The story of Frank Carter—Omaha’s phantom sniper—is a histrionic tale of fear and madness gripping the city in the wake of a mysterious shooting spree.
For several weeks in February of 1926, the whole of Omaha was terrified. The first victim was a mechanic, William McDevitt, shot four to six times with a silenced .22 pistol. One shot went straight through his head, lodging behind his eye. McDevitt did not survive.
A few nights later, somebody shot through the windows of a pharmacy. Two nights later, a doctor named A.D. Searles was found shot to death in his office. Two other men claimed to have been shot on the same night as Searles. An officer opined to The Omaha World-Herald, saying, “My theory is that it is the work of a degenerate, probably suffering from a social disease.”
According to The New York Times, city newspapers called for a blackout, as several of the victims had been shot through their windows at night. The sniper continued to fire through windows, and Omaha came to a standstill with residents terrified to exit their houses. The sniper was also responsible for shooting a Council Bluffs railroad detective, Ross Johnson, on Feb. 21. This was to be the end of his reign of terror. Johnson saw his shooter and described him.
On Feb. 22, about two weeks after the phantom sniper began shooting, police captured a sad-faced middle-aged man with a shock of black hair named Frank Carter. He was found 30 miles south of Council Bluffs, and he quickly admitted to the known crimes and more. He claimed it had been his intention to rob McDevitt and Searles, but he shot them instead. “I just get the inclination to shoot,” he said.
As it turned out, Frank Carter was not named Frank Carter at all. Instead, he was an Irish immigrant named Patrick Murphy with a criminal background, including a stretch in prison for killing cattle.
Carter proved to be a bit hysterical, insisting he had killed 43 people. No evidence of this has ever been found, and even the newsmen of the time were unimpressed.
The Lexington Herald wrote that “he ‘confessed’ to 43 murders to reporters, most of them obviously fictitious.” Carter’s lawyers pushed for an insanity defense while Carter gleefully threatened to escape, and then insisted he wanted to be executed, saying, “I am glad they don’t hang in this state, because I am anxious to see how it feels to be electrocuted.”
Carter got his wish on June 24, 1927, when he was put to death in the electric chair at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. “Be sure to fix this right so that it will get me the first time” he is reported to have told his guards as they strapped him into the electric chair.
His last words, according to witnesses: “Let the juice flow.” The San Diego Union tells the story a bit differently, claiming that his final words were “Turn on the ju—,” leaving incomplete his final statement because he was electrocuted while still speaking.