Preserved Scalp Kept in an Omaha Public Library
On August 6, 1867, an Englishman named William Thompson was scalped near Plum Creek (now Lexington), Nebraska after coming in contact with a party of Cheyenne. Although several variations of the story exist, the incident is believed to have occurred because the Cheyenne intended to wreck an incoming train in order to retrieve the food and other items being transported.
According to a mixture of several accounts of the incident, William Thompson worked for the Union Pacific railroad as a telegraph line repairman. On August 5, Thompson, along with four other men, were given orders from Plum Creek Station to go west and locate a break in a telegraph line. At the time, only one line existed, which when inoperable was noticed quickly because messages were no longer received. The men left in a handcar and discovered the damage the next day. They found the wires had been cut and several railroad ties had been removed along with damage to the tracks. The crew immediately suspected Cheyenne Indians who resided in the area.
As they walked away from the handcar to begin fixing the wire, rifle shots rang out. A group of Cheyenne men emerged from the tall prairie grass near the Platte River and attacked the railroad crew. They returned fire and retreated back toward the handcar. As he ran, Thompson was shot in the right arm, but he continued to run until he was struck in the head with a tomahawk and fell to the ground. Thompson later described the incident by stating that he was stunned at first but retained consciousness after the blow. According to Thompson, one of the men produced a knife, grabbed a handful of his hair and cut around the edge of his hairline. When the skin was loose, the attacker tore his scalp away and at this point he finally passed out. He described the sensation as if a hot iron was passed over his head. The Cheyenne man then attempted to fasten the scalp to his girdle, but dropped it as he ran off. As Thompson lay on the ground, an explosion of sound erupted nearby as a freight train ran over the damaged tracks. The train consisted of about twenty-five cars, the first five loaded with dry goods and provisions. Thompson was left behind as the group of Cheyenne ran to fetch the contents of the train cars that had spilled out onto the prairie. The engineer and fireman both died instantly, the conductor, however, walked away uninjured and reportedly ran toward Plum Creek in order to stop the next train leaving the station.
After regaining consciousness, Thompson retrieved his scalp and lay in wait until the area was clear. After nightfall, he crawled away and was eventually found by a rescue party. According to reports, Thompson placed his scalp in a bucket of salt water in an attempt to preserve it in hopes that it could be reattached. After his wounds were tended to and his head was bandaged, he boarded a train for Omaha with the bucket containing his scalp.
In Omaha, Thompson was treated by Dr. R. C. Moore. The fact that he survived was a miracle according to the doctor, who explained that Thompson had lost a great deal of blood as he waited for the area to clear before searching for help. Unfortunately, Thompson’s scalp could not be surgically reattached.
Thompson eventually returned to England where he kept the scalp in his possession for several years. Around 1900, Thompson mailed the scalp to Dr. Moore. Believing that the scalp may serve significant interest to the people of Omaha, he had it mounted and hermetically sealed in a bell glass jar and presented it to the public library of Omaha where it was placed on display in the museum on the third floor.
The scalp in this story serves as a reminder of a volatile time in history when groups of people were being forced off of land they called home. The violent act can provide a glimpse into a daunting time in America’s past, a time shrouded in destruction of the lives of those effected by the intrusion of white settlers. The act of scalping was used as a means to take a piece of a dead man’s body as a war prize. White settlers adopted the same technique in order to provide proof of killing Native American people to collect a reward offered from distributed bounty notices. The oddity on display shows a gruesome element of history and can also remind us of a time when people were greatly affected by the loss of their livelihood and were desperate to fight in order to regain what they had lost. Although fascinating, we must remember why this horrible act was committed and why today it remains an important feature of the past.
William Thompson’s scalp is currently being stored at the W. Dale Clark Main Library in Omaha and can be viewed by appointment only.
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