Elmwood's Elvis Connections

August 14th, 2014

Most people know that Elvis is not buried here at Elmwood Cemetery. He was originally interred at Forest Hill Cemetery and was later moved to Graceland. Elmwood however does have some ties to Elvis and Graceland. Most people don’t know that the woman for whom Graceland is named, Grace Toof, is buried here at Elmwood. She was the daughter of S. C. Toof, who owned the local printing firm, S. C. Toof & Co, which is still operating today as Toof Commercial Printing. He owned the land that the Graceland mansion now sits on. Under his ownership it was just a farm. His daughter Grace inherited the land when he passed away in 1894. When she died the land went to her sister, Ruth Toof Brown, and then to her daughter, Ruth Brown Moore. Moore and her husband built a colonial mansion in 1939. It was her niece, Ruth Brown Moore that decided to name the house and grounds “Graceland” in memory of her beloved aunt.

Elvis’ cook, Mary Jenkins Langston, is also interred here. Mary is the one pictured in this post. She started as a maid for the for the Presley family in 1963 and several years later Priscilla promoted her to cook. She cooked for him for 14 years and stayed on with the Presley family for 12 years after he died. She mastered cooking his famed favorite snack, fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The secret to getting them just right was apparently butter, as with many foods Elvis enjoyed. Langston said she used about a 2/3 cup of butter per sandwich. She was so appreciated by the Presley family that Elvis bought her a house. He even bought her 3 Cadillacs in her time working for him.

Visit Elmwood Cemetery during Elvis Week and we’ll be glad to show you Elmwood’s “Elvis connections”.


Jasper's Lion

June 26th, 2014

A few months ago, Jasper Smith was featured on this blog. His and his sisters’ monuments are the first ones most people notice when entering the cemetery. In the blog post from February, you can see that both Jasper and his lion are quite dirty. They are covered with dirt, pollution and some orange lichens. The soft white marble is very porous so it tends to wick up air pollutants which become more difficult to clean over time. Biological growth, like lichens, fungi and bacteria, tend to be acidic and can actually etch into the stone over time, obscuring details or inscriptions.

Knowing that Jasper’s lion was probably a gleaming white statue when it was first installed, I have wanted to clean it for a long time. This past Saturday I invited this spring’s Stone College graduates to clean some monuments. We cleaned Jasper’s lion and several others nearby. I was impressed to see how clean it got even after just a few applications of the cleaning solution and scrubbing. It took some extra time to get into the tighter spaces like the lion’s mouth and the nooks and crannies within his mane. The D/2 solution soaks into the porous stone and continues to work after scrubbing so a volunteer sprayed the statue down once more before leaving Saturday and it really did continue to work. The recent rain washed some more of the grime away and the lion looked wonderful this morning.

It is so satisfying to see the difference a few hours of cleaning can do for a monument, but it is rewarding to know that our efforts have helped to preserve the lion which is in place to preserve the memory of Jasper Smith.

If you are interested in participating in projects like this one, you should sign up for Stone College in November. After the class, you will be invited back to help when we plan cleaning and restoration projects. We can also do a private class for 10-15 adults. Thank you to volunteers Erin Hillis, Pam Rummage, Lisbeth Redden, and Joshua Cooper for your help cleaning monuments!                                                                                                         




Elmwood's New Historian, Kelly Sowell

May 13th, 2014

I recently started working at Elmwood Cemetery as the new Historian. Before I moved back to Memphis, I volunteered and interned with an organization in New Orleans, Save Our Cemeteries, which aims to preserve the city’s cemeteries and teach the public about them. When I started the Master of Preservation Studies program at Tulane, we each had to document a tomb for the Historic American Building Survey. I really enjoyed researching the man whose tomb I drew. He was actually a sculptor and tomb builder so I started looking more closely at the cemeteries around town for tombs he had built. That’s what originally got me so interested in cemeteries.

For my practicum at Tulane University, I surveyed and mapped a lesser known cemetery that no longer had plot maps, photographed each tomb and its inscriptions, and wrote brief condition reports for each of the 591 tombs. Elmwood is very fortunate to have the original plot maps and records of interments, especially after over 160 years. It is very rare for a cemetery so old to have all these records.

