The Buckingham Theater’s Red-Eyed Legacy

3:21 PM

 There was once a theater called Buckingham, located near the corner of 12th and Dodge, and its terrible tale is mostly hidden away in the prehistory of this town. While the Omaha Daily Bee started publishing about the time the Buckingham ended, the newspaper makes scant mention of the place, but for occasional stories indicating its awfulness, including one from March of 1885 detailing the miserable circumstances of an actress at the theater.

The actress was named Minnie Woodford, and she came to Omaha from someplace else, promised a job and a salary by the theater’s proprietor, Jack Nugent, who had brought the first successful minstrel act to Omaha five years earlier. After a month of work, she went to Nugent to ask when she would get paid, and he responded by insulting and then assaulting her. This, The Bee noted, was common practice, and the actresses were left adrift with no money and no option but to leave Omaha and go back to wherever they came from.

Beyond this, The Bee had little to say about the theater. The World-Herald attempted to offer a history of the venue in 1894, when the Buckingham building was razed, a few years after a tragedy that closed the theater. They told of Jack Nugent, who they said had once been a good man from a good family, and had started a series of theaters in small wooden buildings: The St. Elmo Variety Theater, located at 112-14 South 12th Street, and the Theater Comique, also on 12th. Jack ran these joints with his two brothers, Jim and Bill, and two half brothers who would only answer to nicknames: Henny and Tootsy.

Despite having a wife who, the Herald, informs us “kept him as straight as any woman could,” there must already have been some bad in Jack, as his theaters are remembered as brutal places. “It was no unusual thing to hear of a man being murdered there every week,” Edward Francis Morearty wrote in his book Omaha Memories in 1917. He also called it “one of the toughest joints between Chicago and Leadville,” and, according to Morearty, then mayor C.S. Chase ordered the place shut down, and Jack simply changed its name to the Buckingham.

The World-Herald locates the form of Jack’s fall, and it is the form of a woman, Nellie McIntyre, a “bleached variety actress from Denver” over whom Jack lost his head, and his wife.

The Herald describes Jack’s business as consisting of painted women cajoling men to buy overpriced alcohol, overcharging them, and then threatening them if they refused to pay up – a pattern of behavior confirmed by several complaints published in the Bee. "[A] black eye and a torn coat was a trademark of his place,” the World-Herald wrote.

“The popping of corks and the crack of revolvers kept the police close at hand,” the story continued. And this is how the  theater ended: Sometime around 1885, Jack got into a fight with a customer, Frank O’Kinchel, and the theater manager, C.A. Sinclaire, and guns came out. After several shots, Jack’s brother Jim lay on the floor with a bullet in his forehead. “When the policemen came,” the World-Herald reported, “some of the bulldogs kept there were feasting on Jim’s blood and brains.”

Shortly thereafter, the theater was taken into public custody, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union petitioned to take over the property and turn it into a Gospel Mission. It remained in their custody for several years, offering its services to the collection of gamblers, rogues, and degenerates who frequented the many saloons and gambling halls in the neighborhood, until the building came down in 1894.

Jack’s legacy of badness outlived his theater – there’s a puzzling story from the Daily World from 1885 about Jack Nugent paying a man $800 to kill a man named Colonel Watson B. Smith, which Nugent declares nonsense, pointing out that he was on the road with the McIntyre and Heath Minstrel Show at the time of the killing. In September of 1887, Nugent is arrested after nearly robbing a man at a saloon and then drunkenly wandering upstairs to assault a woman. In October of 1887, the Daily World reported that Nugent became demented after taking medicine, and had escaped friends and fled to Council Bluffs.

And, then, for the most part, Jack is gone, not to resurface until 1894, where he is uncovered helping out at revival meetings for a pastor named Savidge. Nugent’s wife had attended a few of these meetings over his objections, and so he had locked her out, but then had changed his mind and was now converted.

But there was one legacy of the Buckingham still uncovered, and it was a terrible one. It came to the surface by the thousands in 1912, according to the World-Herald. An old junk shop called Ferer’s was to be partially torn down to make way for a new sidewalk, and inside workmen discovered wagons filled with old bones and covered with steer hides. When the workmen went to move the wagons, a torrent of albino rats streamed out from underneath. The workmen killed 200 with clubs, but the rest escaped. Underneath the building, investigators found a honeycomb of tunnels and nests, leading all the way down to the Missouri River.

These were the progeny of a small group of albino rats that had belonged to an actress at the Buckingham, who had lost them one night when the cage was left open, and had never been recovered. And to this day, they never have. If you see an albino rat in the streets of Omaha, it may still be a legacy of the Buckingham, the city’s most murderous theater.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.