Friday, April 27, 2012

Elmwood Cemetery

Our homeschool group had a tour of Elmwood Cemetery in downtown Memphis.  This cemetery dates from around 1850, and is still in use.  Many of Memphis' most prominent families, black and white, are buried here, and Memphis history is woven through out it.  It was built as a typical Victorian cemetery, as a park like setting, where families would come to picnic at the family plots, clean the markers, and plant flowers and such.  You enter this city of the dead by crossing over a bridge, shown above.  On the other side is the cemetery office inside a Victorian cottage with a bell tower.  The bell rings whenever a funeral procession enters, which it did while we were there.

Near the cottage is the obelisk marking the grave of E.H. Crump (Boss Crump), who ran a political machine here during the first half of the 20th century.  His political machine filled the gap left by the deaths and departures of much of the Memphis economic and academic elite following the decimation of the three successive yellow fever epidemics in the latter part of the 19th century.

My 14 yr old and one of her friends decided to dress in black and carry black umbrellas throughout the tour.

There are several "ethnic neighborhoods" within the cemetery.  Below is the section that the Irish Travelers favor.  Memphis has a fairly significant Traveler (Rom, or "gypsy") community.  Notice the caravans and tents depicted on this marker.

Here is the Chinese section.  A significant number of old Chinese families in Memphis are descended from a group that was emigrating from China to California in the 19th century, but somehow ended up stranded in New Orleans and made their way up the Mississippi, settling in Clarksdale, Mississippi and Memphis ultimately.

The Chinese families come visit the graves and leave paper notes and messages on the markers.

Another rather crowded section of Elmwood is the area where the Confederate war dead of Memphis are buried.  The Union war dead (which also included native Memphians) used to also be buried at Elmwood, but they were all moved to the National Cemetery (for Veterans) when it opened in Memphis.  Unfortunately, the people moving the bodies and markers put notes on the caskets noting who was in which, but a storm came and blew them away and smeared what was left, so nobody could tell who belonged with which marker.

more Civil War markers
There is a marker for the people lost in the explosion and sinking of the Sultana steamboat a few miles north of Memphis, where 1500 lives were lost -- more than the Titanic.  This was a ship carrying Union prisoners of war upriver back to their homes at the end of the Civil War.  The boiler exploded.  This huge disaster only made the back pages of the nation's newspapers because Lincoln had been shot that same day.

The marker for "No Man's Land" marks the mass grave where thousands of yellow fever victims from the big epidemic of 1878 were buried with no individual graves or markers, as there were too many to deal with and too few healthy citizens left in the city.  Although it is a mass grave, the people did their best to note the names and identity of each body brought over the bridge for burial in the mass grave, and those records are available.

a wider view of No Man's Land

Another area of Elmwood without individual graves, but now holding a commemorative marker, is the area where slaves were buried.  Unfortunately, there are few if any records of the individuals buried there.  I didn't get a picture of that area, as there was a funeral in process in that vicinity.

Now, this guy is Wade Bolton.  He was a slave trader, business speculator, millionaire, duelist, and all around no good son of a gun.  He carried on a 13 year feud with his former business partner, engaging in duels and ambushes, along with members of their respective families.  In the final altercation, Bolton was shot in the shoulder and although the wound was not fatal, he decided he would get revenge on the ex-partner by not getting it treated and letting it kill him, so he let an infection set in and died.  He left directions for his body to be buried at his favorite plantation on Pleasant Ridge in the northeast part of the county (what is now known as the Bolton community), but his wife had him buried in Elmwood (she and husband #2 are buried at Pleasant Ridge).  He gave each of his children a bequest, but made it conditional on them carrying on the feud and getting vengeance on his "killer".  He had also left instructions that he was to be depicted in utmost dignity by a statue on his memorial.  His niece (who in the meantime married a son of the ex-partner who had shot Bolton), took charge of that.  She made sure the statue showed him with is vest mis-buttoned, a shoe untied, rumpled clothes, and one hand behind his back with his fingers crossed.

Elmwood Cemetery is a fantastic place to go just to walk and look around and take photos.  They also have self guided audio tours, and guided group tours, as well as special events where people dress up to depict the various people buried there.    


Mojo said...

One of my very favorite places in Memphis!

Manuela@A Cultivated Nest said...

Finally, had a minute to sit down and catch up with you.

What a very interesting cemetery! I don't think I've ever visited one that had such distinct "neighborhoods".