A Brief History of Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln Nebraska
Updated: Jul 14
Cemeteries are often depicted as unsettling and spooky locations shrouded in folklore, legends, and ghost stories. The truth, however, is most cemeteries are actually not haunted. They are not generally the site of gruesome acts or violence; they tend to simply be the final resting place for the people of a community. Of course, some have odd tales associated with grave robbing, rituals, and even murder, but learning about places like Wyuka Cemetery can create a better understanding of ones community and the people that once helped shaped those areas. Although cemeteries have received the general misconception of being haunted, some souls may linger amongst the gravestones long after their names have been etched in stone.
Wyuka Cemetery was established as a need for an official state cemetery. Before Wyuka was created as a result of an act of the Nebraska Legislature in 1869, an unofficial graveyard was located in the area that would later become Cooper Park. The people interred in that area would be moved, for the most part, to Wyuka. After the original site purchased was discovered by the Board of Trustees to frequently flood from the Salt Creek, the state purchased 80 acres east of the city of Lincoln. The construction and layout of the cemetery mirrored others established during the time period called “rural” cemeteries. The cemetery was park-like with winding roads, which would later include a pond, bridges, a stable, and a church.
The cemetery was named after Wyuka Cemetery in Nebraska City, which had been established 14 years before in 1855. The name is derived from the Otoe language and translates to “he lies down” or “place of reclining.” The name is spelled as an English speaker would pronounce the word if heard out loud. The word Wyuka signifies a mix of the Otoe language and English speaking translations based on sound.
The oldest area of Wyuka is the southern forty acres, which was the first section of land purchased on July 30, 1869. Deputy County Surveyor James T. Murphy drafted the earliest plan for this section in 1871. The original plat presented curving avenues with a park-like atmosphere typical of rural cemeteries. These types of cemeteries were created in contrast to overcrowded and unkempt cemeteries in towns with larger populations, which created health concerns for the public. Areas designated for specific burials, such as a “Potter’s Field” for unclaimed burials and “H. of F.” the area for a state orphanage were named to show who was in those particular sections while other areas were simply numbered. A section labeled the “Lawn” was left as an open oval area free of burials, which provided a place for visitors to spend the afternoon much like a park. On a plat from 1890 the “Lawn” is called “the park.” The area designated for visitors would later be divided and sold for burials after 1902.
The original forty acres contains 19th and early 20th century cemetery art, which includes statues, obelisks, gazebos, and pergolas. Many of the oldest gravestones were made of white marble and were erected upright making them more visually distinctive. A large number of these pieces of art and architecture are in Section 13. These “monuments reflect Lincoln society of the prominent business, political, and educational leaders.” Several prominent individuals including governors, mayors, celebrities, and even an infamous murderer are buried in Wyuka.
The northern forty acres were platted by Arthur W. Hobert in 1909. Unlike the original forty, this section contains only flat grave markers, setting this area apart visually. Other aspects of Wyuka much different from older cemeteries are the lack of fences, plants, and trees around plots and the small number of mausoleums. These designs and added features were discouraged to promote the park-like atmosphere they intended to uphold. Controls were placed on private vaults in 1889. Some of the restrictions included the approval of plans and materials by trustees in pre-designated areas. These strict requirements resulted in the construction of only four older mausoleums in the entire cemetery. More mausoleums have recently been allowed in the newer northern section. The iron fence lining the south and west was installed after it was taken down from the University of Nebraska campus. The fence was originally placed on campus in 1891, but was moved to Wyuka after a major fire damaged the State Museum building in 1912 as a result of limited access allotted to firefighters who could not breach the narrow gateways. After Charles Morrill donated money to construct a new natural history museum, the fence was moved in 1925 and reinstalled around the cemetery.
