“One of my favorites is that of Emily Sutton who died in the 1873 yellow fever epidemic. She’s one of several madams who stayed in the city and opened their homes (brothels) to care for the sick until they got sick themselves and died. As part of Emily’s will, which we have on file, she specified that she wanted to be buried at Elmwood and that she did not want an expensive gravesite or an ostentatious tombstone. She was originally buried in a public lot, which was the cheap part of the cemetery, but two years later, her remains were moved to a spot just across the road from Lenow Circle, and a beautiful, finely carved tombstone was erected to memorialize her. We don’t know for sure who moved her there, but in the 1870’s Lenow Circle was the place to be buried in Memphis; it was where all the society folks, the rich folks, were being buried. The figure on the top of Emily’s monument is that of a woman praying, pleading, and looking over into that wealthy, elite section. Carved on the base is a beautiful poem:
Let sweet voiced mercy plead for her
Who calmly sleeps beneath this sod.
Nor erring man, in pride, usurp
The province of her judge, her God.
“In other words, don’t judge her. Only God can judge her. When I look at the statue's location and the poem, I can’t see it any other way than as a message to the people across the road. Whoever put it there had her given name, her Christian name, carved on the stone: Emily Sutton, but that isn’t how she was known in Memphis. She was known as Fannie Walker. Fannie Walker is a play on words and a common name for a prostitute in the 1800’s. The message caused a big scandal, and so the cemetery management in the 1870’s responded to the complaints by putting large marble plaques on the ground on three sides of her monument, plaques that say: Fannie Walker, Fannie Walker, Fannie Walker. So if you approach the grave from the road, you don’t assume that this is the respectable Emily Sutton, but you realize that this is the prostitute Fannie Walker. Her story is one of many that Elmwood holds. I could tell you so many others. I love this place and feel very fortunate to be a part of preserving the history of Memphis.”
Elmwood Cemetery, 824 S. Dudley St., is Memphis' oldest active cemetery.
The grounds are open every day of the year, 8 am - 4:30 pm.
Office hours are M-F 8 am - 4:30 pm, Saturday 8 am - noon, closed Sunday.