Unmarked Memphis I: Mummies, a fatal orphanage and legal prostitution

 A trained eye can show you the weird and wonderful underground history of Memphis.
There are homes, businesses, apartments and runways in Memphis that have their own stories to tell. 

Some of these sites are strange or even undesirable, and they all lack formal historical markers. A trained eye can show you the weird and wonderful underground history of Memphis.

Part II of this series covers unknown Memphis history in the late 20th century including sites of significance to Big Star and the Sex Pistols. 
A 1864 hospital funded by prostitution

The 1994 book "The Story Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War" by Thomas P. Lowry told of a piece of Memphis history that has been largely forgotten. After Union occupation in 1862, Memphis had a reputation as a city teeming with sexually transmitted diseases. Lots of troops were in occupied Memphis and ladies of the evening followed.

In 1864 prostitution was legalized in the city by the Medical Inspection Department. It was not without precedent as Nashville did the same a year earlier.  For a $10 initial fee one could obtain a license then for $2.50 per week she could keep it by being inspected by a doctor, according to Danielle Jeannine Cole in her UT-Knoxville Masters thesis "Public Women in Public Spaces: Prostitution and Union Military Experience, 1861-1865.”
The corner of Front Street and A.W. Willis Avenue where the hospital once stood.
It seemed successful in keeping gonorrhea and syphilis in check. Fees associated with legalized prostitution made a profit which funded the Women's Hospital in the Pinch District at Front and Exchange, a street now known as A.W Willis.

In total, $6,429 collected in fees and $2,535 in expenses went to support the hospital wing.

The mummy on Harbert Street in 1903
We know the story about Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. After shooting the President Lincoln on April 14, 1865 Booth jumped to the stage and broke his leg. On the morning of April 26 the same year, he was shot by U.S. troops looking for him and died shortly thereafter.

Mississippi-born Texas attorney Finis Langdon Bates met a man named John St. Helen while living in Grandbury, a town southwest of Fort Worth. St. Helen took sick and thought he was about to die and gave cryptic instructions to inform Edwin Booth.

St. Helen recovered and then revealed to Bates his original name was John Wilkes Booth. He escaped after the assassination of Lincoln, he told the attorney.

Years passed. In 1903 Bates was informed that a David E. George killed himself with strychnine in his hotel room in Enid, Oklahoma and told a minister just before his death. The minister told the undertaker to preserve the body for the government to verify the identity of the possible most wanted man ever. Now a Memphis attorney, Bates read the story and went to Enid and recognized the now mummy as the mysterious man he met some quarter of a century earlier who revealed himself as John Wilkes Booth.

The government did not have any interest in the remains so Bates took the body to Memphis. 

1234 Harbert Street as it stands today.Specifically he took the body to his home at 1234 Harbert Street and wrote a book "The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth." He went into show business, in a way, touring the body around at carnival freak shows. Life Magazine had photos of the side show attraction. Harbert was home base.

Bates died in 1923. The location of the mummy is now a mystery. In the mid 1960s the Bates home was replaced by another building. Bates' granddaughter, Kathy, ended up making a name for herself in her own right in show business. No mummy involved.  
The 1943 children's home of horrors

1556 Poplar Avenue was once home to a stately Midtown mansion. It is gone now and probably for the better.

Georgia Tann moved to Memphis in 1924 and three years later became director of the Tennessee Children's Home, an adoption agency. In the 1943 this beautiful building became the orphanage. She had a great deal of clout in the city and up until that time she controlled almost all adoptions. When she at last gained control of her own adoption agency, strife struck Memphis.

One couple's unplanned pregnancy turned into another couple's blessing, and Tann made it possible.  But it went beyond that. Shortly before her death in 1950 the Governor announced she had swindled millions from the state. After her death at her home at 91 Stonewall Street from cancer, more stories came out. 

The home had horrible conditions. There was widespread neglect, starvation and the outright kidnapping of babies which would be enough to land most with life sentences. But again, political connections in the city of Memphis made Tann untouchable.

Today the Memphis Leadership Foundation makes the site its home and has since the 1990s. The current building has been there since 1956, according to property records.

A memorial to those children who died in the home was installed in April 2015 at Elmwood Cemetery. Nineteen of those children rest in unmarked graves. Many more were secretly buried. The epitaph is a call for peace for those who experienced more bad than good in their short lives.

“In memory of the 19 children who finally rest here, unmarked if not unknown, and all of the hundreds who died under the cold, hard hand of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, their final resting place unknown, their final peace a blessing.”

Shelby Studies the war in 1954

Novelist Shelby Foote of Greenville, Mississippi had a few works under his belt when at 37 he was given an assignment to write a 200,000 word tome on the Civil War.

In early 1954 he moved to 697 Arkansas Street in Downtown Memphis to be close to the source material. He was both near Downtown and had the Mississippi River practically as his backyard.

Foote was a writer on his way up a March 1954 article stated. Not only did Foote get this lengthy assignment but a young filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was interested working with Foote to write a Civil War era screenplay to be called "Downslope." Other than shorts, Kubrick had only directed one film at the time. 

In 1958, two years late, Foote finished the assignment. Well sort of as this was just volume one. Volume two came out in 1963 and the trilogy was finished in 1974. "Back then if someone had told me it would take twenty years to write the history of the Civil War I would have said 'sorry I'm a novelist and I have other things to do," he told reporter William Thomas in 1973.

His second home on Alabama Street was a victim of progress as it was cleared out for the Holiday Inn Rivermont which is now the River Tower at South Bluffs. His home seems to have been between the Rivermark Apartments and The Artesian condo building. Foote had moved to 507 Yates Street by the early 1960s and spent out his final decades at 542 East Parkway South.

He remained the go-to man for Civil War history and his trilogy gained a national audience. As for "Downslope," it has yet to be filmed. 

Great balls of fire in the suburbs

One could argue Memphis started as the epicenter of pop culture of the 1950s when what is commonly regarded as the first rock ' roll song, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cat, was recorded at Sun Studios.

Memphis fireball Jerry Lee Lewis treated the piano the way most of the other rockers treated the guitar.  In July of 1957, 21-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis got his first national audience on the Steve Allen Show and "Whole Lotta Shakin'" made its way to young people across the country.

In December of 1957 he secretly married down in Hernando, Mississippi. Jerry Lee and Myra Gale were an up and coming young couple looking for a place and found it not too far from the then Memphis Metropolitan Airport.

In May the following year, reporters began looking at his wife and it was discovered she was 13 years old, and his second cousin, at the time of the marriage.  It was at their home at 4752 Dianne Drive where they retreated after ending their Great Britain concert tour early. Everyone knows where Elvis Presley moved when he made it big, but few know about the young Lewis family’s marital home.

This Whitehaven house at 4752 Dianne Drive looks like the place where someone who became successful would have bought back in 1958. One could imagine a pipe smoking dad, mom in an apron, Junior in his cowboy outfit and Missy playing with her doll together watching Gunsmoke in a wood-paneled TV room. The two lived here until the early 1960s when they moved to the Coro Lake area in southwest Memphis.
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Read more articles by Devin Greaney.

Devin Greaney is a Memphis-based freelance writer and photographer who has been published in the Memphis DowntownerDeSoto Magazine and others. He works full time as an Emergency Medical Technician and had an extensive knowledge of the history and geography of the MidSouth area.