Snakes and Bears and Ghosts, Oh My!
Vance Lauderdale looks back at some of the weirdest moments in Memphis history.
Illustrations by Greg Cravens
History books fill their pages with accounts of great people doing great things. We could easily do that here; after all, Memphis is a city that spawned Elvis Presley, Fred Smith, E.H. Crump, and countless others.
But the life of a city is also colored by events, both mundane and marvelous, that give the community much of its character — and many of these events spark "water-cooler" conversations for days, weeks, and — in some cases — years.
"Remember when that lady appeared on Ted Mack with her toy piano?" people would say. "What about the time when the little dog pulled those kids from the river?" Or: "Didn't somebody here once find a fully grown bear on their roof?"
In previous issues of this magazine, we've occasionally listed the "great" moments in Memphis history. Here, for your edification and amusement, are some of the truly strange ones.
1877 Memphians are horrified to discover unusual objects mixed with the rain during a heavy downpour. Umbrellas really aren't much help against thousands of foot-long garter snakes dropping from the sky, most of them very much alive. Investigating the phenomenon, Scientific American magazine pondered where so many snakes "could exist in such abundance," and all they could suggest was that "they were probably carried aloft by a hurricane and wafted through the atmosphere," apparently forgetting that Memphis rarely has hurricanes. In fact, never.
1955 The owner of a house at 3068 Park comes outside one morning and discovers a fully grown black bear perched on his roof. Nobody seems to know where it came from, or how it got all the way to the middle of town. Hundreds of neighbors watch as experts from the zoo and animal shelter lasso the 400-pound animal and haul it away to the zoo, where it goes on display. The homeowner's name is Harry Wulff, so maybe the bear thought he was visiting a friend from the forest. Just a theory.
2006 Memphians are used to finding strange things in the Mississippi, but we don't expect to find a manatee, an animal normally found in the warm waters of the Gulf. Sea World officials journey here to catch the mammal and take it back home, but it eludes them and much to everyone's dismay is found dead in McKellar Lake weeks later. How and why it traveled all the way to Memphis is a mystery.
1941 Fueled by patriotic rage, city workers tear down the lovely Japanese Garden in Overton Park following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Gone are the gazebo, lanterns, flowers, and other adornments. The garden had been a popular attraction since the early 1900s. The Memphis College of Art stands on the site today.
1923 When the Grand Opera House opened at Beale and Main, the newspaper applauded the premier performance — a production by the Grand English Opera Company — as "the most brilliant theatrical and social success in the history of Memphis." Nothing so strange about that. But when the beautiful limestone building is consumed by fire on the night of October 16, 1923, legend has it that one of the victims, a young girl named Mary, still occupies seat C-5 in the Orpheum, the theatre that replaced it.
1899 Businessman Jasper Smith, described by newspapers as "a very wealthy man," leaves his downtown real estate offices one evening, has a drink in a nearby saloon, and then walks off into oblivion. Abducted? Murdered? No one will ever know. He is never seen again, and several years later his two sisters erect an impressive monument at the entrance to Elmwood Cemetery over an empty grave.
1941 Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, known throughout the nation as the "Goat Gland Doctor," is laid to rest in Forest Hill Cemetery — an odd choice for a resting place since he never lived here. Regarded today as one of the greatest "quacks" of all time, Brinkley made a fortune by treating what is today called erectile dysfunction with a novel method — implanting "goat glands" (meaning: testicles) — into patients at his clinics in Kansas and Texas.
1910 A British company lays out Rugby Park, a subdivision of wide boulevards and grand homes that would house some 20,000 residents. It was designed to rival Central Gardens. The firm goes bankrupt after building just four homes. Today, that community is known as Frayser.
1917 One of the coldest winters in this region's history causes the Mississippi River to freeze completely over, trapping and crushing steamboats in the ice, and allowing Memphians to walk all the way to Arkansas without using a bridge.
