With its alluring hospitality, legendary cuisine and transcendent music, Memphis is truly a quintessential Southern city. But lurking behind the barbeque and blue suede shoes is a dark history checkered with violence and disarray. Revisit the mass murder of 1866 that took more than fifty lives, the infamous Alice Mitchell case of the 1890s and a string of unthinkable twentieth-century sins. Author and lifelong Memphian Teresa Simpson explores some of the River City's most menacing crimes and notorious characters in this riveting ride back through the centuries.
About the Author
Teresa R. Simpson was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband and children. As a freelance writer, she has written numerous articles on her hometown for About.com, as well as articles and essays on a variety of subjects for other print and online publications. Teresa is also the author of The Everything Baby Sign Language Book, published by Adams Media in 2008.
Read an Excerpt
The Race Riot of 1866
At the start of the Civil War, Memphis was greatly valued by the Confederate army and greatly coveted by the Union army due to its prime location and efficient transportation systems. The city served as a military supply depot for the Confederacy until the Union victory at Shiloh on April 7, 1862. In the summer of that year, Memphis became the Union headquarters for General Ulysses S. Grant.
As a Union territory, Memphis attracted a large number of former slaves, and the city's black population quadrupled from 1860 to 1870. After the war, this growing population enjoyed new freedoms and made great strides both socially and politically. In spite of this progress, some whites were still unable to embrace the idea of racial equality, and race relations were often strained. This strain was made evident in May 1866, when a race riot broke out, resulting in the cruel and senseless deaths of dozens. This riot was, without a doubt, one of the darkest chapters in Memphis's history.
Although perspectives varied, most accounts report that the trouble started with a group of soldiers stationed at Fort Pickering in downtown Memphis. These soldiers, part of the Third United States Colored Infantry, had been discharged and were awaiting payment. Their days were long and monotonous and they had little to do but wait. The soldiers began coming up with creative ways to pass the time, but some of them resorted to drinking. As a result, the infantry soon collectively gained a negative reputation, and the authorities were quick to take action against the soldiers for any seemingly small infraction.
On the afternoon of May 1, 1866, a group of these soldiers was walking down South Street, presumably drunk. They were loud and rowdy and were soon approached by police officers, who ordered them to settle down and disperse. Uninhibited due to their drunken states, some of the men began talking back in a belligerent manner. Two of the soldiers were promptly arrested. A few of the remaining soldiers decided to try to intervene on behalf of their detained comrades, and pandemonium quickly ensued. The soldiers and the police officers began shouting at one another and, eventually, fists began to fly. It is unclear who first pulled a gun, but at some point a pistol was fired and two of the officers were hit.
In consideration of the rumors that would soon be going around, it is important to mention the nature of the injuries that the police officers received. One officer was struck by a bullet in the hand and quickly recovered. The other was shot in the thigh and later died. Though the official report stated that the policeman was shot by rioters, some accounts maintain that the officer accidentally discharged his own weapon into his leg while trying to unholster it.
By the time police headquarters was notified of the situation, the stories were already growing wildly out of control and the incident was portrayed to be even grimmer than it already was. For this reason, the entire Memphis police force was deployed to the scene. As the policemen made their way to South Street, a number of white citizens who had heard about the commotion joined the procession. Many of these men were armed. At the same time, a number of black citizens arrived on the scene in support of the soldiers. Many of them were also armed. When the two groups came face to face, they were nearly equal in number, and neither was prepared to back down.
Although it is indisputable that a gunfight broke out between the two mobs, it is at this junction in the story that accounts differ wildly. At the time of the incident, it was widely reported that the first shots were fired by the group of black soldiers and citizens. Later, that point would be disputed when others alleged that it was the group of white police officers and citizens who fired first. In the aftermath of the event, this point seems irrelevant. Regardless of who opened fire, the result was bloody and tragic. By the end of the firefight, one white had been killed and five had been injured, while thirteen blacks had been killed and sixteen wounded.
The immediate reports coming out of Memphis painted a biased and inaccurate tale. The story was that soldiers from Fort Pickering had killed several police officers who were attempting to arrest one of the soldiers. Based on that partial and erroneous story, Union General George Stoneman ordered all of the soldiers to the barracks and confiscated their weapons. While the general undoubtedly believed this was in the best interest of all concerned, this move left black settlements in the area open and vulnerable to the mobs of angry whites that would soon form.
On the evening of May 1, stories of the afternoon's firefight began to spread through the city — many of them resembling in content the same story that was relayed to General Stoneman. As can be expected, the stories grew even more and more exaggerated with each telling. For the white citizens who were already getting worked up about the afternoon's events, these tales just added fuel to the fire and sparked renewed anger and resentment. To make matters worse, the city recorder, a man named John Creighton, further incited violence in a speech he made while standing at the corner of Vance and Causey Streets. Observers who attended the speech reported that Creighton urged white men to "go ahead and kill every damned one of the nigger race and burn up the cradle." It was further reported by witnesses that the recorder claimed to be "in favor of killing every God damned nigger." Spurred on by rumors and encouragement from public officials such as Creighton, the violence grew more brutal as the night progressed.
