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You think you know this city, and then a 145-year-old scalp smacks you in the face.
The Omaha hairpiece in question once belonged to an Englishman named William Thompson.
On a recent day, I don white gloves and pick up his brown locks because they have taken a stranger-than-fiction journey, ending right here in a fourth-floor room at the downtown library.
Longtime Omahans are nodding now, recalling a school field trip, staring at a scalp inside a bell jar, and then maybe having nightmares for the next week.
For newer residents, let's get you up to speed: Exactly 145 years ago today, Thompson lost his scalp to a Cheyenne warrior's blade — and lived to tell about it.
Decades later, he did the only reasonable thing and donated the top of his head to the library, where until 1977 school kids filed past it after learning of Dewey and his decimal system.
The librarians now store the scalp in acid-free paper in a climate-controlled room.
They unwrap it for me, and I hold it to the light.
“Beautiful hair, isn't it?” asks Gary Wasdin, library director.
After reading old stories and quizzing Wasdin, here's what we know about this pretty hair: Thompson, a Union Pacific worker, rode from Omaha to fix a telegraph line near what's now Lexington.
On Aug. 6, 1867, 25 Cheyenne attacked, maybe to retaliate for a recent brutal government raid.
Thompson, shot in the shoulder, fell. Minutes later, he felt an uncomfortable sensation -- a blade fileting his skull.
Thompson fainted. Accounts say the blazing heat stanched his bleeding. He wobbled to his feet and grabbed his scalp, inexplicably left nearby.
Soon he and his hair boarded a train back to Omaha. Once here, Thompson asked a doctor to reattach what had been unattached. As you may guess, 1867 medicine wasn't up to the task.
So Thompson did the next best thing: He tanned the scalp, returned to England, and made shillings giving show-and-tells.
Then it gets weirder. In 1900, he shipped his scalp back across the ocean as a gift to the Omaha doctor who had tried to help. Doc gave it to the library, which scared kids with it for 77 years.
I hold this history in my hands, and it makes me think of all the wondrously weird gifts your great-aunt Omaha gives you.
The first time you order a rib-eye at an old Italian steakhouse and receive a giant bowl of spaghetti as a side, in case you want to feed all of Ralston.
The first time you drive Dodge and see an out-of-towner blasted with car horns as he tries to turn left. Can't do that here, newbie.
Your first baseball game at Werner Park, when you notice you can cross the street and step into a cornfield like Kevin Costner and keep going. Back onto the land. Back into the past.
But wait: Is the library director urging me to sniff the scalp? He is, so I pull it close to my face. It briefly touches my nose. I may have nightmares about this.
“Smells like hair, doesn't it?”
Yes. Yes it does.
As the scalp is wrapped back in acid-free paper, Wasdin says he may publicly display it in 2013.
Until then: Happy birthday, William Thompson's scalp.
And sweet dreams, Omaha.
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