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/.