5 Star Stories: Elmwood Cemetery goes high tech to preserve Memphis history

Updated: Mar. 10, 2020 at 11:51 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Beyond Shelby County’s longest span bridge, beneath the stone angels, obelisks and shade trees lie madams, martyrs, murderers and millionaires.

Established in 1852, Elmwood is the oldest active cemetery in Shelby County.

“When you drive over the bridge, everything gets still, quiet,” said Elmwood Cemetery Executive Director and future resident Kimberly Bearden.

“The stories behind the stones that dot the landscape. It’s an amazing place,” she nods during a tour of the 80 acres of rolling hills in the heart of the Bluff City.

Some of Memphis’ darkest secrets, most unspeakable scandals and highest accomplishments are buried below, but when Bearden gets her way those stories will live on forever, thanks to technology.

“The people who founded the City of Memphis are buried here,” Bearden said. “The earliest mayors, Yellow Fever victims, Civil War generals."

The non-profit has become part of the Mid-South’s local and regional identity. Elmwood has three designations on the National Register of Historic Places: The main office, the bridge and its Level III Arboretum.

"We’ve planted close to 40 trees this past winter and that’s about average, because we are in the business of remaining an Arboretum,” Bearden said.

The grounds are home to 80,000 souls returned to the earth, from Civil War and slave monuments to beloved civil rights pioneer Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks and domineering Memphis Mayor Edward Hull “Boss” Crump.

“I like to think of Elmwood as sort of a patchwork quilt of Memphis history. It really does reflect our city as a whole," said Beard.

All walks of life, ages, races and faiths are now dust below ground, but their life stories can either be read in the cemetery’s binders on perishable paper or retold by those who have studied the cemetery’s history.

“It was always integrated from the beginning. And that was very, very unusual for a Southern cemetery,” said former Elmwood historian Dale Schaefer.

Schaefer now gives tours. He says visitors are always interested in Memphis black widow Alma Theede.

“She liked marrying men, and when the marriage was over she wasn’t always shy about getting a divorce. She divorced several, but she also murdered several," said Schaefer.

Theede did two stints in prison for murdering her husbands. She re-married two and murdered three of her five total husbands.

Schaefer says the cemetery’s chronicles of Memphis' Yellow Fever burials are heartbreaking.

“It goes on for 46 names per page, each side of the page,” he said. “Fifty-eight pages, and you just keep turning those pages, name after name after they identify most of them, remarkably, and it just hits you.”

He says Memphis’ most infamous and bloody Bolton-Dickens family feud is in almost all of the tours. A feud that ended when Col. Thomas Dickens murdered his slave trader business partner Wade Bolton.

“Wade was shot, he wouldn’t allow any of the doctors to treat him,” Shaefer said. “He said he wanted to die so his business partner would get indicted and his wounds got infected and he did die, but it gave him time to write his will.”

Schaefer points out how Bolton’s vindictive will left close family members riches but one niece just $5.

“He said she got $5 because she was the Judas of the family, and what had she done that was so terrible? She had married into the Dickens family," said Schaefer.

He smiled at Bolton’s widow granting his final wish of a life-like statue.

“He’s a mess, his shoes are untied, his pants are wrinkled, his vest is miss-buttoned. And the best part, even though they’ve broken off his hands behind his back, his fingers are crossed. Even to third graders I say, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘Like, he’s a liar.’ What was she thinking? Maybe she was thinking," said Schaefer.

The garden cemetery is immortalized on film.

"The Grosvenor Monument is one of the most photographed monuments here at Elmwood,” said Bearden. “I’ve heard of several people getting engaged at that Grosvenor Monument, and it’s definitely beautiful. It was featured in the film The Firm. The funeral scene that takes place in that movie was filmed at that location, and we’re pretty proud of that.”

The goal now is to immortalize the stories currently stored in a climate-controlled archival safe under UV protective sleeves.

“I watched the Cathedral of Notre Dame catch on fire and it broke my heart and I think that echoed around the world,” Bearden said. “I think a lot of people felt that way and it really pointed out to me that I needed to get to work on this project right now.”

The project: Preserving Memphis’ history by digitizing the past with computerized cemetery maps and document scans. Bearden zigzagged the cemetery office to demonstrate the current, cumbersome process of looking up a plot.

"Pull up the database, and we would look up a name. For instance, Edward Hull Crump. It would show us the precise location where Boss Crump was buried," she motions as she crosses the room.

“We come over to the desk, we grab a piece of paper, that’s a map of the cemetery and then we have to go to the larger map, and we would locate his lot,” she says as she points on the map. “That’s where he’s buried.”

The plan is to integrate the current data into the "Web Cemeteries" platform.

“More than that, we are going to take all of the information that’s in our lot books and our daily burial records and even in our file folders, of which we have 130,000 in our archives, scan all of that information and marry them all together in one user-friendly platform,” she said.

Volunteers have already agreed to help.

It's not just about tracking family lots from the comfort of home.

“Letters that person might have written or photographs that Elmwood might have or family can add a photograph to that person’s file,” she said. “They can also GPS locate where their loved ones are buried.”

The effort will allow families to have better access to loved ones and for visitors to trace both history and the gamut of human nature through the stones and stories of saints, sinners and everyday people.

“I know that whatever I’m going through at the moment, I’m not the first one that’s been through this. These people have been here, they’ve done it. They’ve lived through it,” Schaefer said. “Most of these people paid the consequences either good or bad for their actions. Those lessons remain, their stories, and you can learn from that.”

In fact, in addition to the usual cemetery services, Elmwood hosts school history classes, garden club plantings, Sunday church service, various walking and driving self-guided tours and more.

“The tours may range from a Yellow Fever-centered tour, a Civil War history tour, a civil rights history tour, a General Elmwood tour, there’s a tree tour, there are many different ways you can tour Elmwood, but we also have private events that are ticketed like our cemetery cinema series where people come and watch the old classic films,” said Bearden.

Soon, the souls under the stones can rest in peace knowing their stories and the lessons will live forever.

“They’re not gone. Their stories are remembered,” Bearden said. “And we like to tell them.”

Elmwood is just $10,000 shy of raising final funds for their digital plan, which will take years to complete.

Click here to donate to Elmwood’s software project.

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