Across the nation, Memphis is getting a reputation as a dangerous place.
Take it from Frank Gurnsey. Gurnsey came from the small town of Weyauwega, Wisconsin for a temporary assignment when he was sent to Memphis. He was in for a culture shock.
In an email to his fiancé back home he mentioned a woman who abandoned a baby on the street. “The same evening they also found a man laying dead upon the walk, probably murdered,” he wrote. “Robbery and murder are a frequent occurrence. It is not safe for a man to be on the street unless he is armed to the teeth.”
“It seems the lowest and hardest cases of both sexes have flocked into the city.” At least that’s one of Gurnsey’s theories. Another is Memphians’ lack of respect for the police. The evidence? Within a decade eight Memphis Police officers have been killed at the hands of others while protecting the city.
Memphis has even made it into the butt of jokes. Comedian Stephen Colbert, prominent for his political satire, met Mayor Strickland when he came to Memphis and mentioned that the city was known nationwide for its murder rate. The Mayor defended the city, saying part of the reason was due to our top-notch hospitals. He claimed they accept people from around the area; so people who are assaulted in other areas come here for medical care, die and skew the numbers.
“What kind of city is this where you have to shoot a man to get him to come here?” Colbert quipped.
In still another incident that made national news, a flash mob of about thirty people alerted by social media met in the northeast part of town to watch and or participate in a revenge killing. After the torture and murder, one of the thugs felt compelled to photograph his gruesome work.
These incidents happened. And they happened in Shelby County.
Well, sort of.
Sergeant Major Frank Gurnsey of Wisconsin wrote that letter to his fiancé not via email but by old paper snail mail, on February 10, 1863. He was on assignment here as part of his duties with the Union Army, which was stationed in Memphis after its surrender during the Civil War.
Eight Memphis police officers killed by suspects in a decade? Shocking but true. And don’t blame video games, music, your least favorite politician or the NRA. The decade was the 1920’s. By comparison, the last eight Memphis Police Officers murdered in the line of duty were killed in a span of thirty-two years.
The mayor of course was not Jim Strickland. It was Rowlett Paine, Memphis’ mayor from 1920 to ’28. The comedian was not Colbert; it was Will Rogers.
And the revenge-murder? It happened near the current location of the Summer Drive-In Theater and the Wolf River, in 1917. Of course they did not have social media a hundred years ago, so there was no flash mob of 30 people showing up for the morbid spectacle.
It was closer to 3,000.
We have a serious problem today with senseless gun violence and stray bullets, especially in neighborhoods plagued by poverty. And many Memphians like to talk about the city’s “good ol’ days.” But from about 1900 to 1940, you were more likely to encounter violence and mayhem in Shelby County than in today’s Memphis, when the 10 o’clock news seems to be a parade of blue lights and yellow tape.
The Murder Rate – It’s Complicated
During 2016 the Shelby County Health Department recorded 228 homicide deaths within the City of Memphis. That is roughly 35 per 100,000. It was a record year for the total homicides recorded. But a few words about those numbers are in order.
The health department counts homicides differently than how law enforcement counts them, on crimes that generally take place within the city limits of Memphis. And what shows up in the media often comes from the Memphis Police Department. The Sheriff’s department investigates within Shelby County, outside the incorporated cities of Memphis, Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville and Millington, all of which have their own police force. Sometimes those lists include justifiable homicides in total numbers; sometimes they do not.
The Shelby County Health Department looks at causes of death within the county. The cause could be justified or unjustified, but it’s still listed as a homicide. If someone is shot in Somerville or stabbed in Senatobia, comes to the Regional One trauma center and dies, that person is also listed as a Shelby County homicide. Police focus on jurisdictions and culpability – healthcare focuses on the cause.
Looking back to the years before WWII, calculating the exact homicide rate year by year is inexact science for the years 1918 to 1927, where we have only Memphis data on homicides. And population estimates were based on the census taken once a decade – the population between those years is extrapolated. If one census recorded a population of 100,000 and ten years later 200,000, I went on the premise there would have been 150,000 halfway through the decade. An assumption, I know. Also, my data is rounded to whole numbers.
That rate of 35 homicides per 100,000 in 2016 was comparable to 1990 and 1993, where it was 26 per 100,000, and double the rate of the late 1960’s and early ’70’s. Despite the rates during the last two years and horrific mass shootings, there has been a general decrease in violent crime in the last 25 years nationwide. In terms of murder rates, Memphis of old makes recent years and the toughest years of the early 1990’s look like the fictional town of Mayberry, NC under Sheriff Andy Griffith.
Memphis – A Bawdy River Town
Take 1925. It was a year in which Memphis was a city of progress. Our Ellis Auditorium, at Main and Poplar (replaced in the early 2000’s by the Canon Performing Arts Center) had opened a year earlier. The current Peabody Hotel opened along with the still-impressive Southwestern College (now Rhodes College).
Then there was the Memphis that polite society folks did not discuss.
It was a place that had about twice the murder rate of the 1990’s with 50 homicides per 100,000. And 1925 was far from our most murderous year. It tied 1930 and 1934 for tenth place on our list.
Or 1909. It was the year bluesman William C. Handy was hired by the Edward H. Crump campaign to write a song for his mayoral run. Interviewed decades later, Handy recalled “When we played that song at Main and Madison we stopped traffic. Stenographers were dancing with their bosses and men ran up asking ‘what’s the name of that song?’”
