No one knows for sure just how the practice of scalping came to be, but for at least a century, removing the scalp of a fallen enemy as proof of valor and skill in combat has been synonymous with the native tribes of the Great Plains and beyond. They may not have started it, but if they didn’t, they sure got good at it. And if they did, it had the desired effect on their enemies.
One man could tell you exactly what it felt like.
William Thompson wasn’t a soldier or an outlaw. He was actually just a working-class, regular Joe. His job was fixing telegraph wires along the Union-Pacific Railroad in Nebraska. One day, he was just chugging along to his work when his train was attacked by a band of Cheyenne warriors. When the train derailed, the warriors set out to kill everyone and remove their scalps, and that’s what they did.
Warning: This is not for the faint of heart.
Except William Thompson didn’t die. He lost his scalp, all the same, but he survived the gunshot wound and the scalping the Cheyenne inflicted on him. The practice of scalping means that Thompson’s skin was removed by a blade from his forehead on back. When the man awoke, he could see his blood-splattered hair tuft sitting next to him. He did what any of us would do if we just lost part of our head: he picked it up and tried to put it back on.
That, of course, did not work. So, he took it back to Omaha, the nearest city and enlisted the help of an actual surgeon. But even a pair of trained hands couldn’t put William Thompson back together again. When that didn’t work, Thompson was probably dismayed at the idea of his new forced hairstyle, but he made the best of it, putting it on display to earn a bit of money.
After it stopped being the lucrative cash cow we all know it would certainly have been, Thompson sent it back to Omaha, to the doctor who he originally asked to reattach it. The doctor donated it to the local library, where it still lives to this day. Although it’s not on permanent display, it is sometimes brought out for exhibition. Maybe if you ask nicely, they’ll let you see it.
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