1911 To win a bet, Professor Charles Oldrieve dons a pair of floating shoes of his own invention — more like strap-on canoes, really — and proceeds to "walk" down the middle of the Mississippi River, from Cincinnati to New Orleans. He spends the night in Memphis, accompanied by his wife, who follows him the entire way in a rowboat. Yes, he wins the bet.
1902 More than 3,000 Memphians thrill to the sights and sounds of "Admiral Dewey's Victory at Santiago" featuring "the realistic destruction of the Spanish fleet" and "The Last Days of Pompeii" — both elaborate fireworks extravaganzas that are just part of the regular entertainment at East End, our city's first amusement park. The highlight is "a startling representation of the destruction of Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius, achieved by ingenious electrical, stereopticon, and pyrotechnic contrivances." All this in Midtown, remember.
1945 At the age of 17, Lura Grubb dies and goes to heaven. Or so she says. The wife of the Rev. Paul Grubb, founder of Memphis' Faith Temple in Midtown, writes a book about her journey and tours the country telling what she saw during her miraculous visit to heaven. Among other marvels, she says, the angels wore "sheer, cobwebby robes."
1922 A massive chunk of the bluff breaks off and slides into the Mississippi River, taking with it several buildings and a Frisco Railroad locomotive (the crew escapes safely). This prompts the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build Riverside Drive. When "the most expensive highway in the world," as it was called, opens in 1935, it not only stabilizes the bluff, but turns derelict property and dumping grounds into a beautiful traffic artery for downtown.
1929 Stuntman Freddie Lund, the "Bronco Buster of the Skies," keeps the crowds oohing and aahing as part of the aerial events, which include a flyover by 100 planes to celebrate the grand opening of the brand-new Memphis Municipal Airport.
1929 The Tigers, a professional football team owned by Piggly Wiggly entrepreneur Clarence Saunders, play the Green Bay Packers — yes, those Green Bay Packers — at Hodges Field in Midtown, and beat them. Impressed by this and other victories over powerhouse teams, the NFL urges Saunders to join their newly formed league. He refuses, and Memphis has been chasing that dream ever since.
1936 Herman Burkle opens a tiny bake shop at Madison and Cooper that becomes a Memphis institution, more than three decades before the area is developed into Overton Square. When Burkle's Bakery finally closes in 1976, members of the Memphis City Council don white aprons to serve more than 1,000 devoted customers who drop by to nibble one more doughnut, or sip one last cup of coffee.
1937 Clarence Saunders opens the first fully automated grocery store, calling it Keedoozle (for "key does all"). Customers using a key-shaped calculator select their goods from glass cases, and conveyor belts deliver their purchases to the cashier. The complicated system never works properly, and after tinkering with it off and on for years, Saunders finally gives up.
1939 World-famous author and adventurer Richard Halliburton embarks on his last expedition — trying to cross the Pacific from Hong Kong to San Francisco in a wooden Chinese sailing vessel called a "junk." After running into a typhoon, he is never seen again. Though he never went to school there, his parents later erect Halliburton Tower at Rhodes College in his memory.
1941 Dignitaries from the city, sports world, and "all walks of life" sing "The Star Spangled Banner" to open the Southern Bowling Lanes on Cleveland, the "Bowling Palace of Memphis." The event is so important that the games that day are broadcast on radio. Yep. Bowling. On the radio.
1940 LIFE magazine devotes a story to a Memphian named Guicel Camper, at 8'7" one of the tallest people in America.
1941 Poochie, a mongrel dog owned by the Becton family of Memphis, leaps into the Mississippi River and manages to tug a man and two boys — who somehow thought swimming in the river was a good idea — to safety after the current began to pull them away from shore.
1945 Still dressed in his Nazi uniform, an escaped prisoner-of-war strolls around downtown Memphis, taking in the sights and attempting to buy beer with German money, before he is finally arrested and returned to the prison camp in Arkansas. Assigned to a plantation in West Memphis, he tells military authorities that he is not a spy and wasn't trying to escape; he saw the city from the distance, and decided to walk here and visit.
