Earl Van Dorn, the "Terror of Ugly Husbands"

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 ( 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 ( 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. 


John Christmas McLemore

December 11th, 2015

By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian 

The City of Memphis is largely credited with being founded by John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson, but many are unaware of a fourth proprietor who also shared a name with a major holiday.

John Christmas McLemore is considered to be the fourth founding father of Memphis. McLemore was not named after the holiday; though uncommon, it was his mother’s maiden name. McLemore was born in Orange County, North Carolina on January 1st, 1790. When he was 16 he moved to Nashville to train as a land surveyor with his uncle, William Christmas, who was the Surveyor General of the military district. He apprenticed for 5 years until his uncle died. Upon his uncle’s death, McLemore was appointed Surveyor General. 

McLemore’s wife, Elizabeth Donelson, was a niece of Andrew Jackson. Jackson and McLemore partnered in several land deals. Before Jackson ran for the presidency, he traded his shares of land in Memphis, over 600 acres, to John McLemore, for land elsewhere. McLemore moved to Memphis and dedicated himself to selling lots and promoting the new town. He acquired even more land south of Memphis where the abandoned Fort Pickering lay, and then founded the town of Fort Pickering. He had land holdings in other areas of West Tennessee as well, hence the names of the towns Christmasville and McLemoresville.McLemore was very forward-thinking about transportation. He envisioned a railroad that would reach from Memphis to LaGrange and even offered land for someone to build a depot. The Memphis and LaGrange Railway was chartered in 1834 but ran out of money by the time it reached White’s Station. 

McLemore lost a great deal of money in the failed railway attempt and again in the Panic of 1837. He went to California in the gold rush of 1849 with hopes of rebuilding his fortune. Soon after the Civil War broke out, McLemore returned to Memphis. He died at his daughter’s home in 1864. He is buried in the Chapel Hill section of Elmwood. Fort Pickering was annexed by Memphis shortly after McLemore’s death in 1868.


December 1912: Wife murdered, daughter witnesses, husband killed in shoot-out with police

September 23rd, 2015

By volunteer Allison Bailey 

Recently, someone came into the office asking for the location of a relative with a story that Elmwood staff had not heard before. His name was Adam Jack Boehler, and his actions on December 19th, 1912 drew attention to the entire city of Memphis, and would later go down in infamy.

On December 17th, 1912, Boehler wrote: “Dec. 17- Somebody with my wife at Union Avenue. Going to the show. A man with a brown suit on.”

His wife’s name was Grace Young. They both originated from Ohio, married in 1907, and had a daughter a year later named Rhoda. The years they were married were not described by any source, but it was apparent Grace was not happy, and left Ohio for Memphis with her daughter. According to the Kentucky New Era, Boehler travelled to Memphis from Indiana in a houseboat that floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It is unclear when he arrived in Memphis, but sometime after he did, he found out that Grace had filed for divorce. Grace was living at 452 Union Avenue, while Adam was living at the foot of Jefferson Street.

Grace was trying to move on with her life, but Boehler did not accept that she wanted to be separated from him. On December 17th, he had witnessed her with another man. He wanted to take the treasonous act into his own hands; he took this sight as nothing less than adultery.

On the night of December 18th he entered into his wife’s house with a razor. He found Grace and was in the process severing her head when their 4 year old daughter walked into the living room munching on an apple. Seeing the horrific sight, she ran to the neighbor’s house and gasped out that “Mama was being killed.” The neighbor called the police while Adam washed his hands and left for a rooming house on Main Street.

The police arrived promptly to find that Boehler had barricaded himself in his room with plenty of ammunition and alcohol, yelling to them that he would not be taken alive. Passing crowds of people stopped to watch; The Day Book claimed that as many as ten thousand gathered to witness the standoff. The police thought to starve him out in the room unless he attempted escape.

It is unclear who fired the first shot, but sometime between 3am and 11am many bullets were exchanged between the police and Boehler.  A druggist named Spalding Parsons had stepped onto his own balcony nearby to presumably see what was going on. But one of the officers mistook him for Boehler and shot him. Likewise, two police officers were wounded by Boehler.

