The Porter-Leath House
March 17, 2015
By Kelly Sowell, Elmwood Historian
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! What better time than now to feature one of Elmwood’s Irish residents. Sarah Hardin Murphy Leath was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States at the age of 18. First, she lived with her brother, a veteran of the War of 1812, in Decatur, Alabama. Sarah married James Leath and the two moved to a 200-acre farm near Memphis. Together they had two sons, but James died when they were young so Sarah was left to take care of the boys on her own. In 1850, the president of the Protestant Widows and Orphans Asylum approached the widowed Mrs. Leath to ask for a contribution. Understanding the problems that widows and orphans face, she donated 9 acres of farmland along Raleigh Road for an orphanage. On June 3, 1856, fourteen children moved into a new building on the property, which is the present day site of Porter Leath Children’s Home. Upon Mrs. Leath’s death in 1857, another 20 acres was willed to the home to start an Orphan’s Education Fund. The next year the Tennessee Legislature chartered the institution as the Leath Orphan Asylum.
Though he wasn’t Irish, it’s important to include Dr. David Tinsley Porter in the story of the orphanage. He was a member of the Citizens’ Relief Committee during the 1873 yellow fever epidemic. After Memphis was devastated by the yellow fever epidemics of 1878 and 1879 and lost its city charter, Dr. Porter was elected president of the taxing district, the equivalent of mayor. He initiated sanitary reform and built sewers, essentially preventing future outbreaks of yellow fever without knowing how or why. He served as the president of the taxing district of Memphis from 1879 to 1891. He was also a trustee of the Leath Orphan Asylum. He died in 1898. Dr. Porter’s daughter, Mrs. Rebecca Porter Bartlett died in 1903 and left a bequest to the Asylum honoring her father. The name was changed to the Porter Leath House the following year.
The trustees of the Porter Leath House erected a monument to honor both Sarah Leath and Dr. Porter in 1984. It is located in the Turley section and is the only marker for Mrs. Leath. Dr. Porter’s grave in Miller Circle has a monument that is quite large and impressive with a life-sized likeness of Dr. Porter.