Saturday, April 20, 2013

Memphis has a lot to see and do with places filled with intrigue, mystery and more

Memphis has a lot to see and do with places filled with intrigue, mystery and more
By:  Michael G. Lander 

is probably best known for its location alongside the mighty Mississippi River and for its music, barbecue, the entertainment on Beale Street, Elvis Presley's Graceland home, and so much more.  It is a top destination choice for people around the world, drawing as many as 10 million visitors each year, according to the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.  TripAdvisor ranked Memphis as number two in "America's Top 10 Destination on the Rise, and National Geographic named Memphis as one of the 20 must-see places in the world

The Woodruff-Fontaine is one of several Victorian-style era
homes in Memphis.  It is was built between 1870 - 1871 by
Amos Woodruff and the home is said to have more than
period antique furnishings inside.

While most visitors are usually drawn to the river city's many destination hot spots, Memphis also has a rich and fascinating history, filled with intrigue, mystery, tragedy, a dark and seedy side, and it is even said, by some, to be haunted.

For those who want to explore the distinctive, unique and unusual part of Memphis, and who might also be looking to possibly experience a little of the paranormal along the way, there are a few places in the city that should be on your "must see and do" list.  All of these can be accomplished in as few as 48 hours or on a weekend excursion to the city.

One of the best ways to start such a tour of Memphis might be to go to a place where you can find the rich and poor together, along with the infamous and the virtuous, the young and the old, the well-known, lesser known, and the unknown altogether in one location.  This place is the city's historic Elmwood Cemetery.

Elmwood Cemetery is Memphis' oldest and still active cemetery
and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.  It is also
an official Bird Sanctuary and Arboretum.

Established in 1852, the cemetery is "the crown jewel of historic Southern cemeteries," Dale Schaefer said.  Schaefer is Elmwood Cemetery's current historian.  The cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places and is operated by a nonprofit trust.  It has 80 acres, and is one of the oldest active cemeteries in the nation with three to four acres still available for burials, Schaefer said.  

As indicated on the Elmwood's Cemetery's website, it has a park-like setting with sweeping vistas, shady knolls, large stands of ancient trees, and magnificent monuments.  It is also the final resting place to more than 75,000 men, women, and children.

Among those buried at Elmwood are the countless number of victims who perished from the yellow fever epidemic of 1878.  The disease is said to have decimated the city's population and many of those who did not flee the city died.  The number of deaths from this disease was so overwhelming, Schaefer said, that the cemetery had to resort to mass graves in what is now known as "No-Man's Land."  As for Elmwood being haunted, Schaefer said that it all depends on who you talk to. 

"Personally, I have never seen or experienced anything, which would suggest paranormal activity," Schaefer said. 

Laura Cunningham does, however, recount several inexplicable incidents at the cemetery in what might be a tourist guidebook to the paranormal, "Haunted Memphis."  From the accounts that are given, one might be led to believe that Elmwood is possibly home to several wondering spirits.  The cemetery is open every day of the year from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  Tours can be pre-arranged by calling 901-774-3212 with an option for visitors to take a self-guided audio tour.

The next stop on a Memphis tour should also include a visit to two Victorian-era mansions, the Woodruff-Fontaine and Mallory-Neely house.  The Woodruff-Fontaine was built between 1870 to 1871 with Amos Woodruff as the original owner, followed by Noland Fontaine.  After members of the Fontaine's family died, the house sold to Rosa Lee and was a free art school until the school moved to Overton Park in 1959.
The house was vacant for two years until the Association for Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, through public funds, saved and restored it.  Carolyn Swanson is an event coordinator and docent for the home and she said that, aside from the tours that are given, the house is often used for weddings, wedding rehearsals, bridal and baby showers and luncheons. 

Other than the many visitors who come to the home, Swanson said that one of the previous occupants, Mollie Woodruff, doesn't seem to have ever left it even after her death in 1917.  Swanson said that she once heard footsteps when she was alone in the house and it has had ghost hunters come through to investigate.  The home is open for tours from noon until 4 p.m. on Wednesday through Sunday.

The Mallory-Neely house, built in 1852, is a 25-room home Italian villa-style mansion that was home to the Isaac Kirtland, Benjamin Babb, James C. Neely, Daniel Grant, and Barton Lee Mallory families between 1852 and 1962.  It is the only historic property in Memphis to retain most of its original furnishings.  It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and became a museum in 1973. 

The Mallory-Neely house, built in 1852, is a 25-room Italian
Villa-style mansion that is the only historic property in
Memphis to retain most of its original furnishings.
While Lauren Pate, who is one of several tour guides for the home said that she has not had any unusual experiences or encounters with ghosts herself, the home is featured in Cunningham's "Haunted Memphis" book for its other-worldly occurrences, as is the Woodruff-Fontaine.  The Mallory-Neely house is open for tours on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Another one of the stops that visitors might also want to check out is one of Memphis' unofficial landmarks,
Ernestine & Hazel's.  It once was a sundry store that was actually once a cover for a brothel that was located upstairs.  The bar is best known for its soul burgers, its juke box, and it has been a popular late-night gathering hotspot for decades. 

