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The story behind William Thompson’s scalp

Published: Jan. 21, 2021 at 5:23 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - A bizarre tale surrounding a scalped railroad worker and a derailed train can be experienced at the W. Dale Clark Library in Omaha.

We caught up with Lynn Sullivan who is a library specialist at the library. She’s the one who often tells the story about William Thompson’s scalp. In fact, she’s been sharing this tale for 10 years now. “It’s been quite enlightening,” Sullivan said.

The story begins on a hot and muggy evening in August of 1867, as the railroad was being built. “Union Pacific officials realized they were not getting any telegraph feed west of the Plum Creek Station,” Sullivan said. Four railroad telegraph workers and a foreman went to Plum Creek Station, which later evolved into the city of Lexington. They arrived on a handcar. Sullivan says they came around a curve and ran into a bunch of railroad ties. The handcar was derailed. “At this time, there were 25 Cheyenne warriors that were waiting in ambush, and they came down and attacked the repair party,” Sullivan said. Working on the railroad was a dangerous job. William Thompson was a victim in the attack. “Mr. Thompson suffered a wound to the upper arm, and one of the Cheyenne braves scalped him. He was awake, aware, and alive at the time. There is much debate on how he managed to stay quiet, but apparently he did,” Sullivan said.

Earlier in the day, another train left Omaha. It arrived after the attack, and it ran into the same bunch of railroad ties as the handcar. “That derailed the entire train, 17 cars, I believe the engineer, the fireman, the conductor were killed, and it was the first successful derailment of an entire train by a Native American tribe in U.S. history,” Sullivan said. “Then UP realized they had a serious issue. They sent out a second rescue train the next day. They rescued Mr. Thompson who was I guess quite a sight at that time. Infection had started to set in, but he was alive, and they took him back to Omaha where they tried to re-attach the scalp. A Dr. R.C. Moore tried to do that in August of 1867, but they were unsuccessful. But the doctor did believe Mr. Thompson was a strong individual, and he would survive the infection, which he did.”

Thompson was from England and he hung on to the scalp. “His fellow countrymen were not as enamored with the scalp as he was,” Sullivan said. Thompson donated his scalp to the doctor who had tried to help him. “He did decide to donate it to Dr. Moore in 1900,” Sullivan said. “Dr. Moore then decided to donate it to the Omaha Public Library since he assumed the local interest would be piqued.”

The scalp is now kept in an acid-free box at the W. Dale Clark Library in Omaha. It’s always handled carefully with gloves. It’s been the subject of some several national TV shows, and people often request to see it. “There was one particular young gentleman who wanted to see it,” Sullivan said. “He said he wanted to see something actual instead of something virtual, to make sure it really existed.”

It turns out It does exist. And it’s quite a story.

If you would like to know more about this event, there is a book published by the South Platte Press called “Attacking the Union Pacific” by Thornton Waite. If you would like to get this book, you can contact South Platte Press at (402) 367-3554 or go to southplattepress.com.

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