1928 A fierce blaze consumes the wooden — yes, wooden roadways — suspended on the outside of the Harahan Bridge, at the time the only way for motorists to reach Arkansas by car.
1950 Pal Shoaf, an ex-prize fighter who claimed he once KO'd Jack Dempsey, is nabbed trying to rob a loan company. He does it, he says, for love, telling the police he needs money to maintain his 23-year-old girlfriend: "It's just a pleasure to sit and look at her, and I wanted to give her everything I could."
1925 Students at Humes High School stage a walkout, followed by "racy dancing" outside the school. The Commercial Appeal is outraged by this blatant "revolt against authority." What upset the students so much? The school board's decision not to add 11th and 12th grades to the school. Those crazy kids!
1953 Nightclub entertainer Helen Putnam forms Fat Girls Anonymous, a group designed to help its members lose weight while also helping out with local civic projects. "Women's Group Carries Plenty of Weight," says a typically snarky Press-Scimitar headline.
1954 Memphians gawk at a Thanksgiving Parade float shaped like a giant rocket ship — a promotion for the children's TV show Mars Patrol, hosted by our very own Wink Martindale, who would go on to fame and fortune as the popular host of countless TV game shows.
1955 Memphians tune their radio dials to AM1430 to pick up WHER, the nation's first "all-female" station. Promoted as "1,000 Beautiful Watts," the station is the brainchild of Sun Records guru Sam Phillips and partly funded by Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson.
1955 Ernestine Lomax takes first prize on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour by holding a cheap toy piano in the crook of her arm and playing songs "that amazed and captivated audiences." She eventually becomes one of the show's few five-time winners and appears on-stage at Radio City Music Hall. Mack himself is so fond of her that he buys her a brand-new piano (but still a toy version) to replace the battered one she played for years.
1956 Mid-South Fair officials bury a time capsule — a glass jar containing "pictures and items from everyday Memphis" — by the East Parkway entrance, and seal the container with "a radioactive substance." These were the days, you see, when radiation and rayguns were considered "cool."
1926 Sculptor Nancy Coonsman Hahn unveils the famous "Doughboy" statue in Overton Park. It is not well-received. Local artists consider her creation a "vicious beast" and even military historians point out that the soldier's stance is all wrong: When gutting the enemy with a bayonet, you're supposed to keep your left foot forward.
1958 Entertainer Danny Thomas uses a cigar lighter to set fire to abandoned houses downtown. He is not charged with arson; it's a publicity stunt to clear the 17-acre tract so developers can build St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Thomas had made a promise to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, to help children if his career took an upswing; it certainly did, and the star of Make Room for Daddy kept his promise.
1962 With a "Goooood Evening," Sivad (real name: Malco Theater promoter Watson Davis) welcomes viewers to the premiere episode of Fantastic Features, the horror-movie showcase that airs on WHBQ-TV until 1969.
1895 Daredevils pay 10 cents to ride the newfangled inventions called "elevators" to the top of the 10-story D.T. Porter Building, Memphis' first skyscraper. Despite persistent rumors, the elevator cables are not pulled by mules.
1958 More than 70,000 tons of corncobs stored outside the Quaker Oats plant, to be processed into chemicals, burst into flames, perhaps struck by a bolt of lightning. The five-story pile smolders for more than a month, the acrid smoke causing the evacuation of nearby homes and businesses, before the fire finally burns out. Local fire officials consult other departments for help, but nobody knows what to do; nothing like this has ever happened before.
1961 Rolling back to its garage on Broad Street, a Merrymobile suddenly bursts into flames, and its driver has to leap to safety. The little round car, and its freezers packed with popsicles and other treats, is destroyed.
1960 A few hours after a game ends, a fire starts in the wooden bleachers of Russwood Park. The venerable baseball stadium on Madison erupts into one of the largest blazes in Memphis history. Russwood isn't rebuilt; the Memphis Chicks begin playing at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, before finally moving into their new home at AutoZone Park.
