The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

"Haunted" Boot Hill the subject of cemetery tour

 

A little local history and a meander through unmarked graves might be just spooky enough for some end of October fun. Skeptics and believers alike are invited to the third annual ghost tour at Sidney’s historic Boot Hill Cemetery.

The tours begin at 7 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 26 at the cemetery, located at 640 Elm Street on the north side of town.

Those taking part in the tour will take a trek through the cemetery and learn about the eerie past of Sidney’s first official resting place for the dead. The Boot Hill Committee runs the tour, which is the organization’s only yearly fundraiser.

“We don’t step on anybody’s belief system,” said Kathy Wilson, director of the Boot Hill Committee. “We do encourage people to take photos.”

Many are surprised by what they see, Wilson said.

“All those bodies were put there and left there,” Wilson said.

The cemetery has a spooky atmosphere at night, she said. “I can’t even really explain it to you.”

The committee teaches grave dousing on the hill behind the cemetery. Grave dousing is the use of metal rods, much like the old practice of water witching to find unmarked graves. This is a mainstream practice, according to Wilson, despite what most people might think. It is used by the Boston Historical Society and many graveyards in this part of Nebraska are also platted in this fashion, she added.

“It gives everyone a chance to try their hand at it,” Wilson said.

Hot drinks including coffee, cider and hot chocolate will be available to those looking to warm up. The committee is also setting up fire pits for tour goers.

“Believe it or not, we’ve had a huge turnout,” Wilson said.

She estimated that hundreds of people have attended the tour in past years.

The cost is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and $5 for children ages 12 and under.

“It’s a chance to experience it for yourself and draw your own conclusions,” Wilson said.

After the tours, the rest of the night is open for those participating.

“Then we turn them loose and do grave dousing,” Wilson said. “They can spend the whole evening if they want.”

The tour starts at 7 p.m. but is open ended. Those attending can wander around the graveyard as long as they desire. Wilson cautions that those who are easily scared might not want to attend. The tour is also an opportunity to support the Boot Hill Committee which works to restore local landmarks in an historically accurate fashion.

Bodies were buried in Boot Hill Cemetery from 1868 to 1894, during the seedier portion of Sidney’s past. Many complained to the army about the cemetery that had gone wild, sometimes with livestock running through it. By 1922, the cemetery was so run down that the U.S. Army mandated the removal of soldiers buried there.

During this process, 211 bodies were removed, but hundreds more were left behind, according to Wilson. The quartermaster at the time hired an undertaker to excavate the graves of soldiers and Indian scouts specifically. He identified the soldiers by their lead caskets and the Indian scouts by the beadwork on their disintegrated garments. The bodies turned up in this search process were buried in different locations such as Fort McPherson and Greenwood Cemetery. After he found all those he was searching for, the undertaker gave up and left the rest of the bodies.

Some unusual burials were uncovered when a portion of the bodies were removed. One of them was a mother holding a baby, both with bullet wounds. Another was a man whose head was still surrounded with the barbed wire he was apparently hung with. Others have reported that many abortions and still births were buried outside the cemetery walls.

“This is our third time opening it to the public for their own investigation,” Wilson said.

No one knows how many unmarked graves are in the cemetery, but Wilson does know that there are some buried under the street and on the opposite side of the road from the marked portion of the graveyard.

When work was done on a nearby county road, coffins were flipped up during the process, Wilson said. Local legend is that there are bodies buried all the way up the hill behind the cemetery. The last time it was doused, they found around 700 graves, some of which are visible because they’re sinking.

At the time the cemetery was an active burial place, Sidney was a wild area rampant with disease and with regular gunfights. If 100 people died per year for the 30 years the cemetery was open, that leaves an enormous amount of bodies left behind, Wilson said.

The Boot Hill Committee which was formed in 2006, works on various preservation and restoration projects in the area. It previously reconstructed the fence around Boot Hill Cemetery. The Boot Hill Restoration Committee is currently working to restore Camp Lookout, an historic building located on the corner of 10th and Elm on the north side of town.

From 1876-1881 more than 1,000 criminal cases and 56 murders or attempted murders were prosecuted in Sidney, according to the Boot Hill website. The committee leaves it up to the tour goers to decide what they believe, but encourages them to take pictures.

“Is it haunted or isn’t it?” Wilson asked.

 

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