A History of Grave Robbing in North Omaha

The banner from a 1910 periodical for parks maintenance. 

It costs money to be a respectful, successful cemetery. They actually have to conduct a regular and brisk business in order to afford their existence. Today, many old cemeteries have charitable groups or beneficiaries who pay for their upkeep. However, it hasn’t always been easy to raise money for cemetery upkeep.

Prospect Hill Cemetery was founded by Omaha real estate mogul Byron Reed in 1863. According to court documents, before Reed bought the cemetery there wasn’t a fence around it, and cattle roamed freely over the graves. Managed by Reed for 20 years, in 1883 its care was handed over to the city’s new cemetery leadership, the Forest Lawn Cemetery Association. In 1893, the Prospect Hill Cemetery Association was formed.

However, making money was rough, and they needed more burials. Where should they go? This is a story of digging up the dead in North Omaha.

Missing Graves

A view of the cemetery from a picture I took in 2015.

In a previous article, I explored some of North Omaha’s missing cemeteries, including two that preceded and bordered Prospect Hill called the Omaha City Cemetery and Cedar Hill Cemetery. They’re important here because I explained how the all of the graves in those cemeteries weren’t moved before they were closed, bulldozed and platted for housing developments. Today, more than 100 houses in the Highland and Gifford Park neighborhoods are located there, as well as the Creighton University / St. Joe’s Hospital complex.

Along with those missing graves, the reality is that there are many missing graves in Prospect Hill Cemetery, too! Today, there are many reasons for those missing records, including poor recording keeping, the fires in the Douglas County Courthouse during Omaha’s 1919 race riot, and other factors. Whatever the cause, the missing records directly affected Superintendent Callahan’s legal issues in 1909.

Without proper grave markers or a lot of caretaking of the cemetery over the years by himself or others, Prospect Hill Cemetery superintendent Daniel Callahan was the victim of sloppiness. He made the national news for cemetery officials that year, because nobody wanted to be in a similar situation.

Convicting the Superintendent

A 1909 article announcing the original trial verdict.

In 1908, Daniel Callahan was convicted of unlawfully assisting in disinterring the remains of a dead person. Callahan was the superintendent of the cemetery since 1890, Callahan had been caring for Prospect Hill since before a dedicated association was incorporated to take care of it. He was convicted for directing the cemetery’s gravedigger to throw old bones from any new grave he dug into the bottom of the new grave.

When the gravedigger was arrested, he immediately implicated Callahan as giving him the orders. However, when Callahan was on trial, he fingered Judge Charles A. Baldwin, a pioneer Omaha lawyer who was president of the Prospect Hill Cemetery Association.

Callahan faced a $2,500 fine or three years in the Nebraska State Penitentiary, or both. When the verdict came down, leniency was suggested, and an appeal to the supreme court was planned. He was released on bond.

In the next year, the Nebraska State Supreme Court dismissed the charges. Proclaiming the State hadn’t proved their case, Callahan faced no further prosecution.

By 1906, the Omaha Bee reported that many improvements were being made at Prospect Hill, including a new tool house and “markers for many graves previously unknown.” Meanwhile, period journals credited the case with fighting against “careless and indifferent treatment of the business of burying people” in cemeteries across the nation.

Oh, and Callahan couldn’t have felt too bad about the whole situation: he was buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery when he died in 1928.

Legacy

Why did Judge Baldwin tell Callahan to just throw the old bones into the same graves as the newly dead? In the he cemetery was prohibited from expanding further

By 1970s, the cemetery was in abysmal condition. Located behind North Omaha’s notorious Hilltop Public Housing Projects, it was unseen, unvisited and mostly forgotten by the city. However, in 1979 interest surged again after the city threatened to demolish the cemetery. A nonprofit called the Prospect Hill Cemetery Historic Site Foundation was formed to preserve, protect and promote the cemetery, and they got to work. That year, the cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and interest began growing again.

In 1980, the Prospect Hill Preservation Brass Band was formed to celebrate the cemetery on Memorial Day.

In 2015, the cemetery hosted the 36th annual Old-Fashioned Memorial Day Observance. Featuring the Prospect Hill Preservation Brass Band, local historian David Wells traced the path of the first Nebraska Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War and talked about the veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg interred at Prospect Hill. The annual tribute to Anna Wilson also happened. Wilson, who was the owner and madame of Omaha’s most expensive brothel, died in 1911 and was buried at Prospect Hill with her gambler husband Dan Allen. For more details, read my article about their burial.

Working with the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, recently the Prospect Hill Cemetery Legacy Arboretum was formed. Recognized for their beauty and appropriateness, there are many beautiful trees there today.

Related Articles

Elsewhere Online

2 thoughts on “A History of Grave Robbing in North Omaha

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