In early February 1926, someone began taking random photos through the windows of houses in Omaha, Nebraska.
The gun made no sound when fired. People didn’t know they had been attacked until they felt a pellet whiz past them or found small holes in the glass. Nobody was hurt.
The police first thought it was a nasty prank by a boy with a BB gun. Ballistics experts later determined the weapon to be a .22 caliber handgun.
“Omaha Ghost Sniper” was the name newspapers gave the mysterious shooter.
The city was already in a frenzy with fear when the wave of gunfire turned deadly. On Sunday, February 14, William McDevitt, 35, a dairy worker, was found on a street near a church, lying face down in a pool of blood, with a .22 caliber bullet through his brain.
His watch and about $40 were still with him, ruling out theft as motive.
Two days later, the ghost attacked again.
“MAD OR FOOL MAN SHOOTING IN OMAHA,” the Hastings Daily Tribune reported on February 17. A shot flew out of the darkness and into a pharmacy, narrowly missing a young woman.
The Omaha police force threw almost all of their resources against the ghost, but they couldn’t prevent another tragedy.
“DOCTOR MURDERED IN OFFICE,” screamed the headline on the front page of the Omaha Evening World-Herald for February 18.
The victim was wealthy 62-year-old Dr. Austin Searles. His widow said she didn’t come home for dinner on February 17, but she didn’t worry until after midnight. His patients often scheduled date nights.
Many of them were drug addicts or victims of “man’s diseases,” as Searles noted in his advertising. The phrase was a delicate way of referring to syphilis. Searles said that he had a cure. he did not do it
Like McDevitt, Searles had been shot in the back with a .22.
The .22-caliber ghost later appeared at a rail yard in Council Bluffs, Iowa, about four miles away.
Ross Johnson, 28, a railroad detective, was inspecting railcars just after dark when he noticed a man crouched behind a stack of sleepers. The stranger jumped up and started shooting. Johnson took six bullets to the torso and arms, but miraculously survived and was able to get a good look at his assailant.
Within a day, a gang captured and tied up a man fitting Johnson’s description of the shooter. At the time of his arrest, the suspect was carrying a small .22 caliber automatic with a silencer in a holster made from a piece of an automobile tire. He was hidden under his arm.
The suspect gave his name and age as Frank Carter, 45, a farm worker. The papers said he seemed like a nice, well-mannered guy, until he opened his mouth.
“They were very lucky the gun was under my coat, or I would have shot them all,” he said. “I’m a great shooter.”
Carter bragged that if he wanted to kill someone, he never missed. The woman from the pharmacy, for example, was never in danger.
“Sometimes I want to kill, kill, kill, but I only shot to scare her,” he said. “The bullet passed about six inches from her head. But how she jumped!
When asked why he shot out the windows of more than a dozen Omaha homes, he said, “for fun.”
Carter did not know either McDevitt or Johnson. But he knew Searles and insisted that the doctor had it coming.
“I held a grudge against Dr. Searles,” he said. “He conned me out of some money three years ago while he was treating me for a social illness.”
Carter said that the disease he contracted around 1911 was the reason he went after Searles. The doctor falsely advertised a safe cure for syphilis.
Newspapers carried the story of his bleak life, which included the death of his mother when he was six years old and endless poverty. No matter how hard he worked, she could never earn enough to live on. He had no family or friends.
In 1916, he spent a decade in prison for shooting a herd of dairy cows, an act of retribution against the farmer who owned them. Carter worked on the dairy farm, but the farmer fired him. He was paroled a few years before his killing.
An experienced police officer called Carter “the most dangerous and cold-blooded man I have ever met.” The police believed that he was responsible for a dozen or more murders.
At his March 1926 trial, defense attorneys took a predictable approach: a plea of insanity. They declared their client “a moral imbecile” based on the opinions of two alienists.
But the prosecution’s alienist said Carter’s actions “were the acts of a cold-blooded and cruel mind. … He’s just mean.”
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Carter himself agreed with the prosecution. “I am not crazy. I tell you that I am not crazy, ”he shouted as the defense experts testified about his mental state.
The jury quickly agreed with the prosecutors.
Carter smiled when he heard the sentence: death in the electric chair.
“That electric chair is going to be more fun than a circus,” he said, noting that he wanted to party right before his death.
A group of reporters accompanied him to his pre-execution meeting. Murder, he told them, “was my hobby.” He said that he killed 43 people over the years.
The ghost was pale but calm when prison employees tied him to the chair on June 24, 1927. Slightly different versions of his last words have been reported, but the basic gist was: “Turn on the juice.”
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