September 26th, 2017
written by Devin Greaney
One day out of the year voices of Memphis past get a chance to tell their stories through actors at the annual Elmwood Cemetery costume tour. Just over 1,000 came on this warm, clear autumn afternoon to the land where more than 75,000 lay bellow (and occasionally above ) the Elmwood grounds. On this clear warm fall afternoon, we got to hear just few of them tell their stories.
"So where are you buried?" I remembered asking Annie Cook on my first tour in 2012, or more accurately, actress Emily Bell. I quickly realized how bizarre those words sounded. It’s certainly an unorthodox ice breaker question but here and on this day I hear it several times. But how often does one get to talk to such a local heroine, much less one that's been dead for over a century?
Today our first visit was a charming blonde in a blue Victorian dress, Mary Markham Berry, the first person laid below in the bucolic grounds after her death in 1853. She was played by Erin Blythe, with a personable nature and Suthin’ aristocratic voice. This is a Virginian native who moved to Memphis pre Civil War, of course she's not going to sound like a NPR host from Los Angeles. In her day Elmwood was out in the country.
The sun would light our way for about another hour as we said our farewells to Mrs Berry. Tombstones shadows grew longer. Walking into the sun we reach the shade where could finally see Dr. George Boddie Peters standing and waiting for our group.
The Bolivar physician was arrested after shooting Confederate General Earl Van Dorn dead as he had more than suspicion the General was seeing Mrs Peters more than just socially. Donald Harrison, the actor playing him said, much to the doctor’s surprise, he went free as Tennessee was under Union occupation so the killing of a Confederate General was not a priority for the Yankee judge.Not everyone there were actors. Docents show a powerful sculpture made for a young Memphian killed in 2009, an angel is comforting him and carrying him up to heaven. There was the grave of President Buchanan's secretary of Interior who after a career in public service went to robbing banks for the Confederacy. Robert Church, an African American millionaire who invested in Memphis helped get us back to business after the yellow fever outbreaks of the 1870's decimated the city rests there. And there was a Memphis connection to the song
"Stagger Lee." Spoiler alert- it was probably named for a boat rather than the local tough guy mentioned in the song. The sun gets lower, the shadows get longer as Geneva Williams, first wife of notorious outlaw "Machine Gun Kelley" tells the story of the man she married who liked easy money over hard work. Cathi Johnson dressed the part of a fashion-conscious woman of the 1930's. Ms Williams lived till the age of 96, being born two years before the first airplane flight and dying the year of the DVD.
We approached attorney Finis Bates dramatically portrayed by Vincent Astor. In 1877 he met a Shakespeare-quoting merchant in Texas named John St. Helen who told Bates that he was using an alias being on the lamb as Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. The wrong man was killed in the Virginia barn, he told the lawyer. Years later, in 1903, the mysterious man killed himself and the remains were released to the attorney. Bates kept the mummified body in his garage at 1234 Harbert for years and even wrote a book on the man and the stories he told about his escape. Another piece of trivia: Bates is the grandfather of actress Kathy Bates. Seems Memphis always had those strange connections.
The sun filtering through the trees and brought a glow behind Susan Spikes (Pam Rumage) who went down in America's deadliest maritime disaster, The Sultana, which exploded near Memphis. It killed more than the Titanic, but the Sultana exploded the same month as Lee's surrender at Appomattox, President Lincoln's assassination and the killing of his assassin so its story has been largely forgotten. The sun was only gracing the taller monuments as we left Mrs Spikes' company.
About 6:15 we meet Methodist minister-turned spiritualist- turned back to Methodist minister Samuel Watson. The sun was setting behind us as actor Edward Frick described his book "The Religion of Spiritualism: Its Phenomena and Philosophy"and his attempts to contact the dead which was a little too much for his fellow Methodists so he left the pulpit. He eventually returned, moving away from the spiritualist side, though his black top-hat and outfit made him look like he could start talking with one of Elmwood's residents at any time. Come to think of it, wasn't that what we were doing?
Ginny Moon was illuminated by the torches, the luminaries along the walk and the last glows of sunlight. She, played by Cookie Swain, was a headstrong Southern spy in what she and Confederate-Clad husband Mike Swain called The War of Northern Aggression. Moon survived the war and later moved and took a new job- in her 80's- as an actress in the new artform called "cinema."
