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Charles Haffke—Lawyer, Solider, and King

Charles Haffke—Lawyer, Solider, and King

By Natalie Kammerer


Charles Haffke was born in Germany in about 1878, and came to Omaha with his family in 1884. The family lived in South Omaha, at 33rd and T Street. In the 1890s, Charles began studying law and working as a messenger for the Western Union, then he enlisted in the Navy in 1898 to fight in the Spanish-American War. He gained some local notoriety when the Omaha World-Herald printed sections of a letter he had written to his mother five days after the May 1 Battle of Manila Bay. According to his own research, Haffke believed that he was the only Omahan, and perhaps the only Nebraskan, who participated in the battle.[1]

The USS Concord at Hong Kong wearing wartime gray paint, 1898. Image Source:

Haffke was a crew member of the U.S.S. Concord under the command of Admiral Dewey. The full text of the letter, which is in the DCHS archive, describes the crew’s preparations, the landscape, and the battle itself in great detail:

…the ships were cleared for action. All woodwork was covered with canvas to prevent splinters from flying in case shells should strike there. All wooden benches were put away below. We ate on deck. The boats were covered with canvas. All awnings, stancheons (sic), fittings, etc. were removed and put below. We had large sacks of sawdust to be used if the decks should become slippery with blood. 

…Correigedor Island (sic), and a small rock, El Fraile, divide the entrance to the Bay into three channels. All these were said to be mined and the land heavily fortified. … We carried no lights except a small stern light on each ship to guide the vessel following. All port holes were closed. Fires in the boilers were banked so no sparks would come out and show our fleet to the Spaniards. All the men were at their stations, with guns loaded. It was so quiet that the water as it swished past the barnacles on the ships sides (sic) could be heard. We were all quite excited. We were told to be at ease, but that was out of the question.

            …The shock of our six guns was awful. Our boat shook all over. Some of our boats were shifted out of their davits; wooden tables cracked open; water and steam joints leaded; slice bars fell out of their hangers in the fire rooms; boiler doors flew open; it was so hot in the fireroom and engine room that the heat blistered our skin; the battle gratings were over all hatches and ventilators, and the thermometer stood at 180%.[2] The noise was deafening; we had been ordered to fill our ears with cotton, but it fell out and pretty soon the sign language was the only means of talking. Our ship was not hit directly by any shells. Many times shells struck so close that it splashed water on our deck.

Battle of Manila Bay, 1898. Print. Source: Library of Congress

After the war, Haffke returned to Omaha briefly to study stenography and pass a civil service exam, then went back to the Philippines in 1902. At the age of 24, he was working as a court reporter and one case in particular brought him into contact with several men from the Ilocanos tribe. Over time, he became acquainted with the tribe’s leaders and was able to help them with certain legal questions.

Later, when a cholera outbreak wiped out the Ilocanos’ entire royal family, tribal leaders approached Haffke to come fill the role. He knew little of tribal customs and spoke through an interpreter, but agreed to travel to Natividad, the region’s largest city. He was welcomed as “King Carlos I” with a celebratory feast and was offered a home in “a bungalow of good size and very comfortable.” At the crowning ceremony, “There were bonfires and a terrific hullabaloo, all in my honor. I and the big chiefs had dipped our thumbs in the rooster’s blood by that time, and I was the big boss. I sat pat, looking as kingly as I could, and everything was jake.”[3] It was agreed that he would be furnished with clothing, supplies, and 5% of the crops raised by the tribe, which comprised about 100,000 people.[4]

Things seem to have progressed this way for about a year, at which time the tribe’s elders raised the question of marriage. In order to assure a rich bloodline, Ilocano tradition dictated that the king should take several wives. King Carlos balked at this idea, and left town under the guise of royal business in the town of Langayen. He never went back to Natividad, instead booking a steamer to the US and returning to Omaha.

Once back, he finished his law degree, graduating from Creighton. He married Margaret Barr of Dundee. He reportedly “didn’t have the nerve” to tell her that he was a king, and only told her two years after their marriage. [5] He went on to have an illustrious career in Omaha, serving as Douglas County Deputy Attorney, and as city attorney of Benson for six years before it was annexed.[6]

Photograph of Charles Haffke, ca. 1924. Image Source: Omaha World-Herald, 10 May 1924.

He and his wife left Omaha in 1915 to spend time farming in Arkansas, investing in oil in Wyoming, and then working in Chicago as a special agent and attorney for the Department of Justice’s prohibition division. He died in Salinas, California in 1955 at the age of 78. There is no mention of his ever returning to Natividad or the Ilocos region.

[1] Haffke, Charles. Letter to Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1937. DCHS Library Archive.

[2] I can only assume he means there was 180% humidity?

[3] “King A.W.O.L. in Omaha.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 March 1924.

[4] Porter, T.R. “King from Omaha Afraid of Harem.” Omaha World-Herald. 7 February 1932.

[5] “King A.W.O.L. in Omaha.” Omaha World-Herald. 10 March 1924.

[6] “Charles Haffke, Ex-Omahan, Dies.” Omaha World-Herald. 11 August 1955.

