State Pen cemetery a place of unique history
By Mary Rezac, Nebraska News Service
LIINCOLN–On a hill on the southwest edge of Lincoln, visible from the Jamaica North Trail, sits a little known piece of Nebraska history. White crosses and markers dot the grounds of a cemetery that is inaccessible to the public.
For 86 years, from 1874-1960, this hill became the resting place for inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary who were unclaimed by family or friends after their death.
The cemetery is commonly known as Grasshopper Hill, because of the locusts there during the summer and fall. Others call it Dairy Hill, because before the hill was a cemetery, the inmates ran a dairy on that location.
Though inaccessible to the public, the cemetery is well maintained by inmates and staff. The grass is cut, the leaves are raked and flowers are planted in the spring. A veteran’s service is held every Memorial Day honoring the veterans buried there, a tradition started by a group of Vietnam veterans in the penitentiary shortly after the Vietnam war.
“We keep everything in as good a shape as possible,” said Winfield Barber, who serves as administrative assistant to the warden of the Nebraska State penitentiary.
Look to the past
The serene and simple look of the cemetery contrasts with the licentious lives of those buried there. Spotty record-keeping early on only adds to the sense of mystery surrounding these early outlaws. Though there are only 133 markers, up to 150 people are believed to be buried there.
“Record keeping in the early days was cursory at best,” Barber said. “And if an inmate died of a highly infectious disorder he was quickly laid to rest without much formality.”
According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, the first burial was Winnebago tribe member James White Breast (prisoner #43) in 1874. Son of the chief, White Breast and four companions–James Caramani (#44), Ko-Kaw (#45), James McCluskey (#46), and one unknown–were charged with the murder of farmer C.S. Munson from Wayne County, Neb., after being found in possession of his scalp. The murder was said to be a part of a ritual for the men to become “braves” in the tribe.
Winnebago members attempting to free the men pursued the sheriff and the prisoners all the way from Wayne County to Washington County, where the trial was transferred. More than 200 members of the Winnebago tribe attended the trial in Blair. All but one of the accused was sent to the penitentiary where it seems they all eventually died. For reasons unknown, McCluskey does not appear among the burial records.
The second man buried in the cemetery after White Breast was George H. McKeller. One of the first settlers in Arcadia, Neb., McKeller was also the first man tried for murder at Loup City in February of 1877. Intoxicated, McKeller shot a man named Chapman for no apparent reason and calmly rode off. Though a $500 reward was offered for McKeller, his father brought him in a week after the incident. McKeller became prisoner #280 with a life sentence and died July 31, 1886.
Only four women are buried on Grasshopper Hill. The first, Sarah J. Overton (Clinton) #1270, was convicted of murdering her husband in Custer County in 1887. The mother of nine children, she committed suicide on June 3, 1888.
Erma Coleman (records show she also went by Evelyn Winters), prisoner #10382, was the last woman to be buried on Grasshopper Hill. She had been convicted of grand larceny from Douglas County and was to serve a two- to three- year term. She died in childbirth, June 3, 1930.
At that time, pregnant inmates were sent by boxcar from the prison to a nursing home to give birth. Records show Coleman’s baby girl died but do not indicate where she was buried, though it is believed she was buried with her mother.
Since 1960, Nebraska state law dictates that inmates be buried in Lincoln’s Wyuka Cemetery when their next of kin have neither the funds nor desire to bury the body, or cannot be found.
“In such cases the services are quite austere–direct cremation and direct interment in Wyuka (or Fairview) cemetery,” Barber said.
Contact Mary Rezac at email@example.com.