‘Ghost’ hosts at historic Tennessee cemetery
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Is Elmwood Cemetery haunted by ghosts?
Maybe so, maybe no. But it’s certainly haunted by history. And it’s just that vivid, tragic, heroic, bizarre, distinctive Memphis history that, in essence, will rise from its grave this month. It will stalk the marble monuments and granite tombstones of Elmwood in the form of nine what might be called “ghost hosts” — long-dead graveyard, um, tenants, theatrically resurrected in the flesh and in period costumes to share stories of women’s suffrage, racial pride, Yellow Fever, the Civil War, journalism, prostitution and more.
Continuing a popular tradition, Elmwood will host two “The Soul of the City” tours the last week of October, during which volunteer performers station themselves among the obelisks and sculpted angels to represent such long-buried yet immortal characters of Memphis lore as Emily Sutton, the Memphis “madam” whose so-called house of ill repute was transformed into a field hospital during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1873, and G.P. Hamilton, the city’s first African-American high school principal.
“You want to know them, you want to become them,” said Pam Rumage, a White Station Middle School librarian and longtime Elmwood actor. “You want to be the person you’re playing, because it’s a real person, so you want to respect them.”
Another reason to respect these particular Memphis dead, she said: “Sometimes, you have family members who come out for the tours. Descendants.”
For the October tours, Rumage is portraying Susan Winchester Scales, who “ran the gamut of true Memphis,” she said. Scales died in 1954 at 101, and her life encompassed the Civil War, the end of slavery, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars and so on.
During a recent dress rehearsal at Elmwood, Rumage was in full Scales costume: Her 19th-century finery included petticoats, lace fingerless gloves and a capelet. Even so, she may have met her fashion match in the person of co-star Cathi Johnson of the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, cast as Marie Greenwood Worden (1865-1954), arguably the most celebrated opera prima donna ever to come out of Memphis. (Born almost 60 years after Worden, diva Marguerite Piazza may have had appearances on TV’s “Your Show of Shows,” but Worden had her own traveling Grand Opera Company.)
“I will trill periodically,” said Johnson, breaking into an operatic warble that caused the peacock feathers in her turban to quiver and the spangles on her purple gown to flash. Somewhere, perhaps, some bones rattled.
Kim Bearden, Elmwood’s executive director, said these history-in-person tours typically attract a couple of thousand visitors, who stroll the cemetery in small groups with the aid of a tour guide and 3,000 feet of strung lights.
She said the tours are crucial to covering maintenance costs for the 82 acres of the 166-year-old park, which are home, so to speak, to close to 75,000 “residents,” as staffers refer to the buried and interred.
She said people audition to play the resurrected Elmwood residents, like actors hoping to be cast in a stage play. Once bit by the cemetery history bug, many of these “ghost hosts” return year after year. The novelty of their living presence apparently is a draw for tourists.
Said Bearden: “How often do you come to a cemetery to see live people?”
Among the veteran Elmwood performers is Memphis historian Vincent Astor.
“I usually get the scoundrels,” said Astor, who in the past has played Wade Bolton, the slave trader, and Finis Bates, the grandfather of Kathy Bates, a lawyer who owned a mummy he claimed was John Wilkes Booth.
This time, however, Astor is journalist and “yarn-spinner” James Davis, whose column called “Old Times” in the Memphis Appeal — a predecessor to The Commercial Appeal — proves that nostalgia was big even in 1869. Published in 1873, Davis’ book “The History of Memphis,” was one of the first portraits of this city, even if it was “history” that placed more emphasis on entertainment than fact.
Johnson, too, has had a varied Elmwood career. Her past portrayals range from saints to sinners. One year, she was Sister Constance, one of the Episcopal nuns who became known as “Martyrs of Memphis” after they lost their lives helping the sick during the Yellow Fever epidemics. Another year, she was “Vance Avenue Alma,” or Alma Theede, who murdered three of her seven husbands. Also, “last year I was Machine Gun Kelly’s first wife,” Johnson said. “It is much more fun to play those type of characters than it is to play Sister Constance.”
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com