Boyfriends, 1915

Jessie had a lot of boyfriends, and by that I mean friends who were boys (or men). She was outgoing and vivacious, related well to men/boys and loved to be around them. Quite possibly it had to do with being the middle sister to two brothers whom she adored. And don’t get me wrong – she had lots of girlfriends too. That’s apparent from her diary. She had a wide circle of friends and didn’t much like to be alone.

When Jessie started dating Wiley Graham in April 1915, she wrote a comment in her diary regarding his looks that caught my eye.

March 25, 1915:  “… He is so good looking, it is seldom that I like really good looking boys.”

Jessie and Wiley(?), c.1915

First of all, Wiley was not quite a boy. I believe he was four years older than Jessie, and for most of 1915 Jessie was 20 years old. And secondly, is that Wiley in the picture above with my grandmother Jessie? I don’t know, but I hope it is since I think this fellow is quite attractive.  Jessie, however, was attracted to something different. It mattered more to her that the guy she was with be interesting and smart.

For most of 1915 Jessie’s most serious beaux, that is, the men with whom she had a more romantic relationship, were Doug Brooks from Deeson, Mississippi and Wiley Graham from Memphis. But Doug traveled a lot on business, and Wiley was probably frustrated that his proposal of marriage was not taken seriously by Jessie, leaving plenty of time for Jessie to go out with other men (or boys, as she liked to call them).

Here is a small gallery of some of Jessie’s ‘boyfriends’ in 1915.

Left to right – Doug Brooks, Jessie Latham, (Edgar Poague?) – 1915, Deeson, MS
Doug Brooks (center) with Jessie on the right,1915, Deeson, MS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is that definitively Doug Brooks? I think so, but I have deduced that from the things I have read in Jessie’s diary and some of the captions in Jessie’s photo album from that time period. As for Edgar Poague, I know from Jessie’s diary that he was a good friend of the Brooks family and was with them quite a lot during the houseparty at the Brooks plantation in Deeson the summer of 1915. Likewise with the identification of Adolph and Alex. Jessie was truly great friends with them both and enjoyed their company, but for her it was not romantic. She identified Adolph in her photo album, and I recognized the pictures from the description she writes of a day Alex, Adolph, she and another girl went ‘kodaking’ in downtown Memphis.

Jessie and Alex c.1915
Jessie and Adolph in Memphis 1915

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coach “Sully” Sullivan and Jessie

Another of Jessie’s suitors was Coach Sullivan, known as Sully. He was actually the football coach at Central High School, and Swayne’s current football coach. He looks to be quite the catch, nevertheless Jessie just thought of him as a great friend.

 

Cars, Comedy & Names – June 1914 to January 1915 in Memphis

Jessie, younger brother Swayne, mother Jessie Swayne & father F.S. Latham

We all know that names become fashionable and go out of style. A naming trend that must have been common in Memphis at the time, at least among Jessie and her acquaintances, was names that can be used by either sex, or names that are typically used for one sex being used by the other sex. Jessie herself has a name that has always been a female name in her family’s history, but it can also be a male name when spelled ‘Jesse.’ Here are some people that Jessie knew:

Ethel – She is Jessie’s cousin and was named for her uncle Ethel (who died young) and grandfather Ethel.

Clinton (called Clint) – a girlfriend from Deeson, Mississippi and the sister of one of Jessie’s beaux.

Aunt Jim – I don’t know who this is, but Jessie mentions her from time to time.

Freddy – a girl in Jessie’s circle of friends who has dated….

Blythe – a guy in Jessie’s circle of friends.

Ashley – a guy.

Jessie’s older brother Frank (“Bud”) at 20. He was named after his father.

Bernice – a boy Jessie knows in Gates, TN.

Carroll – a Memphis boy that Jessie knows.

There was another interesting naming tradition in Jessie’s family. Her brother Swayne’s given name was his mother’s maiden name, Jessie Gray Swayne. When Swayne married, that tradition was carried on in his family. One of his sons was given the name Davant, his wife’s maiden name.

The first roof top night club in Memphis opened in 1914. It was the Alaskan Roof Garden on top of the Falls Building, Memphis’ tallest building at the time. Quickly it became a favorite place for Jessie and her friends to go dance. The music was great – W.C. Handy and his band played there regularly and premiered St. Louis Blues there in 1914 – and the breezes off the Mississippi River were cool on those sultry summer nights in Memphis.

