Murder in Sarpy County

The first murder case brought before a judge in Nebraska happened right here in what is now Sarpy County. George W. Hollister was shot and killed by Dr. Charles Henry in what is now the western half of Bellevue in early April of 1855. Unfortunately, the records from the court proceedings are playing a rather good game of hide and seek as older records sometimes do.

The local newspaper at the time, the Nebraska Palladium, labeled Dr. Henry as a cold and callous murderer who ‘disgraced’ the Territory when he killed George Hollister. According to the newspaper, Hollister was one of four men hired to survey land for the “Bellevue Association,” which was run by Peter Sarpy. The group was on the property of Dr. Charles Butterfield when they stopped to rest along the Papio Creek. Dr. Butterfield, armed with a club or stick, and Dr. Henry, armed with a shotgun, soon approached. Heated words were exchanged between the two groups of men, including threats. As Hollister picked up an ax and moved towards Dr. Butterfield, Dr. Henry warned him to stop. Hollister did not stop and Dr. Henry fired. The remaining members of the Bellevue Association seized Dr. Henry and locked him up in the Blacksmith’s shop until Judge Ferguson could be contacted. The Palladium’s editor felt the shooting was unjustified as Hollister was still 6 feet away from Dr. Butterfield.

Judge Ferguson moved Dr. Henry to Omaha where he could be better kept under lock and key until a trial could be convened. While Dr. Henry awaited his trial, public opinion started to turn in his favor. The conditions he was kept in, including being chained to the floor, were publicly abashed. His personal nature, which the Palladium so vehemently attacked, was cleared as he spent his days caring for a group of soldiers on a steamboat stricken with fever. Ferguson was not so easily convinced. In an unusual and questionable move, called for a second grand jury after the first found Dr. Henry not guilty of murder on the grounds of self defense. The second jury once again cleared Dr. Henry of murder. The judge received a public verbal thrashing by the lawyers of Dr. Henry for his outlandish behavior, this resulted in the long awaited release of the doctor.

After the trial ended, Dr. Henry and Dr. Butterfield went on to serve as surgeons in the Civil War. The reputations for both of these men seems to have recovered rather well. Judge Fenner Ferguson went on to serve in the House of Representatives before passing away just a few years later in 1859.

Reference List:

The Nebraska Palladium, City of Bellevieu, April 11, 1855, Vol. 1 Issue #37

Jim McKee, “Charles Henry: Doctor, Spy, Druggist, Town Builder Maybe Killer,” Lincoln Journal Star, January 29, 2014, p. D4.

Arthur Wakeley, ed., Omaha: The Gate City and Douglas County, Nebraska: Volume I, (Chicago: SJ Clarke Publishing Company, 1917), p. 332-333.