Gambling, illegal booze, prostitution, and extortion were allowed to go unchecked. City and county officials turned their heads, and accepted hush money.
Some of the evil doers were "good guys" to the public, seeing themselves as Robin Hoods, helping the poor, even while breaking the heads of bootleggers who chose not to buy their illegal liquor. One of the most nefarious of the evil doers in Lincoln County was not a man at all, but a woman, one Annie Cook, who exerted tremendous political clout, and effectively controlled county officials.
Annie Cook had come to Hershey, Neb., shortly before the turn of the 20th century. She was born in Denver, of moderately wealthy Jewish parents. She met her husband, Frank, when the young farmer from Nebraska came to Denver on a business trip. From all reports Frank was a well-liked gentle man, but one contented to be a small farmer -- with little money, but a host of friends.
This did not suit Annie at all. She had an all consuming thirst for wealth and status, and was determined to use any means necessary to get it. She expected Frank to come along with her and keep his mouth shut.
On a trip to Omaha to see a doctor, who treated a kidney infection, Annie met the Madam of a local "Sporting House," who introduced her to prostitution and the niceties that that life could bring. For the next few years, Annie would leave Frank and Clara, their daughter, for weeks at a time to go to Omaha, to "treat her chronic kidney trouble." She made enough money to buy their farm -- but she wanted more, much more.
When Clara was only 13, Annie shipped her off to Omaha to the "Good Life." After a year Annie brought Clara back home, to live in the house of prostitution that Annie set up in North Platte. Her hope was that Clara could graduate from high school in North Platte. In the meantime, she could play the piano for her girls and their guests. Annie took great pains to keep up the pretense that her "girls" were merely boarders who paid rent so that Annie could afford to send Clara to high school.
The pretense worked -- to a certain extent, but when the gentlemen callers began to ask to be with Clara, Annie could not resist, and Clara became her star attraction and dropped out of school.
With the extra money, Annie bought land adjacent to her farm. In 1923, Annie established the Lincoln County Poor Farm on their farm. Using bribes and threats of exposure on some of the county officials, Annie was able to get the contract for the poor farm away from an elderly widow who had held the contract for a number of years -- and treated her "guests" with dignity, respect, and relatively favorable conditions.
Annie, on the other hand, used her guests as unpaid workers, slaves really. It is difficult to fathom the hold that Annie had on the people around her. She could be generous, with a syrupy sweet, "vanilla" voice, to people she wanted to impress. But she used force (she carried a buggy whip, which she used often), looks that "could kill," and foul language, delivered with great force, to exact extra work from her "guests."
Many of the men at the poor farm grew to be fed up with such harsh treatment and ran away. Others, who attempted to stand up to the brutal Annie were found to have died, under mysterious circumstances, some floating in irrigation ditches. These deaths were not questioned by county officials. "Accidental death" read the reports.
Nor did her own family escape the harsh conditions and Annie's wrath. Her sister (who was said to be "slow witted") and her daughter were virtual slaves in Annie's home, working in the field, tending the flocks of chickens and geese, or putting up apples from the orchard. This was in addition to cleaning the "house" in town. Only when Annie died, in 1952, did her sister escape from Annie's clutches.
Clara, too, when she was not living in town, did her share of field work on the farm. She eventually grew to like the things that money could buy and joined with Annie in taking pleasure in the money that was coming into the family. Annie was able to keep her in line with the promise that "All this will be yours some day."
Frank did not approve of Annie's treatment of people, and was said to have been kind to all the "guests"; often entertained them with his songs and funny stories. However, he could not resist Annie's will, and eventually moved his quarters to the barn.
One of the first "guests" at the Cook Poor Farm was a woman who was deaf and dumb, and her seven-year-old son, Joe. When his mother passed away (from overwork) Annie and Frank adopted Joe. He did his share of the work on the farm, and received his share of Annie's wrath, yet he managed to grow up without lasting effects of the brutal treatment. He went into the Army during World War II, and after the war became an engineer on the Union Pacific Railroad.
Annie seemed to grow ever more greedy and harsh with people as the years went on. She resented even the simple pleasures of those around her, and lashed out against anyone who even dared question her orders or her method of treatment.
One year Clara had been working in Omaha and came home for the Christmas holiday. She genuinely liked her little brother, Joe, and had brought him a Christmas present -- two pair of overalls, and the little boy was overjoyed with the present. When Annie came into the room and saw the pleasure that Clara and Joe were taking from the present she went into a rage. She grabbed up the overalls and shoved them into the potbelly stove, which heated the room. Destroying the overalls did not benefit Annie, but it devastated little Joe. She could not bear to see him happy over the present.
Over the years, Annie conned one neighbor or another into doing work on the farm, or in some way helping Annie. Instead of pay, Annie would promise that the farm or some of the other land, would be willed to that neighbor. When she died in 1952, no less than six neighbors came forward with the information that some of the Cook land had been promised to them on Annie's death. Of course, there was no proof, so no claim.
In 1934, Clara was 38 years old, still a handsome woman, but was spending more time at the farm, and less time plying her trade in North Platte and Omaha. On May 29, 1934, she was spending a few days at the farmstead where she was born, eight miles northwest of North Platte. As was usual, Clara and Annie had been arguing and fighting all morning. After one heated exchange Clara ran from the kitchen into the back yard. Annie, crazy with rage, grabbed a heavy lid lifter from the kitchen stove and ran after her. Annie's sister, Elizabeth, who was at the scene at the time of the trouble, told Annie's biographer (years later) that "Annie threw the lid lifter at Clara, striking her on the right side of the head. Clara ran around a tree several times, then dropped dead."
At the time, however, the Lincoln County Attorney reported that an official investigation was not necessary. The death was purely accidental. His report stated that Clara had been poisoned. She had asked that an aged inmate at the farm prepare a dose of medicine for her. The inmate poured poison into the glass by mistake. Clara swallowed the poison and began choking. "Death was by suffocation. An accident"(?)