Some say it was the Indian Tribe who started the practice of scalping. Others say it was the white colonists. However it began, scalping someone as a trophy of victory is among the most gruesome acts in wartime. As the name suggests, it is the act of removing the crown of hair of the fallen enemy. They do this by making a semicircular cut to outline the area to be taken before they rip it away. The scalp either serves as a trophy or a way to intimidate their adversaries. Warriors would string their scalps on a leather braid and display them to their enemies to intimidate them before a battle.

Could you possibly survive scalping?

William Thompson proved the answer was yes when he was scalped alive one humid evening in August of 1867.

Mr. Thompson was an employee of the Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha. That night, they were not getting a telegraph feed in the West Plum Creek Station, so they sent out four railroad telegraph workers and a foreman; Mr. Thompson was one of them. Upon checking, they found out that the handcar was derailed. It turned out, 25 Cheyenne warriors were waiting to ambush them, and had derailed the car.. Mr. Thompson was shot in the shoulder, but he didn’t die. One of the Cheyenne warriors carved his scalp off his skull. He was awake and aware of what was going on at that time. Thanks to the August heat, his bleeding stopped, and he did not lose a lot of blood.

Indian Warrior with Scalp by Barlow, a 1789 engraving published by William Lane, London, England. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

When Union Pacific found out that 17 other cars were derailed and an engineer, fireman, and conductor were killed, they sent a rescue train the next day. Upon arriving, they found Mr. Thompson, who was already starting to get an infection. Next to him was his detached scalp that was curiously left by the natives. They brought him to Dr. Richard Moore, who tried and failed to reattach the scalp back to Mr. Thompson.

William Thompson. Photo from Atlas Obscura

He took the scalp with him in England and put it on display. You could at least try to get some cash out from your severed scalp, right? However, it didn’t work as his fellow Englishmen seemed to have no interest in seeing the evidence of his mutilation. In 1900, he sent it back to Dr. Richard Moore, who then donated it to the Omaha Public Library. I mean, why would he want to keep somebody else’s scalp in his house?


William Thompson’s scalp. Photo from Atlas Obscura

Mr. Thompson’s scalp still remains in the Omaha Public Library today, 121 years later. It is kept in an acid-free box to preserve it. Although not on public display, it is available for viewing upon request if you dare see it.

Going back to the question, could you possibly survive scalping?

According to Doug Webber M.D. and Gary Muskett M.D., you really could, under the right circumstances.