A History of the Potter’s Field in North Omaha

Potter's Field, North 52nd and Young Street, North Omaha, Nebraska.

Tucked away in North Omaha is a resting place for the indigent, criminal and forgotten. Prostitutes and the poor, prisoners and the unidentified were buried here for more than 50 years and were mostly forgotten, often denied their right to a name, an identified location, and a grave marker to be visited. This place is the Potter’s Field in North Omaha.

Background on Charity Burials

This is a pic from a 1962 newspaper story on the Potter Field.
This is a pic from a 1962 newspaper story on the Potter’s Field.

Lots of people like to think of 1880s Omaha in its Victorian glam, all fanciful woodwork and frilly dresses, stout suits and enormous brick and stonework buildings downtown. While all that is true, it’s just a slice of what was happening. During that time, the stockyards and packinghouses were just emerging as major employers in a city called South Omaha; working class people lived in small homes throughout North Omaha, and; the city of Florence had become a sleepy suburb tucked away by the Ponca Hills.

With that background, its not hard to imagine why Omahans decided to separate the poor, the prisoners and the nameless deaths from their regular cemeteries. Starting in 1887, that’s what they did at Potter’s Field. Following a tradition going back to biblical times, the City of Omaha started a specific burial place just outside the city’s massive new Forest Lawn Cemetery at Mormon Bridge Road and Young Streets.

There was economic motivation, too: Starting in the 1860s, undertakers and gravediggers made money from selling bodies for early scientific experiments and medical studies. One of the most popular sources were Potter’s Fields across the country, and this may have influenced Omaha’s new place for these burials to happen. There were early Potter’s Fields in Omaha, including the most popular at the Douglas County Poor Farm along St. Mary’s Avenue where the Douglas County Hospital is located today.

In 1887, the first burial happened at Potter’s Field when Douglas County paid the Forest Lawn Cemetery Association $4,800 for the land. Potter’s Field was also called the Douglas County Cemetery. The first burial was a man interred there in May 1887. The Forest Lawn Cemetery supervised burials there for the next 50 years, until March 1939, when the Douglas County Board gave this responsibility to the County Relief Director.

By the 1930s, it was commonly understood throughout Omaha that the bodies of deceased homeless, elderly, criminal and other impoverished people were generally turned over to undertakers who openly sold them to scientists for medical experiments. Calls for a county cemetery to bury them instead were met with the answer that Potter’s Field was already in service for that reason. A later newspaper article reported that in the old days there were problems between undertakers and medical students over the unclaimed corpses that went to the Potter’s Field. However, they worked out a compromise, with the undertaker giving a simple burial at the site during the day, and medical students digging up the corpses at night, followed by filling in the holes they left behind. The paper said, “Authorities winked at the process.”

In 1939, the newspaper reported that “it was not uncommon to see five and six carloads of mourners at a pauper’s funeral.” Concerned with the costs of burying them, an attorney wanted the county to better scrutinize the wealth of the burials.

In the 1950s, there was a movement across the country to stop burying the poor and nameless in Potter’s Fields. That led to the last burial there in August 1957. Clearly showing his contempt for the place, when the closure was announced, the Douglas County Welfare Administrator said the county “will discontinue the potter’s weed patch.”

Today, Douglas County pays for burials of people who can’t afford them in regular cemeteries, although they’re still generally separated from other burial sites.

It is worth noting that this Potter’s Field wasn’t the only Potter’s Field in Douglas County. It might be the most popular and the only one referred to this way today, but I have found historical references to others. The first publicly owned Potter’s Fields in Omaha was located at the the Douglas County Poor Farm. There were other Potter’s Fields located within Laurel Hill Cemetery; Mount Hope; and Council Bluffs.

Burials Matter

Over 60 years of operation, almost 4,000 people were buried at Potter’s Field, which is made of five and a half acres of land owned by the City of Omaha.

Before the Potter’s Field by Forest Lawn was opened, there were other Potter’s Fields in Omaha. This is proven by the story of J. E. Hagan, who was buried in a Potter’s Field in Omaha in 1884. A tailor by trade, Hagan went missing in April that year. When he was found dead floating in the Missouri River a month later, his body was unidentifiable. Buried nameless in a potter’s field in Omaha, his death didn’t go unnoticed. When his father-in-law hired a private detective to come looking for him a few months later, Hagen was identified and his body was reburied in Prospect Hill Cemetery.

An 1896 article describing the site said, “The graves are in straight rows, of the same length. Thus all who are six feet tall are buried together, those five feet in another row, children together and babies in still another line.” The same article also said, “This is the only potter’s field in the whole county, and during the past 10 years 1,137 bodies have been interred in it. Of these it is estimated over half are infants.”

Regardless of their age, all of the people at Potter’s Field were either poor or unidentified. I found accounts of the occupations of the poor whose jobs included workers, housemothers, prostitutes, soldiers and gamblers.

Bodies at Potter’s Field were held by undertakers who charged Douglas County for costs. The dead were interred there in different ways, including pine coffins, pressboard caskets and even burlap sacks. There were also “blanket burials” at the Potter’s Field. Church services weren’t held at Potter’s Field. Undertakes’ services were short and only included “necessary” elements.

Causes of Death

“Zola says there ‘is no field for literary workers in America.’ Zola isn’t onto our Potter’s field.”

Omaha World-Herald, December 8, 1894

There were a lot of ways that people died before they ended up at Potter’s Field. According to the memorial plaques at Potter’s Field, burials there include unidentified bodies “found on railroad tracks, an unknown man hanging from a tree, bodies found in the Missouri River or in weeds or streets of Omaha or Florence.” The plaque also says an unidentified woman was found in a locked trunk and later buried at the site. Other horrific accounts of the causes of death listed for burials at the Potter’s Field include “Unknown retrieved from river,” “Unidentified baby found in alley,” “Unknown man found hung in tree,” and “Skeleton of baby found in basement.”

According to official records, many people there died of illnesses, especially children, many of whom are marked as dying from the flu, and whose death dates correspond with influenza epidemics throughout the decades Potter’s Field was open.

A 1962 story talked about an event in Omaha where a man was found dead in a downtown alley in the 1890s. When he couldn’t be identified, he was given a sad, lonely burial at the Potter’s Field. However, when it was discovered the man was a missing local tycoon, he was quickly dug up and given a proper burial in a regular cemetery with a huge funeral. Moving bodies from the Potter’s Field was not uncommon, since people preferred not to have their loved ones buried this way. The unclaimed corpses would be dug up, given regular funerals and get reburied in regular cemeteries.

At the end of the Victorian era, Potter’s Field played a role in ending an Omaha institution of higher education. The Omaha Medical Surgical Institute was named as a “disgrace to the profession” and a “detriment to the city” in 1891 after they hurriedly buried a wealthy farmer at the field after he died. Without going into details, the article said apparently the institute was responsible for the burial, and a special meeting of Omaha doctors led to its permanent closure.

Burying Will Brown

This is the October 2, 1919 announcement of the burial of lynching victim Will Brown from the Omaha Bee. Thanks to Ryan Roenfeld for locating this.
This is the October 2, 1919 announcement of the burial of lynching victim Will Brown from the Omaha Bee. Thanks to Ryan Roenfeld for locating this.

It was 1919 when an African American worker named Will Brown was ruthlessly lynched by a mob of 20,000 white people in downtown Omaha. After being brutally beaten, dismembered, lynched, shot and burned, his remains were gathered by the County Coroner and interred at Potter’s Field. For the next 70 years, his gravesite was unmarked and barely acknowledged. Next to his name in the cemetery register was one phrase: “Bullet wound through body. Lynched.”

In 1999, a Californian named Chris Hebert was watching a TV show about Henry Fonda when he learned about the 1919 lynching of Will Brown. Upset by the lack of recognition for Brown’s grave, Hebert sent money to Omaha to buy a gravestone and had it installed.

Facts about Burials in North Omaha’s Potter’s Field

Potter's Field, North 52nd and Young Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
This shows the 5.5 acres comprising Potter’s Field at North 52nd and Young Street in North Omaha.

Here are some facts about burials on the 5.5 acres:

  • There are 3,912 known burials at Potter’s Field.
  • Three headstones remain today; the rest of the graves are unmarked.
  • There are 1,180 children under two years old buried there.
  • There are 483 stillborn babies buried there.
  • There are 174 babies who nobody knows where they came from buried there.
  • There are 108 other unidentified burials there.

Today, the Douglas County Assessor’s Office is in possession of a book of all the burials at the Potter’s Field.

Conditions at Potter’s Field

Its commonly known that Omaha’s Potter’s Field is habitually neglected. The cemetery has received varying amounts of attention over the years.