Ernestine & Hazel's is a popular bar in downtown Memphis
with a lot of history.  It's second floor is said to have been
a brothel many years ago.  Since then, it seems to be a place
filled with spirits (and not the kind found in a bottle)
with claims of paranormal actitivity taking place there now.

Karen Brownlee has worked in the bar for 12 years and said that many films, like "Black Snake Moan," have been shot there and that the bar has a long history of blues music greats hanging out there with frequent visits from celebrities who often stop in.  Brownlee acknowledged the presence of ghosts at the 531 South Main bar and it was of several restaurants and bars in Cunningham's "Haunted Memphis" book.

One other way to see an alternative side of Memphis is to take one of two walking tours offered by Backbeat Tours.  The first of these is a two hour Memphis Ghost tour that brings the group to South Memphis' oldest sites and includes Memphis' Voodoo Fields, the Orpheum Theater, and a visit to Ernestine & Hazel's. 

Backbeat tour groups visit the darker side of Memphis like
Barboro (or Deadman's Alley) in downtown Memphis.

The second is a one hour Darker Side of Memphis tour that brings you by the Gayoso House, site of a brutal 2004 murder.  It also takes you to Barboro Alley (also referred to by tour guides as "Deadman's Alley), where horse drawn hearses traveled between the two city morgues, and where yellow fever victims were supposedly stacked during the city's 1878 yellow fever epidemic. 

The tour also goes by the
Orpheum theater, where a little girl named Mary is said to haunt, and to the Memphis Convention and Visitor's Bureau building that was once a hospital for Union troops during the Battle of Vicksburg.  The building is also the oldest commercial building in Memphis and is rumored to be haunted because it had served as a Civil War era hospital.  

The Memphis Convention and Visitor's Bureau is
frequented by many of those coming to tour
Memphis.  It also is reportedly home to Civil-
War era spirits.

A plaque on a wall inside also indicates that it is thought to be the place where Mark Twain's brother, Henry Clemens, died on June 21, 1858, as a result of injuries that he sustained in an explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania.  Twain is said to have had a premonition of his brother's death in a dream.

Aside from the locations that you travel past, you also learn of Memphis' first serial killer,
George Howard Putt, and the salacious and scandalous relationship between Frederica Ward and Alice Mitchell and the subsequent murder of Ward at the hands of Mitchell.

Backbeat Tours is owned and operated by Deborah and Bill Patton.  "We research our tours extensively," Deborah Patton said.  "Bill has read pretty much every book written on Memphis history and Memphis ghosts... He has also written his own book, 'A Guide to Historic Downtown Memphis,'" she added. 

The Pattons use oral histories and they do archival research to get the historical background of each reported haunting.

Adjacent to Deadman's Alley, where Backbeat Tours takes you on its Darkside of Memphis tour, is the
Local Gastro Pub at 95 South Main St, where Kelsey Gilliam is a server.  Gilliam has seen and heard what appears to be ghostly activity while working there.  This activity has included wine glasses that have shattered, water faucets that have inexplicably turned on by themselves, and lights that have randomly switched on and off. 

"Even though it has a creepy edge, I think the fact that such a historical event took place right outside in the alley where I work is so interesting... The ghosts here and there add a lot of character to the building," she said.

Some of the other many possibly haunted locations identified in Cunningham's "Haunted Memphis" book include John Willard Brister and Mynders Hall at the University of Memphis, the Theta Chapter of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house, the Bellingrath Dormitory, the Borrow Library and the McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College, the Shelby County and Raleigh Cemetery, the Egypt Baptist Church and cemetery, St. Anne Catholic Church, the Mollie Fontaine-Taylor House, the James Lee House, the Hunt-Phelan Mansion, the Magevney House, the Burkle Estate, Pee Wee's Saloon, Café Francisco, Quetzal Internet Café, Justine's, WKNO-TV's building (formerly the Kennedy Army Hospital), the National Ornamental Metal Museum (formerly the U.S. Marine Hospital), Overton Park, Chickasaw Heritage Park and St. Paul's Spiritual Temple. 

Here are some links to websites that offer additional information on haunted places in Memphis and throughout Tennessee: 

Ghosts & Spirits of Tennessee: (Tennessee):
Haunted Bluffs of Memphis: (Ghosts of Memphis):
AOL Travel (Memphis Myth Busters):
Memphis Ghost Hunters (Haunted Tennessee):

For those who might be more interested in just the historical side of Memphis, they might want to look into some free walking tours offered by one of the most well known advocates for local history and culture, Jimmy Ogle.  His website has more than 20 PowerPoint presentations on various Memphis-related topics and, last year alone, he gave more than 250 talks to local schools, civic clubs, and residents of senior citizen homes.

Whether you come to see the more historical, or the more spooky side of Memphis, you will likely walk away with a more unique perspective of the river city than the conventional visit that most other tourists ever experience.

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