Jasper Newton Smith
February 6, 2014
by Richard Alley, 2014 Volunteer Writer-in-Residence
It’s one of the first markers seen after crossing Morgan Bridge. This isn’t the original entrance to Elmwood Cemetery, that was off of Walker Ave., on the south side of the 80 acres. This newer passageway is narrow, confining, yet once traversed it gives the visitor a feeling, of all things, of openness and a sense of space; to cross over is to be delivered.
Straight ahead, slightly to the right, is a grave that isn’t. There is no one buried there but, instead, a monument stands to the memory of a man and it is his likeness, in profile to the visitor there at the intersection of Page Ave. and Morgan’s Grand Tour. The statue of a lion, as is custom when there is no body within, watches over that memory.
Jasper Newton Smith was poor when he came to Memphis from Giles County, Tenn., in the late 19th century. He soon went to work for Mary Moore, described in later accounts as an “eccentric widow.” Smith worked at odd jobs and acted as her caretaker. The two became close and were wed in 1878, a year that would see thousands in Memphis perish from Yellow Fever.
Mary was born in Missouri in 1837, and died of pneumonia on Feb. 19, 1897. Jasper inherited her money and property, amassing some 100 properties throughout Memphis with others in St. Louis, Baltimore and Mayfield, Kentucky.
Two years after his wife’s death, Jasper would go missing. He never returned and his body was never recovered. In his fifties at the time, with graying hair, a moustache and “a small bunch of whiskers on his chin,” wrote a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, he was last seen the night of May 26, 1899.
Jasper dressed plainly, though, at the time, his fortune was said to be worth $200,000 (almost $5.5 million in today’s money). Indeed, accounts claim he had been in the habit of carrying large sums of money and that “he had a tobacco sack full of greenbacks” on him the day before he disappeared and displayed some gold to his niece, Ida Smith, who lived with him at his home at 392 Madison St.
Those close to him believe Jasper was a victim of foul play as he was a man of habit and had not mentioned going abroad. He was a drinking man, but did not drink heavily, yet one of the last places he was seen was at Whiskey Chute Alley, a blocks-long string of saloons, oyster bars and gambling houses stretching from Madison to Court, and from Front to Main St. Renamed Park Alley in 1942, it was a gathering place for businessmen and Jasper had been seen there with a nephew before he disappeared. Another report puts him at the Montgomery Park horse racing track on East Parkway the night before with that same nephew.
In Elmwood, adjacent to Jasper’s monument, two other markers on the same plot belong to his sisters, Eliza and Ruth Smith, who inherited his estate once he was declared legally dead seven years later. Eliza died on Aug. 12, 1910. The cause of death is listed as “chronic diarrhea” with a contributing factor of exhaustion. She was 55 years old.
Born in 1848, Ruth outlived them both, passing in 1918 at the age of 70.
The mystery of Jasper Smith was never solved, though speculation swirls like nearby gingko leaves in autumn. Did the sisters have something to do with his disappearance? The purchase of the plot and his monument a final act of respect and, perhaps, an effort towards an apology? It is worth noting that the sisters’ monuments, equally as tall, are turned away from that of Jasper’s as though they wanted to be near him, yet not necessarily with him in eternity. Had it been the nephew in Jasper’s company on the final night he was seen in public? Or could it have been any of the desperate, fearful men who must have populated the pubs and gambling houses in that year of Memphis’s fever? We may never know for sure, but the statue of the man and his lion looking over him will forever act as a reminder and memorial.