Dateline, Memphis. May 1897. More May-hem

In 1897, mysterious airship sightings were reported all over North America. Illustration from the Chicago Times' report on the airship sighting, April 1897. Various sources

Your correspondent takes you to points across the city including Beale Street, the Criminal Courts, Odd Fellows Hall, the Lyceum Theater, and Virginia Avenue, where he will explain the significant events of this month in Memphis history.

Spirits and Faith

First we turn to the city’s spiritualists who gathered at the Odd Fellows Hall, 30 North Court, to hear noted medium Mrs. Dr. Wynant lecture and call forth messages from beyond the grave. Part church service and part séance, the meeting began with a hymn and sermon from Wynant and then moved into a demonstration of psychic phenomena. A quiet hush fell over the crowd when the good doctor began to call upon the spirit world. Several attendees brought with them items belonging to the departed which Wynant used to communicate with their spirits. According to a Commercial Appeal reporter in the crowd, the “speaker declared that the air was filled with spirit forms that all might see if if they would observe the proper conditions.” The majority of the audience must have lacked these conditions for the reporter did not comment on any spirit sightings.

Odd Fellows Hall, at Main and Court, Downtown Memphis. Date unknown. Historicmemphis.com

One block away on Jefferson, Mrs. Mary Bradford of Denver spoke to members of the Equal Suffrage and Nineteenth Century clubs at the Lyceum Theater. Yellow flowers decorated the speaker’s platform as Mrs. Bradford called for “full faith in humanity, freedom for all and equitable legislation between woman and man.” Mrs. Bradford won over many Memphians, including a Commercial Appeal reporter who wrote: “Her logic and her reasoning are like the clear atmosphere of the mountains that permits the vision to penetrate even to the fastnesses. As she sets out she claims the attention of the audience by her charming personality….”

Mayhem

Meanwhile in the criminal court a jury debated the fate of prize-fighter and saloon-owner E. E. “Clever” Miller. One Sunday afternoon a man named Ward walked into Clever’s saloon, located between Washington and Poplar, and became violent. Employing “vile language,” Ward lunged for Clever and knocked him down. The two repaired outside where Miller pulled a knife and slashed Ward at least four times. It was illegal for saloons to open on Sundays so the jury had no trouble sentencing Clever to a $50 fine and sixty days in the jug. But on the assault to murder charge jurors had more difficulty rendering a verdict. After two days of deliberations, one juror, M. F. Moody, refused to change his vote to guilty. The judge was forced to declare a mistrial.

In other news J. L. Higgins of the J. T. May Loan Company secured a court order to repossess furniture belonging to an African American steamboat worker named Henry Nish, a.k.a. Henry Greer, to cover a delinquent loan. One evening Higgins and Deputy Sheriff Dixon drove a wagon to Nish’s home at 120 Virginia Avenue to gather his property. Arriving around 9:30 at night, Dixon entered the home and began moving pieces of furniture. With no warning Nish suddenly burst into his living room and put a gun to Dixon’s head. Ordering the deputy into the yard, he was met by five or six other black Memphians who also brandished firearms. Dixon was then disarmed and beaten around the head as Higgins watched in horror. Allowed to flee the scene, Dixon and Higgins reported the incident to the police, who were unable to locate Nish or any of his comrades.

… a dark object

And finally, we visit Mrs. Hannah Nixon of 235 Beale Street, who reports to have witnessed a strange sight from her veranda. “I noticed a dark object in the west moving rapidly along from north to south. The dark object, as near as I could see, was cigar-shaped…. Along the top was a streak of light resembling somewhat the top of a street car when it is at a distance. Suddenly a bright light flashed up like a search light, about twice as long as the dark object…. I know I saw it, and I believe it was an airship. I expect to ride in an airship before the year is over.”

In 1897, mysterious airship sightings were reported all over North America. Illustration from the Chicago Times’ report on the airship sighting, April 1897. Various sources

That’s the way Memphis was…in May of 1897.

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Memphis author and historian Wayne Dowdy is the Manager of the Main Library’s Memphis and Shelby County Room. He also writes for the local monthly publication Best Times and is the author of several books on Memphis history, including A Brief History Of Memphis, Hidden History Of Memphis, and Mayor Crump Don’t Like It.

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