The situation was intense and attracted the attention of the city’s leaders, Mayor Crump and Fire and Police Commissioner R. A. Utley, who supervised the standoff. Main Street was roped off. A few officers entered the building and bored some holes in the floor above Boehler’s room, letting in a toxic gas called formaldehyde sink in. If they could not kill him via bullets or starvation, they would try a deadly fume. This did work- partially. He was weakened considerably, allowing the police to shoot him seven times before he staggered and fell onto the bed.

 When the shoot off was ended the police broke the door to the room and transported Boehler to a waiting ambulance and rushed to the hospital. He was declared dead.

Boehler had left some notes behind, some of which answer questions about why he had killed his wife, while others create more questions. He had asked that all small debts be paid and that his daughter should be cared for by his relatives. He gave directions on what they should do with his body and his wife’s, requesting that they be buried side by side at Elmwood Cemetery. He began writing these notes before 10pm, continuing through the night. It was written in a manner that implied to the reader that they were intended to act somewhat as a will and suicide note- he did not expect to live long after he murdered his wife. He wrote in the first part of his letter about another baby they had, but had died. He blamed his wife for not visiting the grave. He also grimly joked about the Memphis police.

He even bought Christmas presents for his wife and daughter. For his wife he bought a watch, inscribed “Jack to Grace.” To his daughter he had a locket, inscribed “From Papa.” This suggests that the murder was not premeditated for very long.

Here are a few samples of notes he wrote shortly before his death:

“To All It May Concern:

Dear Brother and Sister—I am very sorry I have to write this note, but I cannot help it. I loved my wife and baby better than anything in the world. But she has turned me down for someone else. That’s the reason I take this step. If my baby lives after I am gone, please take care of her. I want brother or sister to have her, for my wife’s folks cannot take care of her. They cannot read or write.”

“Bury my wife beside me in Elmwood cemetery. I loved her better than my life. I would never have done this, but I could not reason with my wife. There was always somebody else. I caught her with someone else.”

“I am only sorry I did not get the man who broke up my home, and her folks, too.”

“I wish I had done this last night when she was in the ice cream parlor at Beale and Main with that - - -. I would have felt better. That’s what started me.”

“Some fine shooting your officers done. Very fine. Ha, ha!”

“Memphis has got a police force you can be proud of- aber nit[?].”

 “The man with the brown suit and black Stenson hat caused this trouble. Mrs. North knows the man. He has taken her to the Majestic and Alamo Theaters and on Tuesday night to the ice cream parlor at Beale and Main. I hope Memphis will keep her eyes on a case like this hereafter.”



The Seattle Star (Seattle, WA), 19 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.

The Bennington Evening Banner. (Bennington, VT), 20 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.

The Day Book. (Chicago, IL), 19 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.

Omaha Daily Bee. (Omaha, NE), 20 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.

The Daily Ardmoreite. (Ardmore, OK), 19 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.

The Evening Standard. (Ogden City, UT), 19 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.

The Evening World. (New York, NY), 19 Dec. 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. Of Congress.

The Man Who Murdered Wife Killed by Police and Three Persons Wounded. Kentucky New Era (Hopkinsville, KY), December 20, 1912.

"Boehler Dead In Battle With Police." The Commercial Appeal [Memphis] 20 Dec. 1912: n. pag. Print. 



Elmwood's Anniversary

August 20th, 2015

By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian 

Elmwood is turning 163 this month, and though it might seem as though a cemetery that looks like Elmwood would have always been a reality, it was not. Elmwood’s forebear, Pere Lachaise cemetery, opened in Paris in 1804, and it was the first landscaped cemetery. It started what would become the Rural Cemetery Movement. Graveyards were at one time dismal, dreary places, but the “rural” or “garden” cemetery was meant to be a beautiful place filled with trees and flowers. We point to the lifetime of grieving by Queen Victoria (1819-1901) for her husband, Albert, as the birth of the Rural Cemetery Movement. She ushered in this new attitude towards death, and cemeteries, and because of that we now enjoy the beauty of 80 bucolic acres at Elmwood.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery inspired Americans to create similar places outside their cities. Garden cemeteries were meant to be like parks, where people could go for picnics or family outings. Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston was the first garden cemetery in the United States, founded in 1831. In the following decades, dozens of rural landscaped cemeteries were founded throughout the New England states.