Many automobile companies lived and died in the early 1900s. Since I like to keep track of all the kinds of cars Jessie rides in, here are a few more that she named:

Lozier 1914

Lozier – The family car for one of Jessie’s friends, the Lozier was the top of the line in luxury cars  from 1900-1915, and for a time was the most expensive car produced in the U.S.

The American – the American Motor Car Co. was founded in 1906 and went bankrupt in 1913. This car company pioneered the underslung design with the chassis below the axles rather than perched on top.

1914 Buick

Buick – Jessie talks about her friend Babe’s big 6 cylinder Buick.

Packard 1916

Oakland Roadster – From 1909 to 1932 the Oakland Motor Car Co. operated in Pontiac, Michigan. In 1914 the roadsters the company produced were large 6 cylinder vehicles on a 130″ wheel base.

Packard – A luxury automobile produced by the Packard Motor Car Co. of Detroit, MI. Packard autos were produced from 1899 to 1956.

Ford – Ford produced the Model T from 1908 to 1927. It was advertised as a more affordable automobile. Several of Jessie’s friends drove Fords. Coach Sullivan, one of her beaux, must have driven a large Model T because she calls it his “mighty Ford.” Max Sansing can carry several people in his Ford, but Doug (one of her most serious boyfriends) drives a 2-seater.

Model T Speedster 1914
1914 Model T 2-seater

 

 

 

 

 

If you read Jessie’s diaries, you know that she goes to the  “moving picture show” a lot, most days in fact and sometimes more than once a day. She loves the movies. In December 1914 and also in January 1915 Jessie remarked that she had gone to see a Keystone Comedy. Mack Sennett founded the Keystone Studios in 1912 in California. He was the originator of the slapstick comedy routines seen in the Keystone Cops films. Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, W.C. Fields, and Carole Lombard, among others, all worked with Mack Sennett at Keystone Studios early in their careers.

Mack Sennett, known as the King of Comedy, founded Keystone Studios (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

And finally, on Sunday, January 10, 1915, Jessie’s brother Swayne, who was two weeks away from turning 17 years old, got his first real job. Jessie wrote in her diary: Swayne decided he wanted to get out in the woods – to go to work. At noon today Mr. Kerr gave him a splendid position – as rodman for a surveyor across the river from Cairo, Ill. Chappy was over all afternoon and we all helped Swayne pack up. He was gone by supper time. Mother just cried and cried, in fact we all did. Sure will miss Swayne, he is always so bright, and he certainly is a sweet good boy. I sure love him. 

 

Spring 1914 in Memphis

The cast of Endymion, Central High School in Memphis, 1914. Jessie is the 2nd girl to the right of the garland.

Here is another ‘slice of life’ posting, cultural tidbits from Jessie’s life in the Spring of 1914.

On April 2nd, 1914, Jessie wrote in her diary that she and her friends ran from school over to Bowers grocery store at noon to buy food for a picnic lunch. They bought pickles, sweet rolls, adnas, fig newtons, Saratoga chips, chocolate cakes, Tit-bits, and candy. I have not found any reference to adnas in my research, so I have no idea what that is. Fig Newtons have been around for a long time, and in fact were first patented and made in 1891.    Saratoga chips are the original potato chips invented in 1853 by Chef George Crum at a restaurant in Saratoga Springs, New York.   Tit-bits was a general interest magazine with articles, as the sub-title read, “from all the most interesting books, periodicals and contributors in the world.”Jesse Reno in 1859 and Charles D. Seeberger in 1897 are both credited with inventing the escalator. Reno’s 1859 version was powered by steam. Seeberger, with the help of the Otis Elevator Company, entered his invention in the Paris Exhibition of 1900 where it won first prize. At different times both he and Reno sold their patent rights for the escaltor to the Otis Elevator Company.  Jessie notes on April 4th that she and her friend Sara “went through all the 10 cent stores & rode the moving stairs or rather ‘escalator’ in the new Kress.”

