The True and Grisly Story of William Thompson's ScalpApr 26, 2023 03:08PM ● By Kim Carpenter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
It’s one of the most unusual items in the Omaha Public Library’s collection. Certainly the most grisly. And since its accession in the early part of the 20th century, generations of library patrons have been intrigued, amazed, and downright repulsed at the sight of William Thompson’s scalp.
Yes, his scalp.
As grotesque as the anatomical oddity is, it’s emblematic of the US transcontinental railroad’s turbulent construction, the displacement of Indigenous Plains populations, and the frightful scenarios faced by railroad workers caught in between.
The incident unfolded at the height of summer in 1867.
“It was a hot and muggy August night,” said Lynn Sullivan, library specialist with Omaha Public Library and unofficial caretaker of the artifact. “Nebraska had barely been a state for six months when Union Pacific had not received a telegraph for several days.”
The company itself was founded barely five years prior under 1862’s Pacific Railroad Act, which Abraham Lincoln had approved to construct a railroad from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. The railroad would, Lincoln and others believed, connect the east and west coasts, and in so doing, unite the country both economically and spiritually as the bloody Civil War raged on.
Installing railroad tracks across the Great Plains, however, disrupted Native American hunting grounds and threatened the Indigenous way of life. As a result, tribes regularly attempted to disrupt the railroad’s incursions into their territory.
“The railroad brought the North and South together to fulfill the 'Manifest Destiny' delayed by the Civil War, but it also marked the end of Great Plains culture,” Sullivan explained. “It was a threat to the Native American way of life.”
On August 6, a group of Cheyenne cut telegraph wires near Plum Creek Station (today Lexington, Nebraska). When Union Pacific discovered it had lost communication, it dispatched a five-man crew to investigate. One of those men was William Thompson, who had emmigrated from England to the frontier to start a new life as a lineman.
The crew transported themselves via a handcar to investigate, but as they neared their destination after dark, railroad ties placed on the tracks derailed it. Disoriented, the crew was little match for the more heavily armed 25 or so Cheyenne who circled them on horseback.
A skirmish ensued, during which all the Union Pacific men except Thompson were killed. Shortly after, a train sent behind them ran into another track obstruction, and 17 cars derailed, marking the first train derailment in US history. A battle ensued, during which the Cheyenne looted the train and men on both sides were killed.
Left for dead, Thompson, who had been scalped and shot, miraculously survived. Either he played dead or lost consciousness; but when he regained awareness of his surroundings, he located his severed scalp, apparently dropped amid the chaos of the second armed confrontation. Thompson retrieved the bloody souvenir, and when a rescue team arrived, placed it in a bucket of salt in hopes of preserving it. He then returned to Omaha and went to Dr. Richard C. Moore, who maintained an office around Douglas and 14th streets in downtown Omaha to see if it could be reattached. Alas, it could not.
According to Frank J. Burkley, whose 1935 book The Faded Frontier chronicled life on the prairie and in Omaha from the 1840s to 1860s, Dr. Moore’s report described Thompson’s wound thusly:
The scalp was entirely removed from a space measuring nine inches by seven. The denuded surface extended from one inch above the left eyebrow backwards. There was also a severe tomahawk wound.
Sullivan said this was key in identifying the tribe involved in the incident: “Different tribes had different methods for scalping. This began over the left eye and was cut in a diamond pattern. That was Cheyenne.”
Moore’s excerpt continued that since Thompson was in such excellent health, his recovery was rapid. He also noted that his patient had “severe neuralgic pains on the right side of head and face, but in about three months all pain ceased and nearly the entire surface was cicatrized,” or scarred. The lineman sported an irregularly shaped bald patch for the rest of his life.
After he recovered, Thompson returned to his native England, “evidently thinking that the wild and woolly West was too strenuous a neighborhood for peaceful residence”—at least according to Burkley, who also claimed the ambush survivor returned to Omaha for several follow-up visits.
Whether it was during one of these return trips or via parcel from England, in 1900 Thompson expressed his appreciation to Dr. Moore and gifted the doctor his scalp. Dr. Moore, whether unable or unwilling to maintain the medical trophy, in turn donated the bodily relic to the Omaha Public Library, where it has remained as a permanent part of the collection ever since. For roughly 75 years, the scalp was displayed in a bell jar.
Today, it’s stored in an acid-free archival box and brought out for display on special occasions or upon requests made in advance. It’s a true curiosity, an odd object at once fascinating and grotesque. Thompson’s hair was surprisingly thick and wavy, and the Titian hue, shared Sullivan, has prompted at least one visitorto joke that similar highlights in a modern-day salon wouldn’t come cheap.
“He had a lovely head of hair,” she said.
The library specialist understands that viewing the scalp can be difficult for some.
“It’s a mixed blessing,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want it to be used disrespectfully, but it’s a great teaching tool.”