Marking History

August 12th, 2010

At the end of Dudley Street – quite literally the dead end – there's a beautiful old wrought iron sign and an arched stone bridge with enough drama for Vincent Price and enough poetic gravitas for Edgar Allan Poe.

The place on the other side of that bridge was out in the country at its beginning, three miles from town, and families would take carriage rides to picnic there among the newly-planted trees, to stroll the landscaped grounds, to admire the statuary.

Today, this is the most historic ground in Shelby County.

Sacred ground.

As published in The Daily News, August 13, 2010, and in The Memphis News, August 14-15, 2010

Elmwood Gold Angel

Memphis. Forever and ever.

Turns out Boss Crump and Ben Hooks were closer to each other than you might have thought – about 25 feet.

What do two Tennessee governors and three U.S. Senators share in common with one Memphis madam? Eternity, evidently.

In one place, Overton, Lee and Church aren’t parks, McKellar isn’t a lake, Snowden, Treadwell and Bolton aren’t schools, and Winchester, Goodlet, Buntyn, McLemore, Mendenhall, Goodbar, Rembert, Vinton, Willett and Walker aren’t streets. They’re residents.

They’re all here. And whenever you’d like to visit, trust me, they’ll all still be here.

This is Elmwood and, established in 1852, it is Shelby County’s oldest active cemetery. There are more than 70,000 stories here, 70,000 lives led, and among them our most famous and infamous. Veterans of every American war rest here, including the Revolutionary War. Former mayor, congressman and political puppeteer E.H. Crump joins 20 other Memphis mayors, and all the governors, senators, generals, privates, scions of society and scallywags beneath the shade of champion trees.

There is roughly one degree of separation between the history of this nation, Memphis, and Elmwood. Patrick Henry isn’t here, but his daughter is. Jefferson Davis isn’t here, but his son is. Helen Keller isn’t here, but her grandfather is. Robert Church Sr., Robert Jr., and his daughter Roberta are here, along with Dr. Joseph Walker, his son, Maceo, and granddaughter, Pat. Together with Dr. Hooks and individually, that’s more than a century of African-American groundbreaking on a national scale.

And what stories they all have, many you know, and so many more you don’t.

The aforementioned madam, Annie Cook, turned her Gayoso brothel into a hospital during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic and gave her own life nursing the sick. It took the good citizens of Memphis 101 years to put a marker on her grave recognizing her sacrifice.

Wade Bolton, benefactor to both Bolton School and Stonewall Jackson’s widow, was a despicable character by all accounts. He died in the middle of Court Square, shot down in a family feud. The terms of his will demanded a true-to-life statue on his grave. His family complied and his scowling countenance stands there today, full-size, with his fingers crossed behind his back, his vest misbuttoned and his shoes untied.

That leaves 69,998 stories to tell, and counting. Visit. Listen. You’ll hear them.

This is an outdoor museum, art gallery, sculpture garden, official bird sanctuary and arboretum – and a public park full of our most public figures and private losses. The arched entry bridge and Carpenter-Gothic cottage are one-of-a-kind architectural finds in Memphis. All 80 acres are on the National Register.

A few years ago, another local historical treasure, Perre Magness, authored Elmwood: In The Shadows of the Elms and another writer of note contributed the introduction. Famously from the Delta, he felt destined for his family plot. So taken with Elmwood, he changed his mind and now rests here.

His name is Shelby Foote.

I’m a Memphian, and I’ll be under that big magnolia over there.

Elmwood Woods
Snapshot 20100803 105637
Elmwood Winter


mike edmundson: Another good article Dan, I love Memphis history but I have never been to Elmwood. Guess I better get over there and take my grandkids so they can learn about the past. Might be good for all the teachers of Tennessee history to make field trips with the kids. Thanks again, Mike

Patrick Whitney: Great story! I love Elmwood, and I have heard quite a few of the thousands of stories there. I even have a couple of plots already picked out!

Belinda Loyd: This is a wonderful story. I have experienced the tranquility of walking in Elmwood and hearing the some of the stories during one of their twilight strolls. The stories were riveting. I look forward to another visit soon.

Allan Tynes: Great piece, Dan. I've driven through Elmwood many times with out-of-towners, pointing out the famous and infamous. I love Ma Rainey #2's epitaph: "I'm Ma Rainey #2, mother of Beale Street. I'm 78 years old. Ain't never had enough of nothing and it's too damn late now." Incredibly, I've had people ask me what "CSA" stands for on all those small headstones. Well, it's never too late to learn.

Beverly Cruthirds: Well said, Dan! Elmwood is a wondrous and special place. I'm a Memphian and I'll be under that crepe myrtle over there.

Virginia Watters: I moved from Memphis many years ago but I enjoyed the article very much-my mother's family is buried there and I usually visit when in Memphis. Also, especially enjoyed the mention of my mother's and grandmother's cousin, E.H. Crump. Now, I want to hear those stories!!!

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