In the center of Omaha’s Prospect Hill Cemetery is a round plot of ground, like a sun whose dirt path beams stretch out through the rest of the uneven ground. I parked my car there and, phone in hand, headed off in the direction of the only other person in the cemetery: a silver-haired man walking his German shepherd. I prefer conversation to reading maps.
“Are we in North Omaha?” I questioned after some small talk.
“Yes, but you’re safe here. Plus, crime usually stays out of cemeteries.”
“It’s sacred ground,” I responded, feeling more assured. “Do you know where Anna Wilson’s grave is? Do you know who that is?”
“Oh, yeah,” replied the man, who turned out to be a retired judge walking Elsa the dog. “She was the girlfriend of that gambler. I’m not sure where the grave is though. Maybe in that direction?”
I thanked him and headed off in the suggested direction, looking for a grave the size of a king bed. That was all the information I had, other than an awareness of its being adorned with a yellow rose once a year.
It didn’t take much wandering before I found the gravesite: it’s big.
Cemeteries are intriguing places. They can simultaneously be haunting and peaceful, scary and serene. The stones marking each gravesite reflect the lives of the people buried beneath. Some are simple and chaste in design while others are magnificent and grand. The grave of famed Omaha madam, Anna Wilson, fits in a category of its own: it’s unlike any gravestone I’ve ever seen. Anna Wilson put some thought into where she’d be buried. Her partner Dan Allen preceded her in death by more than 20 years, leaving her to design the gravesite.
Anna Wilson, “Queen of the Underworld,” is remembered for two disparate reasons. She was Omaha’s first madam and also one of its generous benefactors. She “arrived [in Omaha] after the Civil War and was running a Douglas Street brothel by the 1870s” (Roenfeld 11). Her companion was a well-known gambler named Dan Allen. They were both “known for helping the needy. Even so, they lived extravagantly” (Bristow 211). Even after closing her brothel in the 1890s, Wilson’s wealth increased through real estate investments.
When Allen died in 1884, Wilson ensured her long-time partner received a distinguished burial site: “a distinctive monument with four pillars and an urn on top” (Sutherlin et. al 34). According to Bristow, “she visited the cemetery almost daily, and spent a fortune on fresh flowers for the grave” (211). Wilson didn’t just have her companion in mind when she designed the gravesite. She made arrangements to be buried under 9 feet of concrete: “Wilson supposedly did this to ensure that the society women wouldn’t dig her up and move her to another cemetery” (Sasse).
The giant marble slab caught my attention before the pillars. I’ve seen tall headstones and ornate, but never one bigger than my own bed. The giant marble “bed” and monument are surrounded by a plot of grass, which is fenced in by a small stone frame. It even has two small steps as an entryway. While Anna’s name joins Dan’s on the flat marble, only Dan’s surname can be found on the tall marker.
After Wilson’s death, flowers continued to decorate the gravesite. In 1912 Mrs. Thomas Kimball began the tradition of placing a flower on the gravestone; it’s a tradition that continues to this day. Each year during the Memorial Day celebrations at Prospect Hill, Wilson is honored with a special tribute, which includes a yellow rose being laid on the grave. It’s one small way to honor the woman whose generous philanthropy helped multiple organizations, one of which was Prospect Hill Cemetery.
“It is probably no accident that of all Omaha’s underworld women, the one remembered is the one whose wealth and glamour lived up to the mythology surrounding the trade” (Bristow 209). Today, the simple rose that adorns the extravagant gravesite seems fitting; for the symbolism of the flower’s placement is what matches the magnitude of the “Queen of the Underworld.” Anything more grand would fall short of this magnanimous woman.