The night was overtaking us, tapping into any latent superstitions of graveyards after dark. But Charles Parsons (Dan Conaway) was a good guy. If you had to run into a ghost, he would be one you would pick. When the Civil War ended the Episcopal Priest came to Memphis. He stayed and helped during the yellow fever outbreaks, giving his life for others in 1878. That year alone in Shelby County the disease killed more than all of the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina combined. In 1981 the Episcopal Church added a lesser feast day (September 9) to their calendar set aside every year to honor him and others for Martyrs of Memphis Day.
Despite the Halloween connection, there was no creepy music, no weird lights and nobody jumped out to scare us. Is was a respectful look at local history and leaving after the tour while crossing the bridge from the graveyard back into the land of the living, one felt a little more knowledgeable about their hometown. The saints, sinners, rich, poor, slave, free, old and young did their parts to make the city what it is and since 2006 one afternoon a year a few are brought to life and we feel we get to know them as people rather than names and gravestones.
"Come back and visit," a few of those residents said to us. "We'll be here."
Gates open at 3:30 pm –rain or shine- and the last admittance is at 5. Groups leave every 10 minutes.
View Devin's photos from the 2016 Twilight Costume Tour at https://devingreaney.smugmug.com/Elmwood/.
December 27th, 2016
By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian
Many who have visited or toured Elmwood will recognize the Snowden angel. This bronze angel stands and grieves over a stone sarcophagus on the Snowden family lot in the Miller section. Few know that the angel was created by American sculptor William Couper. Couper’s father founded Couper Marble Works in Norfolk, VA a few years before William was born in 1853. Growing up Couper watched the artisans carve and create sculptures for monuments and buildings which inspired him to train to do the same. He began his professional training when he was 19 at the Cooper Art Institute in New York City. At 21 he went to Munich to attend both the Academy of Fine Arts and the Royal College of Surgery. The following year, in 1872, he moved to Florence where he met prominent Boston sculptor Thomas Ball. He trained under and later worked with Ball at the Couper-Ball studio specializing in portraiture, busts and bas-reliefs. Couper eventually married Thomas Ball’s daughter, Eliza Chickering Ball, in 1878. He exhibited his pieces in London and Paris, and shipped many statues to the United States where they were exclusively sold though Tiffany & Company in New York. In 1897 Couper and his family returned to the United States, built a home in Montclair, New Jersey, and Couper opened a studio in New York City with his father-in-law. Most of Couper’s known sculptures done in the U.S. are large bronze monuments in public places including a statue of Captain John Smith at Jamestown, a statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Washington D.C. and a series of monuments for the National Military Park in Vicksburg, MS.
Couper was privately commissioned to sculpt several angels and even designed an angel to memorialize his mother which stands in Elmwood Cemetery in Norfolk, VA. Couper was fascinated by angels. He was inspired by the cemetery monuments he had seen created at his father’s marble works and later saw in Italian churches. In creating his own angels, he did not copy examples he had seen. He believed angels should exhibit both male and female characteristics and achieved an androgynous look in angels he sculpted, with both strong and soft features. Couper retired from sculpting in 1913, by which time he had sculpted more than 150 works. The Snowden memorial angel was the last winged figure that Couper sculpted.
Couper, Greta Elana. William Couper: The Man Who Captured Angels.
September 29th, 2016
By volunteer Allison Bailey
If you had a dream, what would it be? To visit a monument, or to be famous? To settle down, or to live life as an adventure? What would you be willing to do to make your dream come true?
In 1927, a 21 year old woman named Evelyn Estes mounted her horse in Memphis to fulfill her dream of travelling to the Pacific Ocean. With only her horse and dog to accompany her, she waved good bye to the Memphis residents who christened her as “Calamity Jane’s little sister.” She then crossed into Arkansas and headed north. She kept a journal and recorded everything she saw. She had a great love of nature, as she wrote of everything from prairie dogs to the wide fields of sunflowers.
Estes’ mother was encouraging of her journey, giving her money to buy her horse and wiring money to her planned stops along the way. She knew her daughter’s personality and love of everything would win the hearts of strangers, and her belief would later be proven true.