Sounds like a scene from Oklahoma or West Side Story. But in 1909, Assassins would have been a more appropriate title for a musical set in an era in which Memphis had a murder rate of 52 per 100,000.
Wild Bill Latura
Or 1916. On the night of August 22 Memphis Police officers John C. “Sandy” Lyons and Charlie Davis were on foot patrol in the area of Poplar and Dunlap, keeping an eye on William Latura’s establishment at the southwest corner. Officially the place on the corner was a hamburger restaurant. But the state had been putting the screws to prohibition violators and the two officers were threatened with their jobs if any more alcohol was sold on their beat.
Owner Latura was suspect, known to have sold beer out of the place. He was also known to the police, often known as “Wild Bill” (don’t call him that to his face), and who had a knack for literally getting away with murder.
In 1902 Wild Bill killed a man with a baseball bat. It was ruled self-defense. In 1908 he went into a bar on Beale Street and shot seven people. Four of his victims – and some accounts say five – died from the shooting. The verdict: not guilty due to insanity.
Later he shot dead “Alabama Tom” at his hamburger joint when the men were gambling – again he got off with self-defense. And he had more than a few scrapes where guns and or knives ended the fight. A scar along his jaw came from a fight where the other man was obviously aiming lower.
On that night in August 1916 words were exchanged between the two officers and Wild Bill when he accused them of harassing his employees. “Bill you’re under arrest!” the officers said to him.
Latura reached for his pistol. Officer Lyons beat him to the draw, putting four bullets in his torso. Though ruled justified, Wild Bill Latura became one of the 128 homicides that year, in a raucous town of just over 200,000 residents, at a rate of 62 out of 100,000.
Or 1915. In an era when the South Main district was booming with not one but two train stations – Central and Union – that had opened in 1911 and 1912. The new West Tennessee State Normal School (now University of Memphis) had turned three years old. And yet crime still plagued Shelby Streets, with 68 murders per 100,000.
Or 1910. Much of Dill Anderson’s life and his death was lost to history. He was from Memphis, born in 1875. He worked as a laborer. On June 10, 1903 he married Nannie Pearson. On January 10, 1906 he married Maud Alexander. And On January 2, 1910 he was shot at Baltimore Street and the Southern Avenue train tracks, becoming the first homicide of the year. His remains are at Zion Christian Cemetery, section 7, row 1, grave 69.
1910 was the year that beat all others, with 70 deaths at the hands of others per 100,000. That would be the equivalent of about 657 homicides per year in today’s Shelby County.
The Good Ol’ Days Weren’t Always Good
There is some truth to the idea of a safer Memphis in days gone by. Crime began falling significantly in the late 1930’s as the world recovered from the Great Depression and went to war. In 1935 the rate was 44 homicides; by 1940 it was down to 23. It averaged between just 13 to 14 homicides through the rest of the decade of the ‘40s. In the 1950’s the rate fell further, down into the single digits in 1953, a zone where it remained until 1967.
But in the mid-‘60s things were changing nationally, and those changes included Memphis.
Crime across the nation increased by 135 percent from 1960 to 1970 for reasons that demographers and sociologists still debate. Crime was mostly a local issue for the years leading up to 1968, the landmark year of rioting and two important and devastating assassinations, when it became much more of a national issue during that year’s Presidential election.
In Memphis, from 1990 to 1996, homicides once again peaked. 26 in 1990 and 1993, 25 in 1992 and 23 in 1991. Between 1997 and 2015 it hovered in or below the low-twenties. Memphis was in line with the rest of the nation in a downward trend in the murder rate.
Finally, 2016. On January 1 that year, at 2:52 pm on the 1000 block of South 4th Street, Patrick Couch was found shot and was pronounced dead on the scene. It was the first homicide in what became one of the bloodiest years in recent memory – more than 1990, more than 1993. Memphis and Shelby County combined for 245 homicides, press reports said. The Census Bureau estimated a 2016 population of 938,069, which put the overall homicide rate at 26. In 2017 the rate dropped back down. Thankfully, one or two years is hardly a trend.
In a 2016 podcast “Science Versus” episode on guns, host Wendy Zukerman mentioned that this trend has been studied by the National Academy of Sciences, by about 24 scientists. They looked at the number of guns, lead in the water, the economy, abortion rates, immigration and other factors. Notwithstanding the increases in mass shootings, they hoped to find the cause of the overall 25-year drop in violent crime. Their conclusion: no one is sure why.
Crime in the 1920’s and the 1930’s may evoke the imagery of Al Capone’s gang teaching Buggs Moran’s boys to dance the Thompson Two Step on the streets of Chicago. We don’t often think of Memphis in the same way, but our city was known throughout the country as that bawdy river town. Shelby Foote famously said that “All the rowdiness of Memphis endears it to me.” Over the decades Memphis sometimes turned to piousness, censoring movies and supporting the “blue laws” that kept Sunday as a church day. They may have been the years when everyone knew their neighbors, but if you catch yourself longing for Memphis’ good old days, be careful what you wish for.
Devin Greaney was born in Memphis. He has been doing freelance writing and photography for about 18 years. He has written for our friends at the Memphis Downtowner magazine, High Ground News, and Memphis Type History. His website is Here at devingreaney.com.
Sergeant Major Frank Gurnsey’s 1863 letter to his fiancé from the University of Memphis Library Special Collections