Since before the Nebraska Territory was founded in 1854, executions including lynchings, shootings and hangings happened in Omaha. The Omaha Claim Club, established by the city’s founders, used 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, complete with two court trials, more than 200 men interviewed for juries, and a gallows. This is a history of the execution of Cyrus Tator.
A Body is Found
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. It was June 19, 1863.
Born February 28, 1847, in Chatham, New York, Cyrus H. Tator became a lawyer in Hudson, New York. He emigrated to Kansas in May 1856, and that year he was involved in early anti-slave trade vigilantism in Kansas, crossing paths with John Brown in the infamous Osawatomie cattle raid that year. He also crossed swords with the local claim club, which burned down his office that summer.
Tator was elected the probate judge of Lykins County in 1857, and in 1858, he was re-elected judge and was elected a member of the Kansas Legislature, too, in 1860.
On July 5, 1858, he married Mary E. Bishop (1841-1898) in Kansas, and they had a baby, William C. Tator (1860–1929). Cyrus Tator was usually called Judge Tator.
In summer 1860, he took a partner in the shipping business named Isaac H. 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
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, 1863. 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 circumstantial, but eventually it was considered substantial enough to convict. 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 North 16th and Locust Streets in present-day North Omaha, where the murder allegedly happened and the wagons were found.
After Tator was convicted of murder, Sheriff T. L. Sutton and Marshall F. Riley collected a reward from the Nebraska Territory governor Alvin Saunders for arresting him.
At 10am on the morning of August 28, Cyrus H. 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.
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.
Research by Omaha History Club administrator Michaela Armetta shows that 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.
Tator was buried September 13, 1863 at Prospect Hill Cemetery. Notes on his records say, “Executed For Murder of Neff.” Neff himself was interred at Prospect Hill Cemetery on March 8, 1864, with a note on the interment that said, “Murdered by Cyrus Tator.” Nobody knew how old Neff was. It took nine months for him to be buried, but there’s no excuse given in notes from the cemetery. It might have taken that long for family members to claim the corpse.
Both Tator and Neff were reportedly both buried in unmarked graves at Prospect Hill Cemetery. Apparently, the are were buried in the same lot, and each of the surrounding lots has about 8 burials. Look for Lot 47. However, there were some accounts suggesting that Tator was later removed from Prospect Hill
According to her obituary, Tator’s wife Mary never remarried. Instead, she worked in asylums in Kansas, Missouri and Colorado, and died in 1889. She is buried in Their son William died in 1929.
In 1979, there was a brief announcement in the Omaha World-Herald by Don Beckman. With straight-forwardness, he said a historical marker would probably be erected in Prospect Hill Cemetery to commemorate Cyrus Tator’s execution. “Noting the consequence desperadoes began to pay when law and order became established in the newly settled territory,” Beckman sounded defensive of the marker. Its not apparent any marker was ever placed though, and today there’s nothing in the cemetery or near the site where the hanging happened.
After I originally published this article in 2012, Omaha awoke to the legacy of Cyrus Tator and several articles were published about him. However, today there are no plaques or historical markers on the site of his hanging, and a permanent acknowledgment of Cyrus Tator’s role in the history of Nebraska seems a long ways away.
You Might Like…
- A History of Sulphur Springs, Nebraska Territory
- A Biography of George B. Lake
- A History of the Prospect Hill Cemetery
- Carter Lake’s Burning Lady
- The Reality of Ghosts in Hummel Park
- A History of the Execution of Cyrus Tator
- North Omaha’s Missing Cemeteries
- A History of Digging Up the Dead in North Omaha
- “In 1863, Nebraska Territory hanged a Kansas legislator in its first legal execution” Chris Peters Omaha World-Herald (December 3, 2018)