In Arkansas, she was taken to meet the Governor, who was later surprised to find out she had never heard of traveler’s checks. He sent his secretary to get her some, and before she left a stranger washed her soiled clothes and sent her on her way with some soap.
She was at the mercy of total strangers, and was happy to learn their life stories. In Kansas, one real pioneer had been a resident of the state since 1850, her mother and brother killed by Indians. In another home, Estes was made to deliver a baby while the husband was out looking for help. As gratitude, the healthy baby boy was given “Estes” as a middle name.
Estes was lucky enough to locate and recognize previous trails west taken by the 49ers, the Pony Express and the Oregon Trail. She even found an abandoned wagon and camped out in it. Looking up on one of her three camp-outs, she was amazed to see the aurora borealis.
While on the trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota, she was taken to the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, who was there on vacation. She wrote of him in her journal, stating that he hadn’t looked much different than the other residents around the area. Travelling into surrounding South Dakota towns, she discovered that the residents weren’t very fond of Calamity Jane. Seeing this, she dropped her Memphis nickname and continued her journey.
She rode on into Wyoming and saw a rare sight of her day- a mail plane carrying two prominent passengers, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. She met them both and recorded the excitement of seeing an airplane and the meeting of the celebrities in her journal.
She dropped south into New Mexico and discovered reservations of friendly Indians ready to show her their rich culture. She shared later that this was her favorite state.
During her stay with strangers, she was just as much a hospitable guest as her entertainers were hosts. She listened to their stories and helped with whatever chores needed to be done. She was not afraid to knock on doors and the residents were always more than welcoming.
In the Grand Canyon of Arizona, things took a turn for the worse. A car had slid on an icy road into Estes and her horse, causing them both injuries. Because of the horse’s condition and her broken ribs, she was forced to board a train headed for Stockton, California.
After her recovery she bought a skittish horse who had given her an uneasy ride into San Francisco. She traded horses and continued south to Los Angeles. After a brief wrong turn she got lost in the forest underneath the Hollywood sign, but was luckily rescued by a park ranger.
At last, she saw her 22nd birthday and the Pacific Ocean in February 1928. The California newspaper had calculated the miles of her journey to 3,818 with 103 days of actual riding time. This was most impressive especially since there were no highways, only two-lane dirt roads with few to no markers.
She had made it a point to not carry too much with her, and the residents who had taken care of her gave her all she needed and more. They in turn wrote to their friends of her, and she was never turned down by a stranger.
After her celebrated journey, she went on to become a nurse’s aide in WWII, and worked in a Seattle factory making B29s. She had other occupations such as working with children and at a psychiatric unit in a hospital. She lived to be 103 and died in 1999. She is buried in Elmwood, and has stated that “I have been places and seen things, but nothing to compare with Memphis.”
Magness, Perre. "Perils of Evelyn Thrilled the 1920s." Commercial Appeal [Memphis] n.d.: n. pag. Print.
Magness, Perre. "Generosity Greets 1927 Adventure." Commercial Appeal [Memphis] n.d.: n. pag. Print.
June 1st, 2016
By volunteer Allison Bailey
20 November, 1922. “The funeral of William Eastman Spandow, who was killed by the explosion in Havemeyer Hall Friday, will be held in the Chapel at 11 o'clock this morning.” This was the introduction of the obituary given by the Columbia Spectator on the unusual death of the 24 year old chemist. According to the newspaper, Columbia University was providing advanced programs in chemistry, physics, and engineering- but no safety standards had been set. The newspaper describes common injuries such as “many eyes, fingers, and hands have been lost in such laboratories because the educational institutions… have not yet become as thoroughly convinced… that it is possible to prevent almost every type of industrial accident by the installation of proper mechanical guards, by the revision of manufacturing processes and by safety education of the workers.” If accidents like these were common, why would safety standards be so low?