The digital database we use daily, which was created from the original books, is invaluable. Someone can walk in asking where a family member is interred within the cemetery, and we are able to look that person up and point out on the map where to find them within just a couple of minutes. It amazes me how easy it is compared to hunting for someone out in the cemetery.

I was born and raised in Memphis but didn’t truly appreciate the city’s history and charm until I moved away to college to study historic preservation. There is so much to learn about Memphis history through Elmwood’s many residents. It really is an outdoor museum for history and art, and I just want to repair and clean everything! There are so many types of jobs I could have ended up doing with my degrees, but I’m happy to have ended up back in Memphis working at Elmwood Cemetery.


Finis Langdon Bates

April 16th, 2014

by Richard Alley, 2014 Volunteer Writer-in-Residence

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, in the Ford’s Theatre by the actor John Wilkes Booth. Booth escaped that night and would make his way through the federal troops that ringed the city as the manhunt increased. He eventually found his way across the Potomac River to Port Royal, Virginia, and the farm of Richard Garrett. The barn where he hid was set ablaze but not before Sergeant Boston Corbett was able to get a shot off, mortally wounding the murderer.

Booth’s corpse made its way from Virginia to the ironclad USS Montauk and on to the Washington Navy Yard where it was said to be identified by more than 10 associates before an autopsy.

Abraham Lincoln is not buried in Elmwood Cemetery. His remains are in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Ill. Booth, likewise, is not in Elmwood. The assassin’s body would first be buried beneath a cell in the Navy Yard before being exhumed later and finally finding its resting place in the family plot at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore.

But Finis Langdon Bates is buried in Elmwood. Bates is the man who claims that most of what happened after Booth entered Virginia is not only speculative, but untrue. Bates claimed – in a 310-page book, mind you – to have met Booth, now John St. Helen, in Texas in 1872. And more than that, he claimed, after a period of time, to have had St. Helen’s (Booth’s) mummified corpse at his home at 1234 Harbert in Midtown Memphis.

The two men became acquainted while Bates was just beginning his career as an attorney. “ … I was entering the threshold of manhood, a lawyer yet in my teens, in the active practice of my profession, having settled at Grandberry, the county site of Hood, in the State of Texas, near the foothills of the Bosque mountains,” Bates wrote in his 1907 book, “The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth.”

In the working of a case, Bates requested that St. Helens to go to federal court to testify on behalf of his client. St. Helen adamantly declined and refused to give a sufficient reason until he’d retained Bates as his own lawyer. Once that was accomplished, he said, simply, yet with a flourish of the theatrical as Bates points out: “I say to you, as my attorney, that my true name is not John St. Helen, as you know me and suppose me to be, and for this reason I cannot afford to go to Tyler before the Federal Court, in fear that my true identity be discovered, as the Federal courts are more or less presided over in the South and officered by persons heretofore, as well as now, connected with the Federal Army and government, and the risk would be too great for me to take …”

The two became friends, yet it wasn’t until five years later, as St. Helen, sick and thought to be dying, called Bates to his bedside, saying, “I am dying. My name is John Wilkes Booth, and I am the assassin of President Lincoln. Get the picture of myself from under the pillow. I leave it with you for my future identification.”

St. Helen recovered and lived, and Bates kept his confidence, not hearing the entire story for some time later when the two men took a long walk on the Texas prairie. It was there that St. Helen told the story of his life as Booth, born on a farm in Maryland outside Baltimore, of his father, Junius Brutus Booth Sr., and about the family business of acting, as well as a vivid account of the conspiracy, which involved Vice President Andrew Johnson as co-conspirator, to kidnap, and then murder, the president. “I entered the President’s box, closed the door behind me and instantly placed my pistol so near it almost touched his head and fired the shot which killed President Lincoln and made Andrew Johnson President of the United States and myself an outcast, a wanderer, and gave me the name of an assassin.”

Bates did not immediately believe St. Helen’s story. Bates told him, in fact, that he believed he may have known Booth and the secrets of the crime and escape, “… and it is possible that from your brooding over this subject your mind has become shaken and you imagine yourself Booth.”

Bates and St. Helen eventually went their separate ways, the latter to Leadville, Colo., to try his hand at mining, and the former to Memphis around 1878.

