I’ve written before about gravestones in Bethany Church Cemetery, a shady burial ground tucked away in the county north of Collierville. It’s filled with old and interesting markers, but none are so intriguing as a row of seven flat stones marking the last resting place of the children of the Archer family. Why are they so mysterious? Because the gravestones show that, over a period of 14 years in the 1920s and early 1930s, eight children were buried here, and not one of them lived more than a few months. Anyone who stumbles upon these simple markers must wonder: What on earth happened to these poor children?
The graves are all in a row, lying within a long stone border. The inscriptions on the seven stones read:
Elwynne May Archer (May 26, 1921 - May 26, 1921)
Twin Dorothy May Archer (Dec. 22, 1922 - June 15, 1923)
Twin Alvaray Archer (Dec. 22, 1922 - June 5, 1923)
Evelyn Fay Archer (Feb. 4, 1924 - Feb. 7, 1924)
Twins Archer Baby Girls (Nov. 26, 1928 - Nov. 26, 1928)
Max Callicutt Archer (Sept. 6, 1929 - Oct. 8, 1929)
Glenda Elizabeth Archer (May 1, 1935 - July 2, 1935)
Now ponder that sobering list for a while. You’ll see that the first child, Elwynne, died the same day she was born. A few months later, the parents apparently tried again, and had twins, born on December 22nd. Little Alvaray lived until June 5th, and his sister Dorothy died 10 days later, on June 15th. So the family tried again, but the next child, Evelyn, lived just three days.
Four years then passed. Twin baby girls, their names not listed on the stones, were born on November 26, 1928, and died the same day. The next year, Max was born. He lived little more than a month.
The Archer family apparently waited six years before trying one final time to have children. Glenda Elizabeth Archer was born May 1, 1935. She did better than some of the others, but still barely survived more than two months. And of all these children, she is the only child I could find who had a death certificate on file with the Shelby County Health Department. The cause of death was listed as “bacillary dysentery” along with “otitis media” (an ear infection) and “pyelitis” (kidney infection). In those days, before the advent of penicillin, sulfa, and other antibiotics, any infection could quickly prove fatal.
The death certificate listed the parents of Glenda — and I must presume all these other poor children — as Howard and Mattie Archer, and sure enough, a much larger gravestone stands nearby. It is inscribed “Daddy Howard 1897 - 1972″ and “Mother Mattie 1897 - 1986.”
What on earth befell this sad family? I’ve wandered through many graveyards in my time, but I have never encountered so many young deaths from the same family. Here are photos of all their tiny graves, and the larger marker for the parents. Make of it what you can.