This article appeared in Omaha Magazine July/August 2015 edition.
Potter Field: It’s a lonely sounding pair of words for an even lonelier place. The phrase dates to the Bible, when fields once strip-mined for potting soil were used as pauper’s graves. For thousands of years, cities all over the world have buried their poor—often with little or no fanfare—in such forlorn places that often share the simple name of Potter Field. Graves in such cemeteries rarely bear markers.
Omaha has a Potter Field just north of Forest Lawn Cemetery in Florence. The origins of the cemetery are suitably murky, but may date back to 1846, the start of an arduous few years of the Mormon migration westward, a trek which cost a reported 359 lives. Potter Field is situated just outside of the Mormon settlement of Cutler’s Park, and a Brigham Young University webpage speculates that Potter Field was the burial site of the Cutler’s Park dead.
According to most sources, Potter Field became an official city entity in 1887, but mentions of it date back further. A brief item in an October 1885 issue of the Omaha Daily Herald (a predecessor of the Omaha World-Herald) mentions the County Commissioners deflected rumors that grave robbers took bodies from Potter Field to be dissected by medical students. A few days later, authorities at the Omaha Medical College contradicted this, saying they had, in fact, received three bodies from the cemetery.
The space was the burial site for W.W. Lynch, an Omaha carpenter and one of the area’s early murder victims. He was killed in 1887 by an Iowa farmer named Lutz in a gun-and-knife battle at a downtown theater. The cause of the fight was Lutz’s wife, who had abandoned him more than a year earlier to take up with Lynch.
And so the cycle of misery began. Potter Field found many of its residents victims of terrible circumstances, everything from foul play to abject poverty. According to the website Find A Grave, at least 3,912 people were buried there. Some have been relocated over time, but 2,135 remain. While the graves are often unmarked, the names of all but 108 of the dead are preserved in various records.
Abandoned by Douglas County in 1957, Potter Field lay unattended for a decade until the mid-1960s, when local Boy Scout troops made an annual event of tending to the cemetery. The county has since resumed maintenance.
The most famous resident of Potter Field is Willie Brown, the victim of Omaha’s 1919 riots in which an estimated 4,000 Omahans laid siege on the Douglas County Courthouse. They were after Brown, an imprisoned African-American accused of accosting a white woman. The mob set fire to the building. Pock marks from shotgun blasts fired that night still pepper the fine marble of the rotunda. Mayor Ed Smith refused to surrender Brown and was lynched, but cut down by police. Brown was also lynched. For many years the exact location of his burial site had been a mystery.
In 2009 a Californian donated money to locate and mark Brown’s grave. His plot now carries a marker with words that equally apply to many of his eternal neighbors—“Lest We Forget.”