Tommy Doran, the "Armless News Boy"

Memphis has always had more than its share of colorful characters. Here's the latest example: While rummaging through an old bookstore years ago, I turned up this old black-and-white postcard for "Thomas F. Doran, Armless News Boy." Although part of the caption at the bottom has scuffed off, you can still read: "LOST BOTH ARMS JUMPING ON FREIGHT TRAINS WHEN TWELVE YEARS OF AGE."

The photo shows the boy — more of a young man, really — neatly dressed in a jacket and nice straw hat — signing his name while holding a pen between his teeth.

Nothing on this undated card suggested Doran was a Memphian, however. But I learned more of his story one night while I was lounging in my La-Z-Boy and reading old copies of Yank magazine, published in the 1940s. One of the stories offered readers a wartime look at Memphis, and I perked up when it made special mention of Doran:

"Not all the Memphis characters have changed since the war, however. Tommy Doran, the armless news boy with the complexion of well-aged bourbon, is still doing business at his old stand at Main and Monroe, and the locals are as proud of his skill in lighting a cigarette all by himself and of his artistry in picking up a pint — or a fifth, if need be — with his teeth and taking a good, healthy swig."

Not exactly a very flattering portrait, is it? But you know, if I had lost both my arms beneath a freight train, I'd probably take a drink now and then, too. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'd just stay drunk all the time. But Doran apparently made a living by operating a newstand downtown, and that showed he had more gumption than a lot of people I know. Don't make me name any names.

Doran died in 1956 at the age of 70. I don't know much else about him. Old city directories over the years identify him only as a "newspaper salesman" with a residence in later years at 158 North Main, which was the address of the old Arlington Hotel. But at one time, he was so well-known in these parts that he had his own postcards, and not even the Lauderdales can say that.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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