After dark, an angry mob of whites congregated at the scene of the earlier fight and began firing their weapons at every black individual they could see. Without the soldiers there to protect them, most of the black population was helpless. The victims of these senseless shootings included men, women and children. In at least one instance, the lifeless body of a victim was brutalized further when it was shot multiple times, beaten and cut up. With good reason, most black citizens retreated into their homes and prayed for a swift end to the violence. According to most credible reports, there were no attacks on whites by blacks that evening.
In spite of the fact that the blacks had not provoked the situation further, a white mob again descended upon South Memphis on the morning of May 2. Once again, false rumors seemed to be the white mob's driving force. Due to a story going around that suggested that two white men had been killed the night before, the whites again proceeded to fire upon any black whom they ran across. In addition to these horrendous crimes, others were being committed in the area as well. Black women were being raped. The homes of black families were being looted and burned.
Although police officers made up a portion of the mob, one has to wonder why there was no intervention by any other person of authority. The mayor of Memphis, John Park, was reported to be in a state of intoxication at the time of the riots and was therefore incapable of doing anything to stop them. Shelby County Sheriff P.M. Minters claimed that he tried to calm the mob but that his attempts were unsuccessful, particularly as the mob's anger grew. Brigadier General Benjamin Runkle of the U.S. Army even made an appearance at one of the riots, but he admitted that he was unable to stop the mob; nor did he have any troops to offer backup support. Did these officials truly make an effort to bring peace to the streets of Memphis, or were they simply too cowardly to intervene? Either way, for all intents and purposes, the city of Memphis was seized by mob rule during these first two days of May.
Finally, a group of army regulars arrived on the scene and managed to restore some order. The mob was dispersed and the shooting ceased. It seemed that the riots were over. After nightfall, however, the mob made a final and devastating statement by setting fire to numerous buildings and homes. As fire erupted throughout the city, many citizens voiced their approval. By the end of the night, four churches (including the oldest church in Memphis at the time), eight schoolhouses and ninety-one homes, complete with personal possessions, had been torched. These establishments were all owned or frequented primarily by blacks. In addition, it was reported that members of the mob, particularly police officers, took money from victims, some of whom had just been paid by the army. In monetary terms, the cost of the riot exceeded $100,000, a sizable sum in 1866.
The greatest cost, however, was the loss of human life and dignity. At least forty-six blacks and two whites were killed during the riot. Additionally, at least seventy-five others were injured, and five women were raped.
Before the month's end, a congressional committee was appointed to investigate the incident. This committee spent more than two weeks investigating the riots, questioning 170 witnesses and recording over two thousand pages of testimony. Their findings, which detailed the riot's horrors, helped the move toward Radical Reconstruction. During this phase of Reconstruction, the Republicans in Congress took charge of Reconstruction policies and even passed constitutional amendments in direct opposition to President Johnson. One such radical change implemented by the Republicans was the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship and federal civil rights to all persons born in the United States.
It is unfortunate that it took incidents such as the Memphis Race Riot of 1866 to help bring about such dramatic change. However, this was certainly not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that a great law has been born of hindsight rather than by the progressive thinking of lawmakers.CHAPTER 2
His Daughter's Honor
For well over one hundred years, Seessel's was a household name in the Memphis area. This dry goods turned grocery store was considered by many to be the finest such chain in town and served generations of Memphis shoppers. Even today, the idea of murder occurring in such an innocuous location seems unlikely. In 1871, however, one Seessel's store became the scene of a scandalous crime that shocked the city.
At ten o'clock on the morning of August 29, a man named J.W.S. Browne walked into Seessel's carrying his double-barreled shotgun slung over his shoulder. Initially, no one questioned or detained him in any way. Perhaps it was perfectly acceptable to enter a store with a weapon in 1871. Or perhaps the rest of his attire put the store clerks at ease. Newspaper accounts at the time said that Browne was "dressed plainly, as a farmer." Maybe a farmer — even one carrying a shotgun — seemed harmless enough to most people. Another possibility is that Browne was recognized upon entering the store. As a newspaperman and respected citizen of Memphis, it is unlikely that anyone would have thought twice about the shotgun. Whatever the reason, the man was able to walk into the store with a loaded shotgun and no one asked any questions.
Mr. Browne approached the counter and asked a clerk to see some lawns, a type of finely woven, light cotton fabric. The clerk, a man named Beasley, quickly obliged this request. After he had spent a moment examining the fabrics, Mr. Brown asked to see some linens. Mr. Beasley told his customer that the linens were kept in the back of the store and began leading the way. As an apparent afterthought, he paused for just a moment and asked if Mr. Browne would prefer to keep his shotgun at the front of the store. Mr. Browne quickly assured him that he did not mind carrying the weapon and would keep it with him. The store clerk had phrased his question in such a way to suggest that he was merely trying to be accommodating to his customer. Nevertheless, it seems plausible that Mr. Beasley was growing a bit apprehensive about walking to the rear of the store with an armed man. As time would soon tell, he had reason for apprehension.
