Viewfinder blog: hereFrom the archives: History of the Omaha Public Library — and a closer look at the scalp
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It's a big month for a scalp that's been stored for years at the W. Dale Clark Library in downtown Omaha.
For starters, it's been pulled out of storage and placed behind glass for the first time since 2004. And in addition to getting some exposure at the library, the 145-year-old scalp of a Union Pacific worker — which was lost in a Cheyenne attack, found on the ground, preserved in salt water and then given to a doctor — is making its national television debut.
A crew from the Travel Channel show “Mysteries at the Museum” was in town in August. They talked to the library's executive director about William Thompson's scalp, shot footage of the brown-gold hair and ventured to Iowa to film a re-enactment of the events that landed the 19th-century scalp in a 21st-century exhibit.
Now, the show featuring the unusual artifact is scheduled to air Thursday, just days before the library again packs up the scalp and puts it away for safekeeping.
People at the library hope the television appearance will stir more interest in the scalp and the rest of the library's 140th anniversary display. At the very least, library spokeswoman Emily Getzschman said, it might help people figure out what it is.
Until the 1970s, the scalp was on permanent display. But after a few decades under wraps, it's no longer a familiar sight to Omahans visiting the library. Sitting on a shelf in a main-floor display case labeled “Railroads and Native Americans,” it tends to go unnoticed by library patrons busily typing away on public computers a few feet away. Those who do spot it often aren't sure what they're seeing.
“People don't typically know how to react to it,” Getzschman said. “They don't necessarily know what they're looking at. ... If you don't read the description, people think it might be fur or an animal. It's not something you expect to see.”
But Getzschman and Library Director Gary Wasdin said the scalp's back story — the tale that got the Travel Channel interested — is worth exploring.
The story of the scalp has been well-known at the library since the artifact was donated by Thompson's doctor in 1900. But over the years, as newspaper archives have gone digital, Wasdin said it's become easier to dig up several versions of the scalp's strange tale.
There are accounts that have Thompson being attacked by a couple of Cheyenne Indians in 1867, and some that say there were hundreds. Other stories detail people's experiences seeing the scalp once it had been preserved and given to the library. (Thompson toured with his scalp in England before it made its way back to Nebraska.)
“That's why (the show) chose this particular item: The bizarre turn of events, that he's one of the few people that survived the scalping to donate it first to a doctor and then to the library,” Wasdin said.
Library officials haven't seen the “Mysteries at the Museum” segment, so they're waiting with everyone else to see which historical tidbits made the cut.
In the meantime, the scalp is still there for the viewing at the Michael Phipps Gallery, through next Sunday. If you miss it, it could be years before you get another chance. Because the scalp is delicate, particularly after years hanging in a jar, library officials are careful about how often they take it out.
“It's probably not something we'd show often,” Wasdin said. “This year, it's out as part of the 140th anniversary. If I had to guess, I'd say the next time will probably be the 150th.”
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