Memphis Memorial - Mysteries
I am curious – always have been. Like many of you, throughout my careers, I have been able to solve problems. Asking the right questions often leads to solutions, so curiosity and problem-solving go hand in hand. What I don’t like is mysteries. I don’t mean the ones that are solved at the end of the book or movie or TV show. I accept the ones that take some sort of faith to believe but are unsolved – that’s also part of my makeup. I don’t like mysteries that SHOULD be solved, real life ones. Rose Hill Cemetery in South Memphis is full of them.
On that first visit to Rose Hill, I was on an errand for the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund to locate the grave of Memphis Jug Band multi-instrumentalist and singer Charlie Burse. It was a beautiful day in early May. I was headed to a Memphis Tigers baseball game later that afternoon and figured a good walk around a 16 acre plot would do me good. I would find his marker, report back, see some baseball (eat some BBQ nachos!) and let the process of honoring “The Ukelele Kid” begin. The tree blocking the road at the entrance should have been my first clue. I see you’ve heard this one before! Of course I couldn’t find him, but I found another Burse – more about that later. Still, it was a beautiful day in early May, I reported back…
When I had some more time, I visited Rose Hill Cemetery again. Same result (without the BBQ nachos). Did I mention I don’t like unsolved mysteries? I searched for any information online – one story. I asked Memphians, some customers who grew up here – nothing. I went to the Benjamin Hooks Library and looked at their file on Rose Hill. I found the Commercial Appeal version of the WMC story from 1996 – the triple murder, the killers later convicted. Then a second story – yup, another mystery. In 1979 the cemetery and a few funeral homes were under investigation. Seems bones had been found on the ground, possibly from shallow burials, possibly from re-selling filled plots. Now I like to think the best of people, so the more time I spend at the cemetery the more I think that maybe this was out of ignorance – the lack of knowledge type. Perhaps somewhere in the past more graves were lost. Without equipment like ground penetrating radar, maybe some remains were buried unknowingly on top of others. No, what about the caskets those grieving families were sold? The funeral homes involved were fined about 10% of what they were getting paid for services. The owner was asked to turn over the burial plot maps to the state. If that had happened, I would have some records and families would know where their loved ones were laid to rest. Of course that didn’t happen! The owner was murdered, stabbed to death, and according to the CA’s article his car was dumped in the Mississippi River – with records inside. When it was pulled out the records were illegible. And yes, the murder went unsolved (AAAAHHH!)!
Some mysteries are simpler than others. This month, outgoing Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell agreed to place a sign at Rose Hill and he asked me to find evidence of the date the cemetery was established. By now I love walking through there so did my fourth complete survey to find the oldest grave (Nathan Armour, 1939) while also looking for some personal “key” dates. In the northeast quadrant of the burying ground I found the nicely made and upright headstone of Pearl Smith. Wife of Sherman, she was 38-40 when she died (marker and birth certificate don’t agree) which caught my eye as well as the date of her death. I found her death certificate in the Shelby County archives then dug some more. She was living on East Georgia in Memphis when she passed. Through FamilySearch.org I found her and her husband living in Raymond (Hinds County) Mississippi in 1940 and rural Hinds County in 1935 – he was a sharecropper, slavery by another name. There was also a son Allen. I went again to the library and searched for her obituary – I just couldn’t leave this one unsolved. I found siblings, the funeral home that handled her final affairs, the date of services and but the mystery continued to build. Mrs. Smith was 40 years old and living in Memphis. She died at home. Neither the death certificate nor the obituary mentions a cause of death. Her (His?) son Allen was not mentioned as a survivor in the obit. Why did the date of her death catch my eye? Mrs. Pearl Smith died the same day my late brother Donald was born – January 12, 1949. I now have a place to put some of his ashes in Memphis. There’s one small mystery solved.