1926 A log cabin, originally constructed in Chickasaw Gardens as a playhouse for Piggly Wiggly founder Clarence Saunders, is purchased by a Memphis family and moved to the campus of Rhodes College to serve as the school's first sorority house. Although the women of Chi Omega publicly express gratitude for the unusual gift, the school's official architect is not pleased — not at all — to have a rustic log cabin perched in the middle of a Gothic Revival campus, and the old building is eventually sheathed in stone, to match the others on Sorority Row.
1910 The Memphis Aero Meet takes place at the Tri-State Fairgrounds, designed to show off the many advantages of this new form of transportation. Maybe it still needs some work. Spectators are treated to an unexpected thrill when one of the airplanes crashes into a parked car.
1960 Nervous about the Cold War, radio and TV pioneer Hoyt Wooten constructs the world's largest private bomb shelter. The 13-room complex beneath his Whitehaven estate includes dormitories for 52 people, a communications center, recreation room, and — for those who didn't make it — a morgue. After Wooten's death, the complex becomes a community center for the development built on his property.
1910 Memphians can hardly sleep because they are so worried about Halley's Comet crashing into the earth — an event confirmed by many scientists of the day. The comet's tail (composed of nothing but dust particles) brushes our planet on its sweep through the solar system, but we luckily avoid a direct collision.
1970 Vice President Spiro Agnew appears at the Mid-South Coliseum, accompanied by Tex Ritter, Roy Acuff, and the Methodist Hospital Glee Club. Yep, quite a show.
1963 A cleancut young fellow named Bailey Wilkinson upsets his neighbors when he opens a coffee shop on North Highland. Though no drinking is allowed, and the tiny place closes at midnight, "it looks like a hoodlum hangout to me," one woman tells reporters — mainly because the walls of the place are painted black. Shocking!
1963 Upset by all the children clamoring for ice cream outside her house, the owner of Pecan Hill Trailer Court pulls a gun on the driver of a Merrymobile and orders him to drive away. She is charged with "disturbing the peace."
1871 A little girl causes a citywide sensation when she visits the halls and grounds of the Brinkley Female College, just south of downtown. This is no ordinary little girl, you see, but (if you can believe the old accounts) the ghost of a long-dead child who once lived in the building. She supposedly leads skeptics to a bottle buried on the school grounds packed with important papers and deeds, but the bottle is stolen the night before it was to be opened on the stage of the Greenlaw Opera house. Hard to believe, we know, but school officials and students swear they saw and heard the spectral image. "Brinkley Female College Haunted and in an Uproar of Terror and Confusion," said a typical newspaper headline. An elaborate prank or hoax? We'll never know. The ghostly girl never returns.
1934 Police stake out the riverbluff after residents report that it seems to be slowly but steadily disappearing. What they discover is a shock: People flock to the bluffs at night, with spoons and other utensils, and eat the dirt and clay. The police director says he can't arrest them. First of all, there doesn't seem to be any law against it, and what's the use? He tells reporters, "Clay eaters must have their clay."
1967 Two dancers are arrested for "indecent performances" at the Whirlaway Club, one of the city's top nightspots. Undercover cops say the women are doing "bumps and grinds." A reporter fretted, "How far is too far for a go-go girl to go?" The club's owner pays a small fine, and life in the Bluff City somehow returns to normal.
1934 City leaders change the name of a downtown alley to November 6th Street to commemorate the date when Memphians voted to join the Tennessee Valley Authority power system. A nice gesture, and one that bewilders drivers and pedestrians ever since.
1926 Babe Ruth steps onto the stage of the Pantages Theater downtown and enthralls the packed auditorium with tales of his exploits on and off the diamond. He joins W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, and other stars who appear there over the years, later renamed the Warner Theatre, before our city's most opulent vaudeville and movie palace is demolished in 1968 to make way for Commerce Square.
