Sometimes a faded photograph, battered postcard, or yellowed newspaper clipping can reveal the most amazing stories. Case in point: a folder I stumbled across one day in the Memphis Room at the main library labeled “Clay Eaters.” Thinking this might be the name of a defunct rock-and-roll band (and admit it: It would make a good name), I found the folder contained a single newspaper article about one of the strangest episodes in our city’s history.
Back in 1934, it seems residents south of DeSoto Park noticed that a portion of the riverbluff near Wisconsin Street was slowly but surely disappearing. Police set up a stillwatch to nab anyone hauling dirt away from city property, but what the cops discovered was something they weren’t expecting.
People were creeping up to the bluff at night and — EATING IT.
The Commercial Appeal reported that men, women, and children were chewing away at the banks “like so many cheese hills” and had already removed more than a ton of clay and dirt.
“They are loading it by the bucketsful,” the chief of police told a reporter, “digging it out with picks, knives, and spoons. There is no law against it, and no way we can stop them.” One clay eater said that his wife had been eating about 10 pounds a week “with no ill effects.” She was very particular about the clay she ate, he said, and “when he tried to fool her, by digging up some from another semi-clay deposit, she sent him back to the Wisconsin Street banks.”
Dr. Louis Leroy, a Memphis physician, noted that “clay eating is not at all an uncommon practice among primitive peoples suffering from anemia or parasites. … The practice is not dangerous unless carried to excess.”
Like 10 pounds a week??
Another doctor advised, “It can’t hurt them unless they eat enough to clog the intestinal tract.”
Like 10 pounds a week??
But Dr. H.W. Priddy of the Wallace Sanitarium declared that there was “some psychological condition behind the human craving for clay, and it is usually a symptom of an abnormal mentality.”
And yet, as far as I know, the Lauderdales never served clay at their luncheons. As far as I know.
After the story hit the papers, scores of Memphians drove to the bluffs “to watch the clay eaters replenish their larders.” Embarrassed by the publicity, most of the clay eaters stayed home. “The [newspaper] story scared them,” a policeman told reporters, “but they’ll be back with shovels and buckets before long.”
After all, as he told them, “Clay eaters must have their clay.” So true . . .