The Crying Angel
What is the story of the “Crying Angel” — a terrifying creature that supposedly roams a patch of woods near Millington?
Dear Vance: What is the story of the “Crying Angel” — a terrifying creature that supposedly roams a patch of woods near Millington?
— t.f., memphis.
Dear T.F.: So many stories have been told about the Crying Angel that it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction. Venturing into those dark woods at night, hoping for a glimpse of it, became a rite of passage for many teenagers. And let me tell you, it took nerves of steel to wait in the dark while a white-robed angel, with wings gently flapping in the breeze and tears coursing down her cheeks — strolled past, never making a sound. But I think I can tell most of the real story here because I have actually seen this apparition myself — at least 20 times over the years, in fact.
The Lauderdales once owned land along Old Millington Road, and so it was easy to pay a visit to the Crying Angel, day or night. So let me just spoil part of the mystery right now by explaining that the Crying Angel is — or was — nothing but a granite statue, a carved figure mounted atop a high pedestal, in a long-abandoned family graveyard. The whole thing, pedestal and all, stood about eight feet high. And here’s the best part: The stone had specks of mica or some other shiny material embedded in it, so if you visited this old gravestone at night — and really, that was the best time to do it — the beam of your flashlight caused the angel’s face to sparkle, giving the remarkable effect that the statue was actually crying. Moonlight flickering through the trees overhead also created the optical illusion that the angel’s wings were gently moving.
I realize now that the much-feared Crying Angel sounds like little more than a stone carving. But oh my goodness, if you didn’t know this in advance, and you ventured into those dark woods at night, and came across “her” in your light, well, let me tell you that it was one of the scariest things you could ever see.
And even when your pulse stopped racing, the angel still made people pause and think, when their flashlights illuminated the very curious carving on the base of the gravestone: “Three Generations of Remberts,” the epitaph began, innocently enough. And then there was this: “To my dear parents and loving sisters, and my noble, gentle, brilliant and brave brother, killed for defending home against the most envious [sic] lot of cutthroats that ever cursed the face of this earth.”
Wow. Not your usual “Rest in Peace” epitaph, is it?
Everyone had different versions of the terrible story that prompted such a bitter carving. The most common one was this: The Remberts were a peaceful farming family, and when the Civil War began, the menfolk joined the Confederate Army and went off to battle. One day, Union deserters came across the Rembert farmhouse, broke inside, and did terrible things to the women and children, who were unable to defend themselves, or their home, against this “lot of cutthroats.” A “brave and brilliant” brother, who stayed behind because he was too young to fight, died trying to save his family. Days or weeks later, one of the Remberts came home and discovered this atrocity, and survivors later erected this monument in the woods near their old home.
It’s a chilling story, best told in the darkness as you gathered your friends around the angel. But it’s not true.
The Remberts were indeed farmers and landowners in this area. Quite prosperous ones, in fact. But when the war started, only one of the men, 18-year-old Andrew Rembert, went off to battle, where he lost his life at Shiloh. When he heard this sad news, his father, Samuel Rembert, hitched up a horse and buggy and journeyed all the way to Shiloh to bring his boy’s body home. When he got to the battlefield, he was horrified to learn that most of the Confederate dead had been dumped into mass graves. Somehow he found his son, and indeed brought him home, where he was laid to rest in the family cemetery. And it was another Rembert, so I understand, who later erected the angel monument, in tribute to Andrew and all the family members buried nearby, and whose gravestones have been lost to time. And that grim line about the cutthroats? Well, that meant the whole danged Union Army, and “defending home” didn’t mean the Rembert farmhouse in particular, but the entire South.
But even knowing the real story didn’t really make visiting the Crying Angel at night any less of an adventure. What did spoil the fun was when vandals shot her wings off, tugged her off the pedestal, chopped off her head, and finally stole the figure entirely. The images here show how it looked during a visit in 1990, when at least the angel was still there, and the site a few years later, when only the base remained.
The whole area has changed dramatically, and today a sprawling landfill completely surrounds a tiny patch of woods that conceals the cemetery. Years ago, I hopped the fence and went looking for the angel, but couldn’t find anything at all — not even the base of the statue. I’ve heard that somebody found the poor old statue and was planning to restore it, but don’t know if that’s true.
What is true is that she lives on, in a way, memorialized as the name of a wine produced by the Old Millington Winery, just down the road. Stop in someday and buy a bottle of Crying Angel Red, and offer up a toast to the Remberts.
Dear Vance: What do you know about the old Purity Bakeries Corporation? Their sign is still mounted on the front of the building that now houses South Front Antiques. — b.n., memphis.
Dear B.N.: I drive down Front Street at least once a week, on my way to the offices of this magazine to collect the suitcase of cash they pay me to scribble this column. I had never noticed the sign you mentioned, and even after I had the chauffeur stop the Daimler-Benz in front of the building, I still couldn’t find it. But after roaming around a bit, I found it — a nice cast-iron sign, mounted (oddly enough) around the corner on the south side of the building. Not only is it placed rather high, but as you can see, it was apparently attached to the bricks before the downspouts were installed.
So obviously a bakery once occupied this structure. But what was not so obvious was the listing for Purity Bakeries Corporation in old city directories. In fact, I couldn’t find any mention of such a company at all. I found a Purity Oil Company on Monroe, a Purity Drug Company on Trigg, and a Purity Seed Company on Front. In 1923, a Purity Bakery opened at 996 Jackson, but during its five years in business, it never moved to Front Street.
But here’s the answer to your mystery, and it involved out-of-town owners. The building at 374 South Front first opened in 1920 as the home to the Havana American Cigar Company. That’s interesting in itself, no? Two years later, the Grennan Baking Company moved in, a national chain with headquarters in Chicago. By all accounts, this was a giant operation, and I tracked down an old article that mentioned its “hundreds of branches in 26 states.” That same article described just one aspect of its business — eggs: “The eggs required in the Grennan plants run into such fabulous numbers that the company maintains its own egg-buying depot in the heart of Chicago’s wholesale market, where it buys eggs for the entire chain of Grennan cake plants.”
Meanwhile, another baking conglomerate named — you guessed it — the Purity Bakeries Corporation was thriving in New York City, and it began to buy up other, smaller bakeries around the country. I don’t have the exact date, but I know that Purity acquired the bakery on Front Street, because city directory listings say so; by the early 1950s the firm is listed as “Grennan Bakeries — a Division of Purity Bakeries.”
Grennan, by the way, kept baking its cakes in that building until the late 1950s, when the company closed most of its operations. Purity became part of an even larger group called American Baking Company, which is still in business (under various names) around the world today. Not in Memphis, though.