As the pair reached the back of the store, Browne could see that one counter was being attended by Captain J. Theodore Adams. Adams was assisting two ladies who were inspecting some fabrics. As Beasley and Browne passed by the ladies, Beasley turned around to check on his customer and witnessed a startling scene. Mr. Browne, with his shotgun perched upon his shoulder, was taking aim at Adams. Before Browne had a chance to fire, Adams saw the gun pointed toward him and immediately dropped behind the counter, attempting to take refuge behind some boxes. Undeterred, Mr. Browne ran to the end of the counter, where he had a clear shot of Adams, and began firing. Buckshot spewed from Browne's weapon and entered Adams's only leg just below the knee. The buckshot shattered the bone and severed the femoral artery.
Adams lay on the floor, crying out in pain, as he struggled to retrieve his own revolver. He cried out, "Don't shoot! For God's sake, somebody take him away!"
By then, Browne had calmly walked out of the store and handed his weapon to someone standing outside. That person was not identified, but was presumed to be an accomplice, possibly Browne's son, John. He then walked directly to the police station nearby, where he met Memphis Police Captain Athey. Browne said to Athey, "I wish to surrender myself. I shot a man in Seessel's store a few minutes ago and I guess I killed him."
Back at Seessel's, store employees were attending to Adams's wounds and had called for a wagon to transport Adams back to his boardinghouse. A pair of doctors met him at the home and examined the wound. This medical assistance had arrived too late, however, and J. Theodore Adams bled to death shortly after 1:00 p.m.
When the proverbial smoke had cleared, local residents were baffled. What would have prompted a respected pressman and citizen to calmly and deliberately shoot down another man in cold blood? In the aftermath of the murder, the scandalous story leading up to the shooting became clear.
It seems that Captain Adams had been pursuing Browne's daughter Millie for some time. The two went to First Baptist Church together, but were introduced by Millie's sister. While Millie was relatively receptive to his attentions, it was important to her that the two of them take things slowly and properly. Adams, on the other hand, was constantly pushing for more and gave every indication that he was interested in a physical relationship. During this era, such a relationship was not socially acceptable, to say the least, and Millie resisted. Ever persistent, Adams finally asked Millie to marry him. Whether he ever had any intention of marrying the girl is unknown. Millie, on the other hand, had fallen in love with the young captain and did have every intention of marrying him. Nonetheless, she felt that it was too soon to accept a marriage proposal and asked him to give her more time.
Things were not working out quite the way Adams planned, and so he tried yet another tactic. Already knowing the answer, he asked Millie if her father was a Mason. When she answered affirmatively, Adams told her that he, too, was a Mason and that Masons had a duty to look after each other's families. It was therefore right and proper, he went onto explain, that the two should become engaged. Accepting his reasoning, Millie finally also accepted his marriage proposal. It must have been easier to seduce a woman once engaged to her, for shortly thereafter, the relationship was consummated. When asked later why she allowed herself to be seduced, Millie said, "I considered him in the light of my future husband. I loved him, he expressed his great love for me, kissed me, caressed me, and in an unguarded moment I yielded."
Just a few weeks later, Millie discovered that she was pregnant. When she told her fiancé about her condition, he instructed her to keep it quiet, but made vague promises about marrying her when he had more money. She assured him that she would do her best to keep her condition hidden. In time, of course, that became impossible and Millie went back to Adams and told him that there was no way for her to keep her condition hidden much longer. She pleaded with him to just go ahead and marry her. At that, Adams told Millie that he was still financially unable to take a wife. He further said that if she revealed his identity to anyone, their relationship would be over. Although their relationship was virtually nonexistent by this point, Millie vowed to keep his identity a secret.
Soon the young woman had no choice but to tell her father that she was pregnant. He demanded to know who the father of the baby was, but Millie refused over and over again to tell him. In desperation, she wrote several letters to her fiancé, begging him to come and marry her, but she received no response. Rejected and alone, Millie finally told her father that it was Theodore Adams who was the father of her child.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Memphis Murder & Mayhem"
Copyright © 2008 Teresa R. Simpson.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Race Riot of 1866,
Chapter 2 His Daughter's Honor,
Chapter 3 Murder at the Peabody,
Chapter 4 Tainted Love,
Chapter 5 A Husband Scorned,
Chapter 6 Murder by Mail,
Chapter 7 Cruel and Unusual,
Chapter 8 Mistaken Identity,
Chapter 9 The Summer Avenue Slayer,
Chapter 10 The Cigarette Girl,
Chapter 11 Memphis's Merry Widow,
Chapter 12 The Assassination of a Dreamer,
Chapter 13 Serial Killer of '69,
Chapter 14 The Ultimate Betrayal,
Chapter 15 A Murder in Millington,
Chapter 16 The West Memphis Three,
About the Author,