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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Charles Bowman — The Legless Key Tag Maker

Posted By on Sun, May 31, 2009 at 9:11 PM

edbe/1243822508-leglesskeymaker1.jpg Oh, the strange things that I have found over the years. I recently told everyone the story (or what I knew of it) of Thomas Doran, the “Armless News Boy.” So to continue that happy theme, I thought I’d share this interesting old promotional flyer from Chas. R. Bowman, a fellow from the little town of Williford, Arkansas, who called himself the “Legless Key Tag Maker.” If you think THAT is strange, read on . . .

First of all, it’s an order form, and since the bottom part has been snipped off, I assume someone previously ordered key tags from Mr. Bowman. In fact, he begins this interesting epistle by expressing his thanks, with a compelling mix of gratitude and pity that have long been the hallmarks of any correspondence from the Lauderdales. Here’s what Mr. Bowman has to say:

MY DEAR FRIEND: Your nice order received, and have filled it as requested. I wish to thank you many times for the kindness shown me, and will appreciate anything you may throw my way, as a fellow handicapped as I needs all the help in his line I can get. Am in bad health and need all the cheer I can get. Yes — lung trouble. I feel sure after you have read over my price list, you and your friends will favor me with another order.

Good grief — no legs and now lung trouble! He goes on:

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Tommy Doran — The Armless News Boy

Posted By on Sun, May 31, 2009 at 8:31 PM

f0ee/1243819992-armlessnewsboypostcard.jpg Last night, feeling a rare, unnatural burst of energy (I must tell my physicians about that), I began rooting through some of the 427,000 postcards archived in the Lauderdale Library. And by “archived” I mean dumped in shoe boxes, piled in file cabinets, and wedged under that wobbly leg of the dining-room table. My plan is to arrange them in some fashion, but invariably I find one card that is particularly odd or interesting, and then I get distracted. And before you know it, it’s almost 7 p.m. and time for bed!

But last night I uncovered this card, and you can see why it took my attention away from the others.

The image is a bit fuzzy, but it shows a handsome young man, dressed in a nice suit and dapper hat, holding a pen or pencil in his mouth, and apparently writing on a piece of paper “Thomas F. Doran — Armless News Boy.” And writing it better than I could, even if I used both arms. At the bottom of the card, much worn away, was this faded inscription: “LOST BOTH ARMS JUMPING ON FREIGHT TRAINS WHEN TWELVE YEARS OF AGE.”

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Archer Family Tragedy

Posted By on Sat, May 30, 2009 at 4:27 PM

6dfd/1243719340-archergraves1.jpg 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)

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Monday, May 25, 2009

A Bird's-Eye View: The Mississippi River Bridges

Posted By on Mon, May 25, 2009 at 9:29 PM

78cf/1243306029-bridges-aerialview.jpg I wanted to share an interesting old photograph that I found tucked away in a Central High School yearbook. It's an aerial view of the three old Memphis bridges that cross the Mississippi at the South Bluffs area. (Click on it to enlarge it.)

The view is looking eastward towards Memphis from Arkansas. From left to right, you have the Harahan Bridge (1914), the Frisco Bridge (1892 — called "The Great Bridge" when it first opened), and the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge (1949).

What's really interesting is that if you look very carefully at the top of the photo, at the easternmost end of the Harahan Bridge, you can see a portion of the insanely complicated one-way road system that gave automobiles access to the roadways that were suspended on the outside of the bridge. They were added later, you see, and there was no space to put them inside the bridge spans.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Charles Decker — Mystery Solved!

Posted By on Fri, May 22, 2009 at 9:06 PM

1733/1242787795-charlesdecker2.jpg Yesterday I posted an old photograph of Charles Decker, who billed himself in the 1800s as "The Smallest Person in the World." Here's another one I found recently. Somewhere I had seen a photograph of the little fellow labeled "Memphis" and I wondered if he was from our city.

Well, it only took reader Phoebe Neal a few hours to send me several fascinating old newspaper articles on Decker, which confirmed that he was indeed a Memphian.

Several of the articles (which I have posted below) are lists of famous "society" people staying at various hotels throughout the South. But one is a much longer article from the July 25, 1883, issue of the Galveston Daily News, which tells us quite a bit about Decker:

"Among the notable visitors here is an individual for whom is claimed the distinction of being the smallest human adult in existence. His name is C.R. Decker, and since the death of his illustrious contemporary, General Tom Thumb, he enjoys a clear title as to lilliputian laurels, with only Barnum's manikins, the wild men of Borneo, as possible rivals.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Charles Decker - The Littlest Man in Memphis?

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2009 at 4:15 PM

4ae8/1242753892-charlesdeckercdv1.jpg The Lauderdale Library contains several photographs of a very interesting fellow named Charles Decker, a nineteenth-century "little person" who billed himself as "The Smallest Man in the World."

Was he a Memphian? Most biographies give very basic information about his life, but I have seen more than one photograph of Decker stamped "MEMPHIS" at the bottom, which indicates that — even if he wasn't actually born here — he must have visited this city during one of his American tours.

As you can see from this photo, at 21 years of age, he stood only 31 inches high and weighed only 45 pounds. According to a blog called The American Sideshow, Decker was born in 1855, but nobody seems to know where, exactly. The blog entry continues:

"Naturally, he claimed to be the Smallest Man in the World. When touring dime museums throughout the country, Decker took a cue from other popular little people [such as "General" Tom Thumb] and often bestowed a military rank upon himself. The midget was often called Major or more prestigiously, General.
In addition to being known for his size, Decker was also known for his intelligence and was said to have been a mechanical genius. Unfortunately, the little man with the big brain had his life cut short. Charles Decker passed away in Chicago at the age of 38, on Oct. 28, 1893."

Did he ever live in Memphis? I just don't know. Does anybody?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Grand Opera House

Posted By on Tue, May 19, 2009 at 10:39 AM

7eab/1242748742-grandoperahouse.jpg You think times are bad now? In the late 1880s, Memphis was struggling to recover from a series of yellow-fever epidemics that had almost taken our city off the map. In these uncertain times, a group of 25 businessmen managed to raise $60,000 to build what they would call "a temple to Thespis that no city in America would be ashamed of owning."

I'm proud to say that records indicate the Lauderdales contributed $10 towards this worthy cause. Our generosity knows no bounds!

The Grand Opera House opened on the southwest corner of Main and Beale on September 22, 1890. The Memphis Avalanche (one of the best-named newspapers of all time) called the premiere "the most brilliant theatrical and social success in the history of Memphis." Don't mince words, Avalanche reporter! The stunning building, constructed of Bedford limestone from Indiana, soon attracted some of the biggest stars of the American stage. Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Russell, W.C. Fields, John Philip Sousa, and countless others performed at the Grand.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Clarence Saunders' Colors??

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2009 at 12:32 PM

One of my readers recently sent an interesting query: What were the colors of Clarence Saunders' football uniforms?

Now, if you don't even know what I'm talking about, that hurts my feelings, because I've written many, many times in Memphis magazine about the semi-professional football team that the grocery store magnate fielded here in the 1920s. In fact, as recently as April, I mentioned it AGAIN, when I complained that his decision to turn down an offer to join the NFL was a really, really bad decision.

Here's what I said, in our cover story called "April Fools" (go here if you want to read the whole thing.)

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Confederate Park - Over the Years

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2009 at 11:04 AM

In the May issue of Memphis magazine, I give an account of Confederate Park — what used to be there, how it came about, and what changes have taken place there over the years. Stop what you are doing right now and go read it. Here I thought I'd just share with you some old postcard images of the park, so you can see the then-and-now changes for yourself.

Take a close look at the last two postcards, which seem to be identical (they're on the next page). But one shows a pair of steamboats in the Mississippi River, and one doesn't — which gives you an example of the liberties that postcard artists took with their subjects, and is just one reason that old postcards are sometimes not the most reliable sources for historians.

But they're still fun to look at, nevertheless. Here you go:



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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Searching for the Riverside Park Bridge

Posted By on Sun, May 10, 2009 at 8:22 PM

4274/1242005724-riversideparkbridge.jpg This sounds like a strange confession, I suppose, but I actually enjoy finding old postcards that show scenes in Memphis that are unfamiliar. It gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning — because there's something about my twisted mind that says, "I must find that same spot today." And then when I do, and compare the now-and-then images, well ... it's curiously satisfying.

Just as it is damn frustrating when I can not find the image depicted on the card.

And here is a perfect example. A rather dull postcard, really, showing an old car, or possibly a delivery van, crossing (or parked on), a fine-looking stone bridge in Riverside Park (nowadays known as Martin Luther King Riverside Park). We know this because it's actually printed on the front of the card. The back of the card, just so you'll know, give us no clues: it was never used, and never stamped or postmarked, so it doesn't give us a date.

Sorry for the moire pattern caused by my cheap scanner, folks. (Moire? Look it up.) Anyway, if you scrutinize the card, all you'll glean is that the roadway seems to run parallel to a rather deep chasm and then takes an abrupt turn — maybe not a 90-degree turn, but a turn nevertheless — and crosses over a really fine stone bridge, with stone posts at each end. I can't tell if the bridge spans a creek or just a ditch, and I also can't tell what the road does on the other side. The landscape in the background is frustratingly vague. But here's the thing: I've driven all over Riverside Park, and — unless I'm missing something — there is no place where the road does this, and more to the point, there is no stone bridge.

So where was this? My readers — okay, make that ONE reader — very quickly found the location of the building that I thought was an old school (see the post below about the Calvary Rescue Mission), so once again I turn to you for help. Find this location today, please, so I can get some rest.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Doughboy Statue — Overton Park's "Vicious Beast"

Posted By on Thu, May 7, 2009 at 10:02 PM


Let’s get something straight right now: Nobody is buried beneath the Doughboy Statue in Overton Park. Instead, the massive monument honors “the memory of Memphis and Shelby County men who gave their lives to their country in the Great War,” according to the massive plaque mounted on its base. And back then, they were talking about World War I. The plaque holds the “1917-1919 Honor Roll” and carries 230 names. I am ashamed to say there’s not a Lauderdale among them.

The old Doughboy has endured its own battles, that’s for sure. It was the brainchild of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who raised funds “with the aid of a grateful public and schoolchildren” (according to a smaller plaque mounted on the back of the base) and hired an out-of-town sculptor named Nancy Coonsman Hahn to erect a monument to America’s fighting spirit. Although I’ve been unable to find out just how much the piece cost — and let me tell you it is indeed one big chunk of bronze — I did turn up old newspaper articles that tracked a subscription drive to raise funds for its massive stone base, and that alone was $3,500.

Anyway, the statue — depicting a grim-faced U.S. Army soldier clambering over a rock with his bayonet drawn — went up in Overton Park on September 21, 1926. And some people were certainly not happy with it. Michael Abt, a Tech High School art teacher and sculptor (who gained fame for designing most of the Cotton Carnival floats), caused quite a stir in the newspapers back then by calling the statue “the attack of a vicious beast.”

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Lindbergh's Visit to Memphis in 1927

Posted By on Wed, May 6, 2009 at 10:37 AM


Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 certainly captured the hearts of people around the world. Honors and awards were heaped on the young pilot, and every city in the country wanted to meet "America's Greatest Hero," as newspapers called him. And even though he was an aw-shucks-it-was-nothing kind of fellow (much like myself), the "Lone Eagle" saw that his fame gave him an opportunity to promote the commercial possibilities of flying. So, just weeks after returning from Europe (aboard the Navy cruiser Memphis, by the way), he clambered in his famous plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, and soared across America.

His journey finally brought him to Memphis on October 5, 1927 — the 62nd city on his itinerary, with 14 more to go. Even before he arrived, local businesses hopped on the Lindbergh bandwagon. His photo and name were dropped into all sorts of advertisements for such diverse products as fountain pens, candy, furniture, automobiles, and things like the card shown above, printed above for the Memphis Engraving Company, and now in the Lauderdale Library. (This is a neat little piece. According to the instructions, you stare at the image for 30-40 seconds, and then look at the sky or a blank wall, and a perfect image of Lindbergh will appear. Try it for yourself. It works!)

Copywriters, it seemed, worked overtime to come up with ways (often bizarre) to link his name with products. "Just as Lindbergh won the heart of the world with his daring deed," proclaimed an ad in The Commercial Appeal, "so has White Rose Laundry won the approval of all Memphis with their scientific method of dry cleaning." Oh, sure. And A.R. Taylor ran an ad that said, "Two Winners: Charles Lindbergh and Our Genuine Walnut Desks."

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Fairyland Park

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2009 at 4:13 PM


In the May issue of Memphis magazine, my ne'er-do-well colleague Michael Finger tells the compelling story of East End Park, one of this area's most elaborate entertainment complexes. Opened in the late 1880s, East End featured rides, games, fireworks shows, and some of the most bizarre vaudeville performances you could ever imagine. I mean, it's not every day that you see somebody called "The Human Bomb" in action. But I don't intend to tell you the whole story here. Please purchase a magazine — a bargain at just $3.99 — and read it for yourself.

But this isn't about East End Park. Instead, I wanted to mention its neighbor, a little-known amusement park in Memphis called Fairyland Park, which stood (according to some accounts) just east of East End, with an entrance on Poplar or — depending on who you believe — Madison. And I bring all this up because somebody on eBay is currently selling an old postcard (above) showing the Fairyland Park Theatre — a rather elaborate building, judging from the image. Too bad it doesn't show more of the park, though.

The eBay item number is 390045848837, and the current price is $24.99 — unfortunately, a bit more than I can afford at the moment, though I suppose the Lauderdale Library could apply for a grant or something.

I just wanted to share that with you. If anybody knows anything else about Fairyland Park, well, you know how to reach me.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

School Building Mystery - SOLVED?

Posted By on Sun, May 3, 2009 at 8:38 PM


Last week, I posted an old (and undated) photograph of what I assumed was a school building, and asked readers if they knew where it was. Well, it only took keen-eyed realtor and history buff Joe Spake about one hour to find the building and send me a nice photo as it looks today (above). As you can see, it's changed very little over the years, and is now home to the Calvary Rescue Mission. Too bad that their sign covers up some of the fine architectural ornamentation on the front of the building, but I'm glad it's still standing. The address, if you want to see for yourself, is 960 South Third.

But was it a school? Apparently not, and a second look at the original photo makes me realize this was a broader group of people (in age, I mean) than would have attended a school. So I dug through old city directories, which is how I spend my Saturday nights, and determined that in the late 1930s through the late 1940s (when the original photo was taken), the building was the First Assembly of God Church, the Rev. Albert Pickthorn, pastor. Later, the Rev. James Hamill took over.

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