Valentine's Day, just around the corner, is a fine time to muse upon love and all its mysteries. Some of those mysteries take longer to -- ahem -- unearth than others. So we'll dig deeper, with the help of Bob Barnett, assistant director at Elmwood Cemetery.
This Saturday (Feb. 11), Barnett leads one of Elmwood Cemetery's most popular walking tours. It's called "Love on the Rocks."
“It’s a very interesting tour that tells scandalous stories of some of the people that are buried in the cemetery,” he says. “Tales of love gone wrong.”
Exhibit A: Mattie Stephenson.
“Mattie was a young woman who was left at the altar,” Barnett says. This was a shocking breach of custom, and often seen as a setback in a young woman’s life.
But Mattie wasn’t going to let heartbreak doom her spirit. So she came to Memphis in 1873 to render aid during the famed Yellow Fever Epidemic.
“Unfortunately, she only lived for a few weeks after arrival,” Barnett says.
Some might say that a cemetery tour of broken hearts is a morbid way to say “I love you." As a Valentine's gesture, it's probably not for the typical couple.
But then, some relationships are more atypical than others.
Exhibit B: Alice Jessie Mitchell.
Nothing around her placid marble stone suggests a scandalous demise. But in 1891, the 19-year-old woman fell in love... with another woman. Her paramour's name was Freda Ward, age 17.
“Alice had actually given Freda a ring and they had written many letters back and forth to one another,” Barnett says.
Those letters were discovered and the lovers were forced to separate.
“And then one day in January of 1892, Alice was following Freda. She had become very jealous and she murdered Freda on a city street in broad daylight,” Barnett says.
The murder trial was a national sensation. When it was over, Alice Mitchell would be sent to a mental institution in Bolivar, TN, where she died a few years later. Her death, a drowning, was likely a suicide.
Surely none of the deceased at Elmwood thought they’d one day become lurid anecdotes in a tour that sells out year after year. It’s just that these particular love stories made splashy headlines.
“Many of the stories that we do know, we know because they were in the newspaper or there were court records or other things that we’re able to research and find out more about the people,” he says.
Barnett adds that other stories seem to be hidden in the monuments themselves, like powerful messages from the beyond.
Exhibit C: the grave of Emily Sutton.
It features a prominent statue of a woman, hands folded piously, and is one of the cemetery’s most photographed monuments.
“Emily was a madam. In the 1873 Yellow Fever Epidemic, she let her girls go and turned her house into a hospital and began to nurse the sick,” Barnett says.
Then Sutton became a victim of that same epidemic. Her burial at Elmwood was much more modest at first, in a different location.
“Two years after she died, she was moved to the place where she is now,” Barnett said. And that place was among the Memphis elite, in a highly coveted spot in the cemetery.
Who moved her? That’s still a mystery. But it did make a statement.
“We know the message got through because (the monument) caused a scandal in the city when it was put up,” Barnett said.
The cemetery management of the day was pressured to put three plaques around her grave, emblazoned with her alias, the name she used in the brothel: Fannie Walker.
“It’s a play on words and a common name for a prostitute,” Barnett says.
It’s hard to tell if Sutton’s grave was moved to this prominent place out of sympathy or revenge. Barnett thinks it might be a little of both. And maybe, there’s even the slightest hint of a Valentine.
“The end of her will says that she leaves all of her possessions to a man named Ed Worsham. He was single, he was the son of a prominent Memphis family, and he himself died just a year after that stone was placed.”
Worsham is buried nearby.
“I think there is good reason to believe that he may have moved her,” Barnett says.
Could this be a secret Victorian romance? At Elmwood Cemetery, the white stones do not blush. But they do, sometimes, make little confessions to the heart.