G. Wayne Dowdy’s History of the Bluff City

365 events that shaped the city.

On December 31, 1902, Creeping Bear, a Native-American performer in a Wild West show that was playing Memphis, met up with a man on Main Street. That man taunted Creeping Bear with disparaging remarks until Creeping Bear, still in costume, had had enough. He removed the tomahawk from his belt and struck the man (a well-known drunk) in the head right there on Main, and two weeks later the man died. Creeping Bear was arrested, charged with first-degree murder, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, but the conviction was later overturned by the state Supreme Court. Then his conviction for voluntary manslaughter was overturned. By the time a third trial was scheduled, everybody involved — even the prosecution — seems to have lost interest in the case. Creeping Bear left Memphis a free man.

Not so the three men jailed one New Year’s Eve. The charges: selling or setting off fireworks on Main Street. Around midnight on January 1, 1950 — according to newspaper reporter Roy Jennings — downtown Memphis saw a “prolonged bombardment with firecrackers and sidewalk torpedoes.” One man was arrested when he threw a large firecracker at the feet of two police officers. Two men were arrested for selling fireworks. Police, however, took most of the commotion in stride, because this New Year, which happened to fall on a Saturday night, police commissioner Claude Armour said “spirit was at its highest in Memphis … we didn’t try to interfere unless there was an aggravated case.”

Other times, Memphis police certainly did interfere.

Consider the case, on July 30, 1945, when police discovered a 1,225-square-foot “Victory Garden” full of marijuana plants on West McLemore.

Or on April 18, 1902, when officers busted an opium den on Beale Street, complete with “dope furniture,” which included two lacquered Chinese pillows and a box of Chinese dominoes.

Or on March 24, 1932, when police raided a house at 1116 Madison (the home of former mayor Thomas Ashcroft), because, according to reports, “the smell of whisky pervaded the entire neighborhood.” And well it should have during Prohibition, because police at that address on Madison discovered a 7,500-gallon still, 3,000 gallons of mash, and 400 gallons of liquor.

Such are the noteworthy events in On This Day in Memphis History (The History Press) by G. Wayne Dowdy, a history he knows full well and many Memphians, especially younger ones, very probably do not. Dowdy is agency manager of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center’s history department and its Memphis and Shelby County Room. For this page-a-day, book-length calendar of the Bluff City’s bygone days, he’s combed local newspapers, library files, and books (including Ask Vance by Memphis magazine’s own Vance Lauderdale) for important and not so important (but entertaining) items.

Of importance: the trial of local black college students on March 21, 1960, after they’d staged a sit-in in protest of the city’s segregated library system and been cited for disorderly conduct. Less than important: an announcement on March 10, 1948. That’s when a drive-in theater on Lamar began offering laundry service while patrons enjoyed the movie from their cars. Among the entries that defy categorization, however, consider the news on June 12, 1912. That’s the day an elephant at the Memphis Zoo ate the clothes of a 12-year-old girl.

But among the entries to prove that in Memphis the more things change, the more they stay the same, consider the findings of a Shelby County grand jury. After serving for four months and handing down 547 indictments, the jury observed that “until this service [jury members] had no great knowledge of the roguery that exists in this county, and so has been appalled by the number of cases of murder, carrying concealed weapons, violation of liquor laws, theft, etc., that have been presented to it. Is the human mind becoming more and more perverted? Or is this sad condition the result of lax enforcement of the law?”

Those are questions the grand jury didn’t try to answer. The important point is that the questions were asked not in 2014 but on May 16, 1919.

According to Dowdy in the introduction to his book: “Above all things, Memphis is a creative town, and that is reflected in the 365 days that make up this volume. … The challenge in writing On This Day in Memphis History was to avoid the most familiar incidents in the Bluff City’s history while still paying attention to the people, places, and events that Memphians hold most dear.”

For what one historian of Memphis did not hold dear, however, see Dowdy’s entry for September 6, 1962. That’s the day Gerald Capers — native Memphian, Yale-trained historian, and author of The Biography of a River Town: Memphis: Its Heroic Age (first published in 1939) — told the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper: “No large Southern city, in my opinion, so presents in bold relief the intellectual and esthetic poverty of the South as Memphis … in its 140 years of existence, has Memphis ever produced a poet, a novelist, a musician, an artist, a scientist, or even a judge of national character?”

Capers does grant W.C. Handy some positive, widespread influence. But in 1962, he went on to cite the city’s “typical” (read: less than impressive?) contributions to the national scene: Boss Crump, Clarence Saunders, Richard Halliburton, Machine Gun Kelly, and “now” Elvis Presley.

You’ve a right to wonder what Saunders and Halliburton and, by that late date, Elvis are doing on such a list. One thing, though, is obvious, and Dowdy makes the point:

“Capers apparently did not know, or never bothered to find out, the many contributions to science, the arts, and industry that are included within the pages of this book,” Dowdy writes in reaction to Capers and he is right to bristle at Capers’ uncalled for, when not unfounded, remarks.

Give thanks, though, that Capers did not refer to an incident that occurred in 1928. That’s when two elephants at the Memphis Zoo (again with the elephants!) broke free and roamed the campus of Rhodes College — Rhodes, which back in the day was known as Southwestern at Memphis and where an undergraduate named Gerald Capers once walked too.

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