In December of 1898, a Sunday edition of the Boston Globe newspaper dated the 12th of that month appeared in the reception hall of Bates’s home in Midtown. “How this paper came to be in my home is unknown to me. I did not take it by subscription, nor have I or any member of my family ever, before or since, purchased a copy of the Boston Globe …”

In that newspaper was the first published statement of General D. D. Dana giving a detailed statement of his pursuit of John Wilkes Booth following the assassination. “To my surprise the story of Gen. Dana corroborated in its minutest detail the story St. Helen told me in his confession recounting Booth’s escape from Washington, D.C., to the Garret home, in Virginia,” Bates wrote.

Bates contacted Dana and sent him the picture that St. Helen had given him on his death bed. Dana was convinced that St. Helen was Booth, setting Bates off on an inexhaustible jag of research, the minutia of which is recounted in his book. He is without a shred of doubt once he is contacted by Judge Advocate General John P. Simonton of the War Department (as a citizen and not an official representative) that he is not convinced of Booth’s death years before. It is revealed on several occasions that inadequate, if any, identification of Booth’s body was had after his death.

Bates made it his single-minded mission to find St. Helen, tracking him to Fresno, Calif., where he’d only passed through town. He also sought to investigate and learn the identity of the men who aided Booth’s escape.

So convinced was he that Booth lived, Bates sent a letter to the War Department from his office Downtown at 297 Second St. on January 17, 1898, stating as much and inquiring whether it “Would be a matter of any importance …” to the Department.

The response: “ … the matter is of no importance to the War Department.”

He wrote then to Secretary of State John Hay with no interest found there either.

While tracing St. Helen from Fresno, Bates read a story from Col. Edward Levan of Monterey, Mexico, who claimed to have roomed with a man he believed to be Booth in Lexington, Kent., during the winter of 1868. The man went by the name of J. J. Marr and soon left Lexington, settling in Village Mills, Texas, before going on to Glenrose Mills where Bates first met St. Helen.

There are many other recorded sightings, from San Francisco to Mississippi to Texas, long after Booth was thought to be dead. Col. M. W. Connolly, “a distinguished newspaper man,” believed that David E. George, who died in Enid, Oklahoma, was Booth. George was known to have deposited money in banks, taken work as a house painter and lived in hotels.

In April 1902, a Mrs. Harper in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma received another deathbed confession from George (Booth) similar to the one Bates had received in 1877. And just like that first time, he recovered.

George would commit suicide in Enid, Okla., on January 13, 1903, by taking poison. It was learned that he was worth about $30,000, owning property in El Reno, Okla.; Dallas, Texas; and a lease on 600 acres in the Indian Territory.

The local newspaper, the Enid Wave, would conduct a thorough investigation and conclude that the corpse in the morgue might very well be that of Booth. Many other publications would follow suit.

Bates was summoned from Memphis to identify the body and he immediately took the Frisco Railroad Line to Enid. It was estimated that more than 50,000 men, women and children had viewed the body believed to be that of Booth.

There were physical descriptions of George (St. Helen, Marr, et al) that closely resembled those of Booth such as a deformed right thumb where it met the hand, crushed in the cogs of machinery used to hoist a stage curtain; and the permanently arched eyebrow where it had been sewn up after a too-enthusiastic, dramatic saber battle. The broken leg Booth suffered when he jumped from the balcony of the Ford’s Theatre could be seen in the damaged bones of the corpse as well. The original picture Bates had been given was trotted around to Booth’s family and acquaintances as well without a single denial that St. Helen’s visage was the likeness of Booth.

Bates claimed that body, preserved by the embalmer, in Enid and returned it to his home in Memphis where it resided in his Midtown garage and later became the stuff of carnival sideshows. Over the following years it made the rounds with a stop at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and would later be subjected to examination by doctors in Chicago who found the leg break, thumb and a neck scar consistent with those injuries reported of Booth. Bates tried unsuccessfully to interest automaker Henry Ford in purchasing the mummy for $1,000.

It traveled over the years with various carnivals and showmen, “surviving” train wrecks and even kidnapping. It was stored in a Philadelphia basement and went missing for a time.

The mummy was last seen in the 1970s, its whereabouts currently unknown.