John Kerns’ Saloon

John Kerns’ Saloon

On 215 South Fourteenth Street, in the Third Ward, sat a cramped saloon. Patrons knew the proprietor, John Kerns, for selling good liquor and maintaining a, “gentleman’s saloon.” The Excise Board granted him a liquor license on January 3, 1896. Kerns had strict rules of decorum that patrons had to follow, or face his scorn. Business and theatrical people frequented the bar; it was also a watering hole where Omaha’s elite quenched their thirst.[i] Born to Irish immigrants on October 22, 1855 in Carlinville, Illinois, he brought his wife, Delia Bailey, to Omaha, Nebraska around 1886.[ii] His saloon closed in 1917 when Prohibition came to Omaha. During the years that his saloon was open, Kerns made a lasting impression on his adopted city.

Unlike other saloons in Omaha, Kerns’ saloon was a, “very quiet place.” Kerns required patrons to be subdued. If a person were loud or unruly, Kerns made the patron leave the bar. People talked politics, local events, and gossip in a restrained environment. Actors like William H. Crane stopped by while in town to talk Shakespeare and other topics of the day with fellow patrons. John Creighton went to Kerns’ saloon by horse-drawn carriage after leaving his office in the late afternoon. Creighton, “an opposing figure with [a] flowing whitebeard tall silk hat,” ordered himself a whiskey along with a round for the bar.[iii] When Kerns ate lunch at the Paxton Grill on Farnam, he sat at the front window to watch people coming in and out of his establishment.[iv] He always monitored his saloon.

No chairs existed in Kerns’ saloon to prevent idlers and thieves from entering the bar. The rule was that everyone had to keep their, “tootsies’” on the ground. He did not want people coming into the bar without ordering a drink. If a loafer came into the establishment, they were spotted and quickly removed. One night, for example, a loafer came into the saloon and sat on a steam radiator. Kerns sent his porter downstairs to turn on the furnace. The loafer left when his bottom became hot. [v] “Creepers,” people who would, “sneak around and take money and valuables from trousers,” were strictly forbidden. If a person went to the saloon, Kerns made sure they were there to buy drinks.

Kerns prided himself on selling the best whiskey in the country. He offered patrons a choice of 15 whiskeys kept in barrels and tapped when crystal decanters became empty.[vi] He sold two drinks for a quarter. If a person only took one, he gave them a voucher for a free drink.[vii] Kerns could become defensive if anyone questioned his product. If a patron, for example, asked to take a sniff of the cork before he poured the drink, Kerns took it as an insult. “He snatched the decanter from the sniffer’s hands and poured out the contents into the sink.” Kerns sold beer begrudgingly because it was not a high-end drink, but brought well-needed capital into the saloon.

Kerns believed that whiskey from his private stock should be savored, not wasted with a quick chug. He gave customers a four-ounce glass of whiskey and along with the decanter. If the customer drank too quickly, Kerns went over to them and said, “good whiskey is for gentlemen, not hogs!“ Customers were on the honor system, reporting what they drank to him. Everyone in the saloon drank their whiskey slowly when Kerns was around.

During the winter, people came to Kerns saloon for his famous, “Tom and Jerry,” drinks. He could not keep bartenders in the winter because it was hard to keep up with demand. [viii] He refused to sell non- alcoholic drinks. For example, a person came into the saloon during the winter with their hands shivering from the cold. They requested regular eggnog. He gave them a glass of whiskey and an egg telling them to, “Run Over to the Paxton and get a glass of milk. You’re shaking enough to put it together all right.”[ix] Patrons had to be careful not to offend Kerns.

A voter referendum on May 1, 1917 brought Prohibition to Nebraska on May 1, 1917. Although Kerns was proud of his own business, he said that the, “Saloons have ruined themselves.”[x] He closed his saloon and lived a quiet life. He still, however, received visitors from people who frequented his saloon. Today, the old saloon’s site is on the Northwest Corner of the Gene Leahy Mall.

[i] “Johnny Kerns Passes Away” (30 August 1923), Lincoln Journal Star, (Lincoln, Nebraska), pg. 6,        

[ii] “Mortuary—Kerns” ( 10 April 1905), Daily Illinois State Register, (Springfield, Illinois), pg. 2,                 13E3682EAAE0362D%402416946-13E1275A558DF605%401-         13E1275A558DF605%40?h=3&fname=Delia&lname=Kerns&fullname=&rgfromDate=1860&rgtoDate=190                5&formDate=&formDateFlex=exact&dateType=range&kwinc=&kwexc=

[iii] Robert McMorris, “Omahan, ’91,’ Remembers City in Its Youth” (10 April 1982), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 16.

[iv] Jake Rachman, “Town Tattler” (28 January 1944), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 26.

[v] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days         Dies in Hospital” (30 August 1923), Evening World-Herald, pg. 5.

[vi] “Conversations” (19 November 1961), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 24.

[vii] Jake Rachman, “Town Tattler” (28 January 1944), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 26.

[viii] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days       Dies in Hospital.”

[ix] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days        Dies in Hospital.”

[x] John Kerns, “Owner of Omaha’s Nationally Known ‘Thirst Parlor’ Where the Great Foregathered in Olden Days         Dies in Hospital,”

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