1968 Strong winds push the skyride gondolas off their track, trapping some 55 passengers high over the lake at Lakeland Amusement Park. Firefighters eventually pull everyone to safety after nine hours. Opened in 1961, Lakeland — complete with rides, Huff 'n' Puff Railroad, and International Speedway — is a major attraction here until it closes in 1977.
1912 A patient smoking in bed burns down the James Sanitarium — rather ironic considering that it was a hospital designed to treat addictions such as smoking. Opened in 1892 as the Raleigh Inn, this three-story structure is considered one of the finest resorts in the Mid-South, a place to "take the waters" from the half-dozen natural springs in the ravine north of James Road — until all the springs finally run dry.
1961 His assistants scoop a hole in a parking lot on Union and "Digger O'Dell" climbs down into his "coffinlike chamber" — a bizarre promotion for Bluff City Buick. A banner asks, "How long can he remain alive?" and a glass porthole lets visitors view Digger, who calmly lies on a cot and smokes cigarettes. He tells reporters he plans to spend two months in his "underground apartment" but police yank him out after 13 days and arrest him for not paying alimony to his wife back in Atlanta.
1970 More than a little outraged by the use of nude models and an exhibition of nude photography at Memphis College of Art, a kidnapper abducts the teenage son of a Rhodes College professor and threatens to kill him if the offending images are not taken down. College officials quickly comply, and the boy is released unharmed just two hours later. The kidnapper, who also put bombs on artists' cars, is never caught or identified.
1992 Local artist Roy Tamboli erects Pangaean Disc, the bizarre sculpture featuring continents and spires and doll's heads on the hill between Union Extended and Poplar. The result: regular emails to Vance Lauderdale asking, "What IS that thing?"
1971 J.C. Levy, owner of the kiddie rides at the Memphis Zoo, goes to lunch one day and leaves a funny greeting on his answering machine. The response is so great that he sets up 25 machines and "Dial 'n' Smile" is born. Before his death in 1997, Levy claims he recorded 2,000 messages and got more than 20 million calls.
1972 Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson, described as "The Man with 300,000 Beds," is featured on the cover of TIME magazine.
1933 Local police and federal agents raid a house in South Memphis and, without firing a shot, nab gangster (and Central High grad) George "Machine Gun" Kelly, the most wanted man in America. Legend has it that Kelly raises his arms and pleads, "Don't shoot, G-Men," but it was actually a Memphis policeman (whom Kelly knew) who arrested him, standing in the bathroom in his undershorts.
1990 Tireless promoter Sidney Shlenker unveils plans to link The Pyramid with Mud Island in a bizarre entertainment complex called "Rakapolis," which would somehow merge the history of Memphis music with the culture of ancient Egypt. None of this ever happens, and today "The Great American Pyramid," as it was originally called, stands as empty as a . . . tomb.
1977 Ex-president Gerald Ford makes national news when he hits a hole-in-one on the fifth hole of Colonial Country Club's south course.
1990 Dr. Iben Browning predicts a major earthquake will strike our city on December 3, 1990. Even when reporters point out that the Texas scientist is an expert on climate, not earthquakes, citizens get very nervous, but the date comes and goes, and Memphis does not shake, rattle, or even roll.
1892 Memphis spans the Mississippi River with the Great Bridge (later called the Frisco Bridge) the longest bridge in North America and third-longest in the world. Because no one is entirely sure the bridge is strong enough, volunteers man 18 locomotives, linked end to end, which inch across the bridge on a test run. Everyone holds their breath, but it does not tumble into the river, and continues to carry railroads to this day.
1915 More than 12,000 children and adults jam the Poplar Street Depot to see and even touch the actual Liberty Bell, carried to Memphis on an open railroad car as part of a national tour.
1981 Leslie Gattas, teenage daughter of a Memphis businessman, is kidnapped from the bedroom of her East Memphis home. Everyone fears the worst. Then church workers find her alive 119 days later in the attic of Christ United Methodist Church, where missing food and other items had aroused their suspicions. Her kidnapper eludes them, but police nab him days later — hiding in another church — and he goes away to prison.