While researching his genealogy, Memphis City Councilman Bill Boyd discovered that his great-grandfather Marcus Winchester, Memphis' first mayor, who was supposed to be buried under Winchester Park was actually buried under the nearby city machine shop.
Photos By Jim Weber & Alan Spearman
By Michael Lollar
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
City Councilman Bill Boyd began with a genealogy quest, but unearthed a love story worthy of Rhett and Scarlett and an eventual demise worthy of Jimmy Hoffa.
Boyd, 73, knew most of the history of his great-great-grandfather, Marcus Winchester. A picture of Winchester hangs in the Hall of Mayors at City Hall. He was the city's first mayor, an aristocrat whom one historian calls "the most graceful, courtly, elegant gentleman that ever appeared upon Main Street."
Several historians have written about Winchester's colorful past. He grew up on a palatial Middle Tennessee farm near Gallatin, son of Gen. James Winchester, one of the original owners of the land now called Memphis. In fact, it was James Winchester who gave the city its name, likening it to the Egyptian city on the Nile.
When Boyd began his research in 1974, he learned James Winchester was such a history fan that he named his sons Marcus Brutus, Lucilius, Valerius Publicola and Napoleon. It was Marcus, the eldest, whom Winchester dispatched to West Tennessee in 1818 to inspect a land acquisition by the Winchesters and partners Andrew Jackson and John Overton.
Boyd says Marcus and a surveyor arrived in 1819 "to lay out a subdivision. The owners were anxious to get the town laid out so they could sell lots."
Seeing busy river traffic along the Mississippi, Marcus decided the bluff could be a good place to make a living. He moved here, and in 1819 helped draw up a plan for the town of Memphis with a public promenade, a public landing at Auction Avenue and streets named for Overton, Winchester and Jackson. With financial help from his father, he opened the town's first store.
Boyd, who would become a member of the West Tennessee Historical Society and the Descendants of the Early Settlers of Shelby County, says Winchester quickly rose to prominence.
"According to the books I've read, he was a very respected Memphian," Boyd says. "He was the first postmaster. He was also a good friend of Davy Crockett. Marcus encouraged him to run for Congress, and he won."
Marcus himself was a member of the city's first Quarterly Court and town register. When the city was incorporated in 1826, he became its first mayor. But the historical accounts indicate the seeds of his undoing were planted in 1823 when he married "a woman of color."
Attorney Lee Winchester, 85, an indirect descendant of the mayor, says that while many landowners lived with women of mixed race, it was rare, even illegal, for them to marry. Marcus threw caution to the wind. He wed Amirante "Mary" Loiselle in New Orleans, her hometown, where mixed-race marriages were legal.
"She was reputedly one of the most beautiful women ever seen in this part of the country. Her father had her educated in France, and she was brilliant. She was also one-sixteenth black. It was enough for her to be ostracized by what was then a pretty raggedy social society," says Lee Winchester.
Shelby County historian Ed Williams says the divisiveness of politics and social tensions leading up to the Civil War turned Winchester into a target. Eventually, city aldermen "passed a law that anyone of mixed race could not live within the city limits of Memphis. It made it necessary for Mrs. Winchester to live about a half-block outside the city limits."
Lee Winchester says Marcus remained with his wife.
"He was a pretty fine man, and the romance that brought him down was probably one of the most perfect romances that there was."
Mary died in 1840, and Marcus Winchester remarried two years later, but his failing business and a series of lawsuits would impoverish him.
When Boyd set out to find Marcus' grave, he first looked at Elmwood Cemetery, burial ground to much of Memphis' gentry.
Instead, he was told Win-chester was buried in the city's first cemetery -- the Winchester New Burying Ground. It is at what is now Manassas and Lane on the eastern edge of the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital complex.
A historical marker says the cemetery "went to ruins" out of neglect in the yellow fever epidemics. University of Memphis historian Dr. Charles Crawford says old cemeteries have a way of being covered over by developers, with old tombstones often found in the city dump.
The marker at the Winchester site ends with a sentence that took Boyd off guard: "Winchester's grave is located under what is now a city garage on the west side of the property."
"I was very much surprised. I can't describe it," says Boyd, looking across the neatly mowed land, most of which became Winchester Park in 1931. The west end now is covered by the city garage and the city's Office of Fleet Management.
Arthur Adams, the office's director, says the garage began as a horse barn and later was converted to a garage with a thick concrete floor.
Like other employees, Adams said they have heard that graves lie beneath the complex, but he had no idea the first mayor was underfoot: "All I know is, I'll be here by myself sometimes and it's kind of creepy."
Boyd said there would be no point in trying to retrieve the remains. "I wouldn't know where to dig," he says.
For Ed Williams, the burial that some would call a desecration is a warning: "Early mayors have not been treated well. I hope that Willie Herenton has made adequate arrangements so that he won't be treated like they have."
-- Michael Lollar: 901-529-2793
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