On February 26, 1944, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon syndicate published a panel featuring a tall, austere gentleman in a black suit. The caption beneath read, “Dennis Murphree has been governor of Mississippi twice although never elected to that office. In 1927 and 1943—as Lt. Governor—he became chief executive through the death of the incumbent.”
True, Dennis Murphree was never elected governor of Mississippi, but that’s not to say he didn’t try, running unsuccessfully in three gubernatorial races. Few people ever wanted to be elected governor more than he did, but the political scales in Mississippi never tilted his way.
He was born in Pittsboro, Mississippi, on January 6, 1886, the first child of Thomas Martin Murphree and Callie Cooper Murphree. His father served four years in the Confederate army and two terms as justice of the peace. He was a member of the school board, twice served as circuit clerk, and was twice elected state representative from Calhoun County. Martin Murphree was also a newspaper editor and died during his second term as state representative.
Dennis Murphree assumed the printing and newspaper office at his father’s death. In 1911 he was elected state representative from Calhoun County, Mississippi, the youngest person elected to that office from Calhoun County up to that time. His formal education was limited, but he obtained a vast amount of experience in the newspaper business. He was reelected state representative in 1915 and again in 1919. He married Clara Minnie Martin of Pittsboro. They had three daughters and one son.
Murphree was a fine orator, and in 1920 he was unanimously elected as temporary speaker of the house of representatives to serve during the illness of Mike Conner, the regularly elected speaker. He served thirty days and obtained valuable experience that he later used as presiding officer of the senate as lieutenant governor.
When Murphree ran for lieutenant governor in 1923, he defeated Hernando De Soto Money, Jr., son of U.S. Senator (1897-1911) Hernando De Soto Money, Sr. During his tenure, Murphree helped promote legislation to help the farmers, Delta State Teachers College (now Delta State University) was established, and the mental institution in Jackson was moved to Rankin County and later named for the incumbent Governor Henry Whitfield.
In 1925, Governor Whitfield called a meeting in Jackson with the object of adopting “some plan whereby the opportunities, possibilities and resources of Mississippi might be effectively presented to the outside world.” Lieutenant Governor Murphree proposed a plan of a “Know Mississippi Better Train,” a special train to carry representatives of Mississippi, exhibits of Mississippi resources, literature, and public speakers to visit across the country. The first KMB train pulled out of Jackson in August of 1925. Except for four years during World War II, the Know Mississippi Better Train ran every summer until 1948.
When Whitfield became ill in the summer of 1926, Murphree acted as governor much of the time. On March 16, 1927, Governor Whitfield died, and Murphree was sworn in as governor on March 18, 1927. A little over a month later, the levee broke at a ferry landing at Mounds, Mississippi, flooding an area 50 mi. wide and 100 mi. long with 20 feet of water, threatening the lives of almost 200,000 people.
FOR GOD’S SAKE, SEND US BOATS! blared the headline in the New Orleans Times-Picayune¸ quoting a plea from Governor Murphree. “For God’s sake, send us boats! Back from the levees, where the land is flooded by backwaters, people are living on housetops, clinging to trees, and barely existing in circumstances of indescribable horror. The only way we can get them out of there is by boat, and we haven’t the boats at present. Please try to make the people of New Orleans realize how urgent this is.”
The disastrous flood of 1927 that almost took Governor Murphree’s life required so much of his time that he was unable to campaign properly. As an additional handicap, he was twice forced by law to call out the National Guard to prevent lynchings in Jackson. Even though he had no choice in either instance, the whole matter was used from one end of the state to the other by his opponent, Theodore G. Bilbo, an ardent and notorious advocate of both white supremacy and white economic democracy to arouse prejudice and inflame hatred by his opponent, Theodore G. Bilbo, an ardent and notorious advocate of both white supremacy and white economic democracy.
Murphree himself was a personal target of Bilbo’s crude and scathing campaign rhetoric. Family legend has it that when Bilbo died in 1947, one of Murphree’s daughters told him he should not go to “that horrible man’s” funeral, to which Murphree replied, “Daughter, I just want to see them throw a ton of dirt on the son-of-a-bitch.”
In 1931 Murphree ran for lieutenant governor and won. When he ran for governor in 1935 against Hugh L. White and Paul B. Johnson, Sr., he failed to get into the second primary. In 1939 he ran his third successful race for lieutenant governor. As lieutenant Governor Murphree helped Governor Johnson carry out most of his proposed legislation, including free textbooks for the schoolchildren of the state, an increased homestead exemption (from $3,500 to $5,000), and an expanded membership for the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning to remove the board from political influences.
Murphree ran for governor the third time in 1943 in one of the most hotly contested gubernatorial races in Mississippi history against former Governor Mike Conner, Thomas L. Bailey, and Lester C. Franklin. Murphree failed to get into the second primary by less than 400 votes. Bailey won the election in an upset.
Then a little more than a month after the November general election, Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., died on December 26, 1943. Once again, Murphree was elevated to the governor’s office to serve the remainder of the Johnson term. He served as governor from December 26, 1943, to January 18, 1944, when Governor-Elect Thomas L. Bailey was inaugurated.
After a life devoted to public service, Murphree died of a stroke on February 9, 1949, at the age of sixty-three. He was buried near his home in Pittsboro, Mississippi.
There’s a green place in the heart of Jackson where roses bloom and a Summer House rests beneath the city skyline, a place to have a quiet lunch, a leisurely walk and a chance to recharge batteries during another day at the office. You won’t be disturbed; those many around you there lived their lives to fruition years ago. You will be in a place to contemplate your own life and expectations in Greenwood.
Greenwood Cemetery is Jackson’s largest green space; much larger than downtown’s Smith Park or old Battlefield Park in south Jackson. It is bounded on the east by West Street, on the north by Davis, the west by Lamar and the south by George. Each of these streets has its own story and each was part of the early city. They have changed in nature but not their boundaries or how it all came about when the city was founded. Those interred within these grassy perimeters of Greenwood were influential in the early city and responsible for building it to maturity. They are not ghosts, they are history, and you will have a chance to know them better. Let’s begin.
The cemetery itself, part of a federal land grant which also established the City of Jackson as the official site of the Capitol of Mississippi on November 21, 1821, was formally designated by an act of the State Legislature effective January 1, 1823. The original six acres were known simply as the “graveyard” and later as the “City Cemetery”. Some referred to it as the “burying ground”. An early map (1822) showed the area west of what is now West Street as vacant land indicating that originally the cemetery, while in Jackson’s original plan, was not yet officially within the city limits. The cemetery is shown on an 1845 Jackson map as the Grave Yard, encompassing 11.8 acres. The future extension to its present size is shown in squares 6N, 9.64 acres and 7N, 9.77 acres on this map. Its formal designation as Greenwood Cemetery was adopted in 1899, and it was listed on the National Register of Historical Places as a Mississippi landmark in 1984.
Greenwood Cemetery contains the graves of seven Mississippi governors, 14 Jackson mayors, six Confederate generals, six state Supreme Court justices and 27 clergymen. It is the final resting place for over 100 unknown Confederate soldiers whose lined markers may be seen easily from the West Street side. According to Greenwood Cemetery Association board member Peter Miazza, “Jackson pioneer Logan Power said there are altogether about 600 Confederate soldiers buried in the Confederate graveyard. We have names of about 500 of them, but do not know exactly where each is buried.”
“There were no sections for any group,” Cecile Wardlaw, executive director of the cemetery Association says. “Many old cemeteries were divided into sections by race or religion. Greenwood never was. Catholic, Protestant, or atheist, black or white; everybody just got buried. ‘Born in Ireland’ appears on many of the oldest stones.”
Time well spent with Mrs. Wardlaw and Mr. Miazza in May 2013, provided a wealth of information on the early days and development of the cemetery. “There are 330 unmarked graves at the original south end of the cemetery,” Mrs. Wardlaw related, “with the estimated number of all graves today being 5,000.” The oldest known surviving marker with a date is Governor Abram Marshall Scott who died June 12, 1833. There are an estimated 2,200 monuments posted on the Find A Grave website and Jacksonian Linda Robertson is in the process of doing a monument survey.
Mrs. Wardlaw told of how the roses came to be along the roads and walkways. “Local horticulturalist Felder Rushing donated the roses you see along the paths which he obtained from the Antique Rose Emporium in Texas. He did some work for that establishment and instead of getting a fee, he came back with a truck and trailer load of roses. He did that for two or three years and master gardeners helped him plant them. He will not tell us the names of the cuttings but only to say ‘they are there for people to enjoy’”.
The city owns the cemetery, but much of the maintenance is done by the Greenwood Cemetery Association which also raises funds to repair and perform landscaping work. Volunteers in this organization have provided more than 600 hours of service since the beginning of 2013. They have been aided by local Boy Scouts, AmeriCorps and the Phi Theta Kappa honorary fraternity at Mississippi College. Boy Scout Troop No. 1 (St. James and St. Andrews Episcopal Churches), performed volunteer work at the cemetery during the spring. The Brookhaven Monument Company is the primary source of stone repairs. The old section (south end) of the cemetery was not plotted since the “burial ground” was not officially a part of the city when first put to use. As the cemetery expanded northward, surveyors had difficulty putting in roads since bodies were buried haphazardly rather than in organized rows.
A number of Jackson’s first families have been interred in Greenwood Cemetery. Marion Dunbar, first pastor of Mt. Helm Baptist Church, is there. It was named Helm because Thomas Helm contributed the lot for the church to be built and also gave the church some money to help with construction. According to its website, Mt. Helm, Jackson’s oldest African American church, began in 1835, with several enslaved African Americans who worshiped in the basement of the First Baptist Church. It became a separate body in 1867, the year the 13th Amendment was ratified. A modern version of the church structure may be seen today at 300 E. Church Street near the west side of the cemetery.
Other Jacksonians of note include Millsaps College founders Col. William Nugent, Bishop Charles Betts Galloway, and Dr. William Belton Murrah, who served as the college’s first president; Dr. Lewis Fitzhugh, first president of Belhaven University and father-in-law of Dr. Murrah; founders of the Baptist Hospital, Harley R. Shands, M.D., and John Farrar Hunter, M.D., and Rev. John Hunter, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (1858). Monuments are plentiful for many early Jackson families including the Yergers, Spenglers, Greens, Poindexters, Lemons, Virdens, Henrys, Miazzas and, of course Miss Eudora Welty.
In addition to Miss Welty (d.2001), other Belhaven residents buried in Greenwood Cemetery include Henry Muller Addkison, local hardware dealer (d.1974), Lawrence Saunders (more on him later), R.H. Henry, owner and publisher of the Daily Clarion and Clarion-Ledger (d.1891), and James H. Boyd (d.1882). Boyd, the owner of what is now The Oaks home on North Jefferson Street, was a former mayor of the city and his home was the site of the conception of Mississippi’s first “Decoration Day”, which became known nationally as Memorial Day.
Monuments range from barely noticeable to imposing. In the circle by the cemetery’s Summer House, is the monument of Rev. Amos Cleaver, an Episcopal priest, who died in October 1853 from yellow fever. Five years after his death, some women took up money for this monument. The exact location of his grave is unknown so his marker was placed where it is today. The widow Cleaver had a girl’s school in a frame building where St. Andrews Episcopal Church stands today at S. West and E. Capitol Streets. In 1854, she sold the school to the state for its first school for the deaf. There is also the “Weeping Lady” (Sarah Ann and George Lemon plot), the Hilzheim lot framing structure, which looks like a church, and the “Angel Tombstone” in the Poindexter lot.
Perhaps the most interesting monuments have stories associated with their namesakes. What’s in a name? We shall soon see.
The Saunders Stone
Lawrence Saunders was a professor at the deaf school which was then across the street from his mother’s house near Barksdale and North State Streets. On Christmas night in 1895, he dressed as Mrs. Santa Claus to entertain the students. Saunders was on his way to the school and stopped by his mother’s home to show her his costume but the front door was locked. He let himself in through the back gallery. The only person home was his nephew who awoke to discover a strange presence. He shouted “Stop or I’ll shoot.” Unfortunately, Lawrence, being deaf, did not hear the warning and was killed by his own kinsman. It is never good when you shoot Santa Claus.
The Little Dog Tombstone
An unnamed small girl lived in Jackson during the mid-1800’s. Her family moved from the capitol city to Oxford where the child died. She was buried in the Simms plot which may be seen north of the summer house to the right of the circle. It is said her small grief-stricken dog would not leave her grave and died at its foot a short time later. His likeness remains to guard his mistress through the portals of eternity – faithful to the end.
The Good Samaritan Monument
Dr. Samuel Cartwright was well known for his work and writings to control the great Yellow Fever and cholera epidemics. During the Civil War, he was charged with getting rid of dysentery in the Confederate military camps, but he contracted dysentery himself and died in 1863. The carving of the “Good Samaritan” on his tombstone attests to his sacrifice and may be seen on his marker today.
My Dog Skip
A movie scene, filmed in Greenwood Cemetery, was based on Willie Morris’ 2000 novel My Dog Skip, and represented the witches’ tomb in the Yazoo City Cemetery. It depicted one of the characters going out among the tombstone to sit down and drink booze. Also, a replica of the Helm mausoleum was constructed for the movie in which the bootleggers stored their moonshine. There is no written record, however, of these spirits raising other spirits or sharing their company for the evening.
Lorian Hemingway’s Ghosts
The granddaughter of novelist Ernest Hemingway came to Jackson in 1999 to write an article on the 1966 Candlestick Park tornado. While here she participated in a ghost tour in Greenwood Cemetery, which was conducted and scripted by Jo Barksdale, much to the delight of a number of children.
The Tallest Monument
The stateliest monument in the cemetery looks eastward toward the sunrise. It is said its tenant was fabulously wealthy, controlling more cotton land than anyone outside the country of Egypt. He died in New Orleans in an area made famous by Josh White’s folk ballad “The House of the Rising Sun”. No one knows exactly to what extent the sun rose on that occasion, but it does make for fascinating speculation. Following his death his wife donated $5,000 to the church. Perhaps a wise investment.
Early Jackson family descendent Peter Miazza says “If you want to take a short tour to visually observe evidence of the history of Jackson and the leading citizens of the State of Mississippi, there is no better place to learn than Greenwood Cemetery.”
They are all here, diverse in their lifetime but equal in the eyes of God. Within the 22 acres of monuments and memories lie those who preceded this day, and share its common ground. There are the wealthy and the pauper, the slave and his master, the business owner and his clerk, the patriarch and the child. There are the physicians, the barristers, the judges, the politicians, the writers and artists, the entrepreneurs and the indigents. There are the prominent with their success and their secrets. There are the unnamed and the unknown. There are the wretched and the rascals and the Good Samarian and the faithful dog. There is Everyman. As Albert Einstein once said “Before God we are equally wise and equally foolish.”
As you walk the paths of Greenwood Cemetery, contemplate the rose shaded spirits around you. Feel their presence. You, like them, are part of our city’s heritage and its destiny. While our own lives are but a flash of light in the darkness of creation- a short string, the deeds of those who sleep around us endure forever. It is one final reminder that beauty is at our fingertips and that we are not alone.
Most of the material in this article was obtained from an interview with Greenwood Cemetery Association Executive Director Cecile Wardlaw and board member Peter Miazza on May 9, 2013. Other sources include:
1) Greenwood Cemetery brochure 2) Wikipedia Encyclopedia 3) Walt Grayson’s Look around Mississippi (WLBT-TV, 4/24/12; 12/26/12) 4) Jackson, A Special Place by Carroll Brinson (1977) P. 49 (map) 5) Mt. Helm Baptist Church website
Interested readers might also wish to consult:
* www.greenwoodcemeteryjackson.org * Find-A-Grave website * The Old Cemeteries of Hinds County (1811-1988) by Mary Collins Landin