Since before the Nebraska Territory was founded in 1854, executions including lynchings, shootings and hangings had been happening in Omaha. The Omaha Claim Club, made of the city’s founding fathers, was notorious for using intimidation, threats, and drownings in order to enforce their homesteading over anyone who tried to disagree with them. In 1860, the US Supreme Court made their actions illegal, so they had to find other means to enforce their notions of justice.
In 1863, the Nebraska Territory held its first legal execution in North Omaha.
|This may be an image of Cyrus H. Tator|
A Body is Found
|Omaha in 1863, where Tator and Neff filled their wagons before heading for Denver.|
One day, a boy named Horace Wilson was walking along the edge of the Missouri River at the old town of Sulphur Springs. Located three miles north of Omaha, Sulphur Springs was laid out between present-day N. 16th Street and Carter Lake, with Locust Street on the south and Lothrop on the north.
This kid, walking along on a hot June day, found a body laying in shallow water and covered by the grasses along the river. Wrapped with two log chains, the body was unidentified for two days.
Born in 1833 in Chatham, New York, Cyrus Tator became a lawyer in Hudson, New York. He emigrated to Kansas in 1856, and was elected the probate judge of Lykins County in 1857. In 1858, he was re-elected and was elected a member of the Kansas Legislature that year, too. That same year he married Mary E. Bishop in Kansas, and they had a baby. He was usually referred to as Judge Tator.
In summer 1860, he took a partner in the shipping business named Isaac Neff. They traveled to Omaha and drove to Denver that summer, and back to Kansas after that. They did it again in 1861, and 1862. In late May 1863, Neff and Tator showed up in Omaha to load their wagons.
Arrest and Trial
|Judge George Baker Lake presided over Tator’s first trial.|
Tator was arrested a week later in Colfax County, heading towards the town of Columbus in the Nebraska Territory, and he was indicted on June 17th. Tom Sutton, the sheriff of Douglas County, allegedly found Tator waiting to cross in a wagon at Shinn’s Ferry over the Platte River.
Tried in the first legal murder trial at the first Douglas County Courthouse, Tator was found with a large amount of money in his pocket.
During his trial, Omaha founding father and judge George B. Lake prosecuted Tator, and A. J. Poppleton defended him. The evidence in his case was completely circumstantial. Herber Kimball, a Mormon leader in Florence, testified that he bought a team of horses from Tator earlier. Apparently, Tator tried to sell Kimball the wagons too, but since he didn’t buy them Tator allegedly abandoned them at the cliffs above Sulphur Springs. Tator was found to have sold some of Neff’s cattle and effects, and left town with a wagon load of goods and team of horses formerly owned by Neff.
Tator was found guilty of theft and murder.
Appealing the case to the Nebraska Territory Supreme Court, Tator lost again. This time he was sentenced to be hanged on August 28, 1863. The site chosen was near N. 16th and Locust Streets in present-day North Omaha, where the murder allegedly happened and the wagons were found.
|Brigadier General McKean, who fought in Civil War battles before and after his Omaha excursion.|
At 10am on the morning of his hanging, Tator took communion from Rev. Dr. Thomas Lemon, one of Omaha’s early Methodist ministers. From the moment his trial ended, Tator would tell anyone listening that he was innocent, always in a calm voice.
At the request of the sheriff, Brigadier General Thomas J. McKean brought forty soldiers from Company C, 7th Iowa cavalry, to preserve order. Present-day North 16th Street was the route the procession took from the county jail to the gallows. The road was lined with buggies, wagons, and people of all ages, sexes and colors, on horseback and on foot. When they arrived, the soldiers gave room to the prison wagon by forming a square around it. Reports from that time say there were 2,000 people in attendance.
|An 1875 illustration of the Execution of Cyrus H. Tator.|
A gallows was built near the cliff looking out over the river.
It was made plain, with four upright posts for the scaffolding, a platform and trap door, steps leading up to the platform, and a short seat on each side of the platform.
Sheriff Sutton and Marshall Riley walked Tator from the wagon to the gallows. Sutton placed the rope around Tator’s neck, and Marshal Riley tied his hands behind his back. Sutton drew the black hood over Tator’s head. Rev. Lemon sat on one side with Tator, while Sheriff Sutton and Marshall Riley sat on the opposite side.
Before the knot was adjusted a last time, Tator was given the rite of his last words. In them, he called God to witness that he was an innocent man; that he had not murdered Isaac H. Neff; and that he didn’t know who murdered Neff.
At exactly 1pm, the trap door was sprung, and Tator died quickly. After hanging 22 minutes, his body was lowered, placed in a coffin, and sent back downtown to be claimed.
And that’s the story of North Omaha’s execution.