NL Hometown Stories - Boot Hill Cemetery in Sidney
Sidney now shines out like a beacon on the High Plains, but once upon a time, a more sinister darkness pervaded the town.
(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
THE SECRETS of perhaps the Wild West’s most notorious cemetery had been buried for nearly a century, but thanks to dedicated citizens, the amazing tales of Sidney’s Boot Hill have been brought back to life.
Even Stephen King couldn’t have stirred sweeter symbolism for this ghoulish graveyard than you’ll discover from two of its most loyal tour guides. Say hello to the mortician and the taxidermist.
“If you don’t like them lying down I can stand them up,” said the taxidermist, Dennis Tuzicka, as he joked about the skills of he and his longtime good buddy, Don “Digger” Gehrig.
“One of those big-shot gunfighters said that Sidney is where you go to suffer before you go to hell,” said Gehrig, who is a fossil hunter, and was a Sidney funeral director for 35 years.
This is the land where legendary gunfighters like Butch Cassidy, Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Middleton, and some say even Jesse James, stood their ground, and the roughest railroad roughnecks and most desperate desperados got buried with their boots on, many at the bewitching midnight hour. While the town celebrated visits from presidents, generals, Chief Sitting Bull, Susan B. Anthony, and even an enthusiastic visit in 1876 from the emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II, it only now embraces Sidney’s sinister past.
It was created in 1868 as Sidney Cemetery for fallen soldiers, and its last recorded burial was in 1894. Researchers claim more than 500 bodies ended up there. Those who weren’t soldiers were victims of “Sinful Sidney,” the lynching capital of Nebraska.
“When the trains would come, Union Pacific would urge passengers not to depart the train unless absolutely necessary,” said Gehrig.
“Sidney was supposed to be one the baddest towns on the tracks,” added Tuzicka, an old-school cowboy who roamed about this land as a child when it was an abandoned city dump.
These days, Sidney is a welcoming community to tourists drawn to its military history and world-famous Cabela’s outfitters, but in the 1870s, the Black Hills gold rush turned the town into the ultimate badlands. Dozens of the west’s meanest of men ended up swinging from a telegraph pole.
In addition to keeping the grass trim and the graveyard free of rattlesnakes, the mortician and the taxidermist undertake questions from visitors. Although hundreds of bodies are still believed buried in the surrounding acres, out of respect for the dead, the restored cemetery contains only commemorative graves built over excavations that took place 90 years ago.
One of the mock tombstones is dedicated to “Madam Boots,” who in real life is known as Kathy Wilson, chairwoman and a driving force of the Sidney Boot Hill Restoration Committee, which was formed in 2006. Wilson, who is organizing a Halloween tour, said that the graveyard’s infamous reputation faded away after 211 bodies were exhumed from the dilapidated burial grounds in 1922 and moved to Fort McPherson National Cemetery during the Army’s effort to properly bury the remains of 22 soldiers and several Army Indian scouts assigned to Fort Sidney.
“The cemetery is a true western mystery story,” Wilson said.
“Sidney was so embarrassed by its tainted past that it tried to bury all the stories along with abandoning the Boot Hill Cemetery,” said Sidney’s City Manager Gary Person. “This cemetery likely exceeds, but certainly rivals any cemetery in any Old West town. Sidney simply didn’t have a name that was ‘frontier sexy’ like Deadwood, Dodge City or Tombstone.”
In 2006, Person contributed to a massive book on Sidney’s past: Lynchings, Legends & Lawlessness, written by Loren Avey, a former city councilor and longtime barber in town. The book includes the 1880 story of the nation’s largest gold robbery of $200,000 during a Sidney heist, and also details gruesome discoveries during the 1922 dig.
James Schilling, the illustrator of Avey’s Pole Creek Crossing book, joined the author in detecting what they believe were hundreds of bodies during a search of the Boot Hill site with dowsing rods. Schilling also recalls accounts from Sidney’s wild past, when all-night saloons and dance halls covered its Front Street, and there were 85 legal liquor licenses for the town of just 1,000 residents that made room for thousands of gold seekers rushing to Deadwood
. “My grandmother told me that that was all that was on Front Street,” Schilling said. “Every other door was a bar.”
If you’re interested in digging deeper into the past, the Fort Sidney Museum has on display prehistoric artifacts from Nebraska’s oldest known burial, which was discovered by Sidney residents Jim and Becky Haddix. The two skeletons from the Oxbow band date back to 2,500 B.C., and now rest in the city’s Greenwood Cemetery.
To arrange a tour of Boot Hill Cemetery, contact Kathy Wilson at (308) 254-5395, or the Cheyenne County Visitors Center at (308) 254-4030.
For more about Sidney, check out our Town Story, "Sidney - Soaring on the High Plains" - originally featured in the May/June 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine.