land,

And think you’d drawn a prize,

And find out that all he’d sold you

Was a right to fertilize?

Did you never take a section,

Just in time to catch your train,

And find the one thing lacking

Was the element of rain?

Did you never send your money

Way down to Mexico,

The only thing you’re sure about

Is that you saw it go?

Did you never put your earnings

In a rich old Spanish hole,

And when they’d pumped the water out,

They’d shovel out the gold?

Did you never try a “diggins”

That was so rich with ore,

You’d spend your life in luxury

For ever, ever more?

Did you never try an orchard

Of apple, peach or plum,

And never could exactly find

What put it on the bum?

Did you never buy a city lot

And pay a dollar down,

And find it in a corn field

A dozen miles from town?

Did you never put your money

In a lease with oil to burn,

And find you’d better spent it

On an apple butter churn?

Did you never trade your Liberties

For something paying more,

And find it safely anchored

A hundred miles from shore?

Can you say you never witnessed

A fool and money part?

Did you never buy a gold brick?

Now, honest, cross your heart?

Erastus Benson (seated at right) in his office in the Paxton Block at 16th and Farnam, c. 1895. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

The Benson Bank Robbery

“Finn Brothers Will Resist Extradition” (5 January 1920), Omaha World Herald, pg. 4.

Many things happened in Omaha, Nebraska in 1920. Public transportation, mostly streetcars, reached 61 million riders. Omaha’s population reached 191,601 which included 10,315 African Americans. Dodge Street past present-day Central High, was lowered 12% to 7% making the road more user friendly. The King Fong Café opened at 315 South 16th Street, and Nelson B. Updike bought the Omaha Bee. Criminal acts, however, still abounded. [i] The year 1919 ended with a bang: four robbers stole $115,000 from the Farmers’ and Merchants’ State Bank in Benson on a Wednesday morning at 11:05 am on December 31, 1919. The year 1920 started with Omaha police trying to solve the crime.[ii]

The robbery happened quickly. Robbers pulled a gun and demanded money. The bank employees complied. The four robbers made their escape in a Cadillac found deserted later that day at 12th and Chicago St. Detectives believed that the thieves went to Omaha, left the automobile, and went to Union Station catching trains leaving Omaha with their loot. No detectives were on duty for at least three hour after the robbery at Union Station. Three-fourths of the $115,000 were Liberty bonds, but the police never found any of the bounty. [iii]

On January 2, 1920, police made their first arrests. They picked up Harry Porche at his home at 2117 Sherman Avenue. Bank clerks, A.W. Helbing and Irene Rose, along with a customer, Bert Morton, identified Porche as a robber that stood guard at the door. A meat cutter by profession, the police said that witnesses told them that Porche told the other robbers when they entered the bank to, “cover the field.”[iv]

After the court released Porche on a 10% bail bond for his appearance at his preliminary hearing on the robbery charge, Lincoln, Nebraska, police rearrested him on a fugitive from justice warrant. They accused Porche of being the, “brains of a gang of automobile thieves that worked in Lincoln for several years” His brother, Ray Sandivich, and a cousin said that Porche worked as the fence for stolen automobiles. Police said Porche’s mother who lived in Lincoln was wealthy.[v]

Porche had no money from the robbery in his house. He offered an alibi for the morning in question. At 10:30 am, L. Herbert, a mechanic, and floorman Sam Madsen, at the Strelow Terrance garage at 2107 Sherman Avenue, said that Porche drove his car into the garage, leaving it as he went to the corner cigar store. Jim Cudahy, clerk at Montrose Cigar Store on 2901 Sherman Avenue, said Porche was there at 10:45 am. Herbert and Madisen said that Porche returned to the garage about twenty minutes later and left at noon. [vi]

Two other suspected bank robbers fled to St. Paul, Minnesota. Tom Finn, aka Thomas McKay, and his brother, Mike Finn, were the two alleged gunmen.  Courts recently acquitted the Finn Brothers for the Malashock jewelry store robbery that involved a shootout with police. They were members of the Beryl Kirk gang. [vii]

The police never caught the fourth robber. Witness statement contradictions freed both Porche and the Finn brothers. Several years later, Police arrested Porche as being the brains behind the Edward G. Bremer kidnapping in St. Paul, Minnesota that requested a $200,000 ransom. Courts convicted Porche for the kidnapping, and the court sentenced him to life in prison in 1935.[viii]


[i] Liz Rea, “History at a Glance,” Douglas County Historical Society, 2004, revised and expanded 2007, accessed 26 March 2020.

[ii] “Police Working on Bank Robbery Are Without a Clue” (2 January 1920), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 2.

[iii] “Police Working on Bank Robbery Are Without a Clue” (2 January 1920), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 2.

[iv] “Police Working on Bank Robbery Are Without a Clue” (2 January 1920), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 2.

[v] “Lincoln Gets Porche on Auto Theft Charge” (5 January 1920), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 1.

[vi] “Arrest One Man In Benson Bank Case” (8 January 2020), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 6.

[vii] “M’Kay and Brother Arrested in St. Paul” (4 January 1920), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 1.

[viii] “Porche Conviction Affirmed on Appeal” (9 March 1937), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 5.

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