Bates was born in Mississippi and married Bertha Lee “Bertie” Money in 1869. The couple had two daughters, Emma and Olga, and a son, Bertram. Bertie died and, in 1890, Bates married Madge Young Doyle. The couple had a son, Langdon, who married Bertye Talbert, and they had a daughter, the actress Kathy Bates.

Finis Langdon Bates died at the age of 75 on Nov. 29, 1923, due to “cardio renal” failure according to his death certificate. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.


Love and Death at the River's Edge: the Story of Alice Mitchell and Frederica Ward

April 4th, 2014

by Richard Alley, 2014 Volunteer Writer-in-Residence 

On the banks of Memphis on January 26, 1892, where cobblestones from an Illinois quarry had been laid not long before to facilitate commerce flowing into the city via the Mississippi River, visitors disembarking a river boat might have expected to see throngs of people coming and going. There would have been men groaning beneath the weight of cotton bales being loaded on and off barges while others, dressed in all their finery, waited to board vessels of the Lee Line, bound for Vicksburg or New Orleans. On a bluff above the activity, construction of the Cossitt Library being built of red sandstone and taking on the shape of a modern-day castle, would have impressed and awed the new arrivals.

What they wouldn’t have expected, what no one could have imagined there on a day filled with the excitement of travel and the thrum of the masses, would have been the murderous scene played out before their eyes. It was on that day at 4 p.m., on the railroad tracks at the bottom of the Customs House Bluff overlooking the cobblestones, that 19-year-old Alice Jessie Mitchell cut the throat of 17-year-old Frederica Ward.

These young women weren’t strangers to each other, they’d been schoolmates at the Higbee School for Girls at Beale and Lauderdale. But they were more than friends. In a time when such things were kept behind closed doors, whispered about in hushed voices, if at all, Alice and Freda, as she was known, were lovers.

The two had elaborate plans to run away together to St. Louis where they would live as husband and wife with Alice dressing the part and taking the name “Alvin J. Ward.” They’d discussed it, they’d dreamed of it all along, and an engagement ring had been exchanged. But Freda’s family had moved upriver to Gold Dust, Tenn., and when her sister, Ada Ward Volkmer, became aware of the affair, she wrote a letter to Alice ending it.

Freda came to Memphis the next winter with another sister, Josephine, to visit a family friend, Mrs. Kimbrough. During their stay, Alice had developed a habit of driving her buggy back and forth in front of the house on Hernando Street to catch a glimpse of her former love. On the day Freda was to leave Memphis, Alice followed her and her sister from Kimbrough’s house to the top of the bluff where they began the descent to the river on foot. Alice came up behind Freda, reached around her body and slashed at her throat with a straight razor. Leaving Freda bleeding on the train tracks where bystanders gathered her up to rush her to a doctor, Alice made her way back to the top of the bluff and home to 215 Union Street, where she told her mother what she’d done.

The newspapers of the day – the Public Ledger, Evening Scimitar, Memphis Appeal Avalanche and Memphis Commercial – played to the sensationalism of the circumstances of the crime. It is said to be the first time the word “lesbian” appeared in news print. The sensationalism spilled over into the courtroom of Julius DuBose, a colorful judge with a flair for show. When the trial began in July, he’d had the courtroom enlarged to accommodate the crowds.

Alice’s attorneys, General Luke Wright and Colonel George Gantt, entered a plea of insanity. Love letters between the two young women were read aloud and Alice’s friend, Lillie Johnson, who had been present at the murder, testified that they’d had plans to elope. As evidence, the engagement ring was produced; an inscription read “From A. to F.” While on the stand, Alice admitted, “I wanted to cut her because I knew I could not have her, and I did not want anyone else to have her.”

After a six-day trial, it took the jury just 20 minutes to declare the defendant insane. She was sentenced to the Tennessee State Insane Asylum in Bolivar, Tenn.

Alice died on March 31, 1898, at the age of 25. The official cause was “consumption” or tuberculosis, while her death certificate states only “non-contagious.” Another story says that Alice drowned herself in the water tank atop the asylum. She is buried in the family plot at Elmwood Cemetery.

Freda is across the cemetery in an unmarked grave, a lone sapling marking the area where she is interred.