Starting in the late 1950s, Douglas County maintenance crews mowed the site annually. In a 1955 meeting of local funeral directors and county officials, it was decided something had to be done about the Potter’s Field. “It was a disgrace… the lonely stretch of the big cemetery was unkept and it was rumored some of the poor were buried in cardboard-like coffins,” according to Paul Dworak of Dworak Mortuary. The plan was for regular cemeteries to take the newly deceased for a fee paid by the County, and bury them regularly. Survivors were asked to pay what they could, and they were discouraged from placing grave markers on graves at the cemeteries. This led to the official closing of Potter’s Field in 1957, and the practice continues today.

For more than a decade starting in the early 1960s, the Boy Scout troop at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in the Minne Lusa neighborhood cleaned the site annually. In later years they were joined by another troop. Together, the Scouts cleared weeds and brush, trimmed trees and reset fallen gravestones. They camped on the site over Memorial Day weekend for several years, mowing grasses and placing flowers on the graves.

In 1962, the Douglas County Alcoholic Treatment Center at Clearview assumed responsibility for beautifying the grounds through a volunteer project by patients at the facility. Apparently they went there monthly to maintain their efforts. The newspaper mentioned the project again the next year, but never again afterwards.

A few hundred graves had markers in 1967, when the newspaper featured the site again. “A padlock seals the battered gate to the old cemetery. Barbed wire encloses it. Tall grass and weeds cover many graves.” The article described metal stakes at many graves with plain identification cards attached to them.

Unfortunately, by the late 1960s the site was a popular place for partying. Cans collected at the site after weekends, there was vandalism of remaining grave markers, and the flagpole kept there was destroyed several times. By the mid-1970s, the Potter’s Field started another decade without maintenance. Annual mowing eventually ceased, toppled grave markers were left on the ground and trees grew everywhere. Poison ivy, nettles and underbrush covered the site, and graves sunk two and three feet into the ground.

Then in 1986, there was another rededication ceremony which led to a re-consecration of the place. A cement walkway and meditation area were installed along with steel plaques with the names of known deceased people older than two at the site. The Douglas County records and the neighboring Forest Lawn Cemetery records were both used to compile the listing. Afterwards, the Douglas County maintenance kept mowing the site annually.

Currently

Of the 3,912 burials known to have happened there, the only gravestones at Potter’s Field today belong to the following 10 people:

  1. William Brown (b1878-d1919)
  2. David Archibald Jones (b1867-d1913)
  3. Stella DeLorma (b1888-d1891)
  4. John Lodewick (b1890-d1891)
  5. Son of J. F. and M. Groat (b1886-d1891)
  6. S. A. Smyth (b1859-d1893)
  7. Henning O. Koll (b1857-d1898)
  8. Iva Clark (b1877-d1890)
  9. Sadie Clark (b1879-d1890)
  10. Mildred Douglas Foxall (b1911-d1933)

Without a sustainability plan and continual commitment by volunteers and donors the Potter’s Field fell into disrepair again. With cleanups in the 1990s, 2000s and as recently as August 2019, efforts will likely continue to preserve Potter’s Field. However, without a sustainability plan and appropriate recognition from the City and State, there will probably be more weeds in the future.

In 2019, ground penetrating technology was used at the nearby Cutler’s Park Cemetery to identify the exact burial locations of the 70 people buried there in 1864. A website was developed that includes biographies of those people, and the place has been spruced up. Perhaps the same could happen at Potter’s Field?

Despite it’s relevance to Omaha’s history and its role in a nationally important event, the Potter’s Field has not been declared an official Omaha Landmark by the Landmark Heritage Preservation Commission, and is not included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Thanks to Michaela Armetta for her contributions to this article!

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Published by Adam Fletcher

An internationally recognized expert in youth engagement, Adam leads the Freechild Institute and SoundOut. He is also the editor NorthOmahaHistory.com; the author of Student Voice Revolution and twelve other books; and the host of the North Omaha History Podcast.

4 thoughts on “A History of the Potter’s Field in North Omaha

  1. I remember driving by the Potters Field every day while riding on a bus to Rummel High School. We always talked about it and it was kind of creepy. We walked through it when we could and noted the occasional stone marker, wondering what the poor person had done to deserve such a disrespectful interment.

    Liked by 1 person

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