Several historic buildings remain on the property. The oldest building is the Receiving Vault, which was designed by a Cornell graduate named John H. W. Hawkins in 1886. The vault was used as temporary storage for caskets awaiting burial during winter months when the ground could not be broken. The stable was built between 1908 and 1909 and was used as a horse barn, a pump house, workroom, and a storage facility for wagons. The stable also housed Lincoln’s Flatwater Shakespeare Company who put on performances until the building received a historical preservation grant. Another important building on the grounds is the Rudge Memorial Chapel, which was built between 1935 and 1938 after Charles H. Rudge left $25,000 after his death in 1921 for the construction of a chapel. The architecture of the chapel exhibits English Gothic Revival style with pointed arches, a gable slate roof, leaded stained glass windows, and a tympanum situated over large oak doors.
Some of the most notable people buried at Wyuka Cemetery include:
Hughina Morrison’s marker in Section 2 is the oldest known gravestone in Wyuka with a date of death of October 7, 1869, the same year the cemetery was established.
Gordon MacRae was an actor, singer, and a television and radio show host. In 1945, he hosted the Gordon MacRae show on the CBS network, which focused on showcasing emerging musical talent. His most famous big-screen appearances were the film versions of the musicals Oklahoma! in 1955 and Carousel in 1956.
Clara Urania Mills began working at Wesleyan University in 1912 as the Head of the Theory Department. Mills taught piano, theory, history of music and harmony, and ear training. However, Mills is not famous for her work at Nebraska Wesleyan. She is better known for a haunting tale involving a ghostly apparition seen in 1963 inside the C. C. White Building.
Louise Pound was a writer, folklorist, linguist, and college professor at the University of Nebraska. Pound was the first woman to serve as president of the Modern Language Association. In 1925, she founded the journal American Speech. She was the Nebraska director and later national vice president of the American Association of University Women from the 1930s to 1944. An athlete throughout her life, she was inducted into the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame in 1955. She wrote and published several books and articles throughout her career.
Elder John M. Young
Originally from New York, Young moved to Nebraska City in 1860. In 1863, he moved to an area near Salt Creek and selected a site that would become the village of Lancaster, Nebraska and later the city of Lincoln.
Ruth Cox Adams
Ruth Cox Adams was born into slavery on December 18, 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. Ruth escaped slavery around 1844 and attended a gathering held by Frederick Douglass. As a result of their meeting, Douglass invited Ruth to live with his family in Lynn, Massachusetts. Douglass had lost his sister after being separated from her in slavery and suggested to Ruth that she adopt her name, Harriet Bailey. Adopting a new name was common practice to avert attention that could result in re-enslavement. Ruth assisted Frederick by becoming his correspondent while he was in exile in 1846. Ruth married Perry Francis Adams in the Douglass home in 1847 and moved with him to Springfield, Massachusetts until 1861 when they moved to Haiti. After her husband’s death, Ruth moved with her daughter and her son-in-law to Omaha, Nebraska in 1884. They had a farm near Ewing before moving to Norfolk. The family was living in Lincoln by 1894 where Ruth died in 1900.
Thomas Kennard was Nebraska’s first secretary of state. He is frequently called the “Father of Lincoln” as a result of his role in helping to select the village of Lancaster (later renamed Lincoln) as the capital of Nebraska. The home he built in 1869 still stands on its original site just southeast of the Nebraska State Capitol building and is the oldest remaining home built in the original plat of Lincoln. The home is reported to be haunted by his wife Livia, who died in the home. People report seeing Livia, along with hearing disembodied voices and the sounds of children laughing.
John M. Thayer
John M. Thayer arrived in Nebraska Territory in the 1850s. He assisted in raising the First Nebraska Regiment for the American Civil War. He was promoted to general of the Union Army before the war was over and was involved in conflicts such as the Battle of Shiloh. After the war, Thayer played a major role in admitting Nebraska into the Union in 1867 and became the first U.S. Senator to represent the state.
Hazel Abel was a teacher and politician. She was the first woman elected to the United States Senate from Nebraska and served as a member for fifty-four days in 1954. In addition to being the first woman to serve, she also holds the title of the shortest-serving senator from Nebraska. Hazel Abel Park in Lincoln, Nebraska is named in her honor.
Rhea was executed in 1903, the second person to get the death penalty in Nebraska. His crime was killing a saloonkeeper. He was hanged while his lawyers were trying to get an injunction to stop the execution.
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