William Eastman Spandow had been educated in Paris until 1914, when he returned to America to attend college at the University of Denver. He possessed “unusual attainments” and had both a B.A. and an M.A. in physics and chemistry, being also a graduate at Memphis. It is apparent that he loved experimenting and discovering ways in which chemicals work. Unfortunately, his love of learning would be cut short. On November 17, 1922 he was in the lab busy experimenting in the manufacturing of diphenylamine- a colorless element used for the preparation of dyes and the detection of oxidizing agents in analytical chemistry. Apparently the chemists were unaware that the chemical posed any danger. The concoction had produced a great pressure and shattered the heavy steel autoclave it was placed in. The shattered steel was forcefully hurled in all directions, wounding other chemists and killing Spandow instantly, who was standing directly in front of the pressure guage. He was badly burned and cut with debris, but a large piece of metal had crushed his head, killing him instantly. The explosion was powerful enough to shatter the windows.
Spandow’s surviving co-experimenter later summarized that the accident occurred because Spandow had failed to turn off the gas heater if the pressure became too high. He recalled that other students performed the same experiment and had been successful. Before he left the premises, their professor read the gage at 112 and warned them about the heat and pressure. Just before the accident, the pressure rose to 250 lbs. per square inch, and it was concluded that the not yet extinguished gas had spread into the container and caused the explosion.
Spandow is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in the Miller section. His inscription reads “Killed in chemical laboratory of Columbia University by an explosion due to the carelessness of others.” It seems that whoever wrote the inscription also took issue with the college’s poor safety standards.
"Chemical & Metallurgical Engineering." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2016.
"Columbia Daily Spectator 20 November 1922 — Columbia Spectator." Columbia Daily Spectator 20 November 1922 — Columbia Spectator. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2016.
"William Eastman Spandow (1897 - 1922) - Find A Grave Memorial." William Eastman Spandow (1897 - 1922) - Find A Grave Memorial. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2016.
March 29th, 2016
By volunteer Allison Bailey
General Earl Van Dorn has been engaged in military life since his graduation from West Point in 1842. He fought in the Mexican War where he earned two brevets, and was wounded in a battle engaging the Indians in 1858 which spread his reputation as a national hero (findagrave.com). With the outbreak of the Civil War he became a colonel in the Confederate Army where he earned a somewhat different reputation than before, leaving some soldiers to speculate that his position came from political influence rather than his military ability. After losing the battle of Pea Ridge and later Corinth, he was requested to appear in court to explain his actions. His last skirmish was at Franklin, Tennessee before returning to his headquarters in Spring Hill.
Jessie Helen McKissick Peters was born in Spring Hill in 1838 and was the wife of Dr. George Bodie Peters, a physician. Peters was away frequently to serve on the Tennessee state legislator (http://burnpit.legion.org/). In 1863 Peters was once again absent, and Van Dorn being in the area did not hide his feelings toward Peters’ wife. Van Dorn was also married with children and it was well known that his physical features attracted the attention of women wherever he went- he was even known as the “terror of ugly husbands.”
Mrs. Peters was 25 at the time and Van Dorn made no attempts to keep their affair a secret. He frequently invited her to his headquarters and her visits attracted local attention. The rumors had finally reached the ears of the doctor, and he pretended to go on another trip in an attempt to catch Van Dorn and his wife. He entered his room at 2:30 am to find that the rumors were true, and the furious doctor demanded the general sign papers exonerating his wife.
Tensions had not simmered down by the next day, May 7, 1863. The doctor called Van Dorn to the home of Martin Cheairs to settle the matter, but things got out of hand rather quickly. The conversation was raised to a heated argument, until finally Peters pulled out his gun and shot the general in the head. Some accounts say he was killed instantly, others report he was in a comatose state for 4½ hours before his decease. Peters was tried in court but later acquitted. Van Dorn’s widow never remarried.
After a brief divorce and remarriage, Dr. Peters and Jessie moved to Memphis where he was well established in his business until his death in 1889. Mrs. Peters remained in the area until her own death in 1921. Dr. & Mrs. Peters are buried in Elmwood in the Miller Circle section.
"Gen Earl Van Dorn (1820 - 1863) - Find A Grave Memorial." Gen Earl Van Dorn (1820 - 1863) - Find A Grave Memorial. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.
Siggurdsson. "Confederate General Earl Van Dorn Murdered by Cuckolded Husband." The American Legion's Burnpit. N.p., 7 May 2013. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.
Magness, Perre. "General Lived Wildly until the Last." Commercial Appeal [Memphis] 1996: n. pag. Print.
"Earl Van Dorn." Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.