On August 28th, 1852, 50 prominent Memphis citizens each paid $500 to establish a new cemetery outside the city, making Elmwood one of the oldest landscaped cemeteries in the South. At a meeting of the committee on September 25th, 1852 the purchase of the first forty acres was confirmed. The stockholders had to pick a name for the new cemetery so the 50 men each wrote down a suggestion and one was drawn from a hat. The stockholders were pleased with the selection of “Elmwood,” a suggestion made by Captain Charles Church. There were no Elm trees on the property so the Trustees ordered some from New York to plant. Today Elmwood is well known for its landscape of trees and is recognized as a Level 2 Arboretum by the Tennessee Department of Urban Forestry. That means there are over 60 species of trees on the property.

After the Civil War the cemetery was expanded to a total of 80 acres. The Phillips Cottage was constructed in 1866 and operates as the cemetery office today. It is the only example of Carpenter Gothic architecture in the city and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Also on the National Register is the cemetery itself and the Morgan Bridge at the entrance.

At 163 years old, Elmwood is the oldest active cemetery in the city with approximately 5 acres that haven’t even been developed yet. The beauty of Elmwood stands as a testament to the foresight of those 50 founders, as well as the love of the people who continue to help us maintain this special place. 

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Graham tablets

July 2nd, 2015

By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian 

Most Memphians are familiar with Graham Street, but probably don’t know anything about the Graham family for which the street was named. George C. Graham was one of the earliest settlers in this area. He bought his land directly from the Native Americans before Shelby County was officially established. His farm, which consisted of several hundred acres, was east of where the Highland Heights neighborhood is today and South of Macon Road. Graham helped state commissioners locate and lay off the county seat in an area known as Sanderlin’s Bluff. His son, Joseph Graham chose the name for this new town. The family came from North Carolina to settle in this area, so Joseph Graham decided to call the new county seat Raleigh after his hometown.

When the land on what was the Graham farm was being developed, it became apparent that the family cemetery needed to be addressed. On January 24, 1951, the 6 bodies in the Graham family cemetery were reinterred at Elmwood. What gravestones existed were moved along with their remains. There are three tablet style markers in the South Grove section of the cemetery. One of which belongs to Dr. George Graham, who died in 1827, twenty five years before Elmwood was established. His is one of the oldest existing gravestones in Memphis. The only gravestone that might be older is for Sally Carr Bettis who died in 1826 and is interred in the Bettis family cemetery next to what is now Cash Saver grocery store. To the right of George Graham’s  stone is one for Col. Joseph Graham who died in 1837. To his right is his wife, Sarah, who died in 1842. All three tablets are broken but Sarah’s is the most damaged. It cracked in several places and broke into a dozen pieces. Grass was growing through the cracks and some pieces were sinking into the ground.

Elmwood’s superintendent began the project of repairing Sarah Graham’s gravestone earlier in the year. He dug up the pieces of stone then placed them on a large board. The board provided a flat surface to repair the gravestone. The pieces were cleaned and some were adhered together with epoxy and left to cure. During a Stone College class in June, we attempted to finish piecing together the tablet style stone. Due to rain and the weight of the stone, the board had warped over the months. We were able to adhere all but one of the remaining pieces due to the warping. The corner piece would not fit. We will have to revisit this project but I am very satisfied with the progress. Sarah K. Graham’s gravestone is clean and much easier to read now.  The D/2 solution we used to clean it should continue to brighten the stone over time. Eventually the other two Graham gravestones will be repaired in the same manner. Though not an uncommon style of grave marker, there are only a few others like them in Elmwood Cemetery so they should be preserved.

Click on the photograph to see more.