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Omaha, Nebraska

William Thompson's Scalped Scalp

An Englishman loses his scalp to a Cheyenne warrior and lives to donate it to a library. 

Scalping is often depicted in old-timey cowboy-and-Indian movies with lots of quavering music and dramatic pauses.   

But then you see the real scalp under a bell jar and it isn’t so melodramatic anymore. William Thompson’s scalp, on display at the Main Library in Omaha, Nebraska, looks more like some sort of rodent than an impactful part of history. However, Thompson’s story—surviving a scalping, holding on to the coiffure in question—makes it all the more remarkable.  

In August 1867, Thompson, employed by the Union Pacific railroad in Omaha, was dispatched to the tiny town of Lexington, Nebraska to fix a broken telegraph wire. On his way, his train was attacked by 25 members of the Cheyenne tribe, probably responding to a government raid, derailing his car and killing all the other repairmen aboard. Thompson was shot in the shoulder, and his scalp was carved off of his skull. During the attack, Thompson fainted, but the August heat stopped the bleeding.

Curiously, the Native Americans left Thompson’s scalp next to the knocked-out Englishman. After he came to, he picked it up, and went back to Omaha, where he asked Dr. Richard Moore to reattach it to his skull. Unable to get his scalp fixed back onto his head, Thompson did the next best thing: he went back to England and put his scalp on display for money. 

In 1900, Thompson sent the scalp back to the Nebraska doctor who tried to reaffix it, who, in turn, donated it to the public library. The scalp remained on display there for over 75 years, grossing out generations of Omahans. Now, the scalp is preserved in a dark room, but is trotted out for special occasions.