Family history says that Jessie’s mother was very funny and often cracking jokes. Jessie had a good sense of humor too. One of the final senior assignments in English class was Shakespeare’s Macbeth. On April 28th Jessie wrote, “I read all of Macbeth this afternoon. When I finished I was sure glad for “If ’twere done, then ’tis done and its good if ’twere done quickly.”

Reading Jessie’s diary I am often reminded that driving and riding in a car in the early part of the 20th century could be dangerous. There was no driver’s ed. or driving school. A driving license cost little and people learned to drive on the road. On the evening of April 25th Jessie notes that they got their car out of the shop. The Latham’s Hudson had been in the shop for a while, and must have had some body work done because the auto was repainted dark blue from its original black. Five days later on April 30th Bud wrecked the car again. At around 11:30 that night he was bringing several of his work colleagues  home from working late at the bank (or so he told Jessie) and must have been speeding, because the car skidded out of control throwing several of them out of the car and injuring some of them. Jessie was sure that was the end of their Hudson. The running board and the back wheels were ruined, but the Lathams had their car back from the shop again within a couple of weeks.

I am also reminded that everyone’s health was more fragile in the early 1900s before antibiotics, vaccinations, and sanitation improvements. On Mother’s Day (May 10, 1914), another one of Jessie’s friends died. Susie Fleece was her name, and though Jessie didn’t identify the disease, Susie seems to have died of tuberculosis.

A graduation gift to Jessie Latham from Helen Spengler.
Some of the gold pins Jessie got for graduation.

Jessie graduated from Central High School in Memphis on June 2, 1914. She received many presents which she lists in her diary on June 1, 2 and 3 – “a perfectly exquisite diamond ring from mother and dad, a silver card case all filled with money, just beautiful, from Aunt Minnie,” many gold pins, a parasol, stationery, gauze fans, silver hat pins, gold dress clasps, slipper buckles, and so on. As Jessie would say, everything imaginable! On June 1, Jessie took part in her senior class play. They performed Endymion, and though she didn’t specify the author, I believe it was an  Elizabethan era play by John Lyly (c.1588) based on the Greek myth. The auditorium was packed and according to Jessie they had to turn hundreds of people away as there was not even any standing room available. There were 83 classmates in the production and Jessie was a Dryad. The next day, June 2, Jessie graduated. Her class sang two songs as part of the ceremony, Glory to Isis ( Aida) by Verdi and The Heavens are Telling by Haydn.

 

The Circus, Weddings and Fairy Stones

This posting is another bit of odds and ends, or what I like to call cultural tidbits from Jessie’s life in late 1913 and early 1914. For example, on Monday, September 8, 1913, Jessie and her date Miller watched the Hagenbeck Circus parade in downtown Memphis. An interesting fact about Carl Hagenbeck, the owner and creator of this circus, is that he “was an animal trainer who pioneered use of rewards-based animal training as opposed to fear-based training.” (Wikipedia)

Staurolite crystals (Fairy Stones)

On November 29, 1913, Jessie was once again out with Miller. They had gone to see “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” at the Lyceum. Jessie wrote, “Miller bought me a little fairy stone after the show – now can’t nobody talk bad about me.” I had never heard of fairy stones before and this piqued my interest. It turns out there are two kinds of fairy stones. One kind is found only in Georgia and Virginia (where there is a Fairy Stone State Park) and a few other places in the world, and I believe this is probably the kind Jessie got. This stone, which is brownish and is a staurolite crystal, naturally forms a cross, and so of course has many stories, myths and legends connected to it. Check out this blog for more information about the staurolite crystal fairy stones.

Fairy Stones from Quebec

The other kind of fairy stone, and the one that intrigues me the most, is the Canadian fairy stone. These rocks are found in northern Quebec and were created as glaciers advanced and then retreated, leaving them on lake and river banks. Known as clay stone glacial concretions, their smooth, rounded, disk-like shapes make them look like little sculptures. The Algonquins found these stones/pebbles on the lake and river banks and kept them as good luck charms. Others they used in their homes to ward off evil spirits and to insure good health and prosperity.  Check out this link for more information about these very interesting pebbles.

Mercantile Bank of Memphis 1890s Trade Card

On February 9, 1914, The old Mercantile Bank of Memphis closed its doors after the president of the bank embezzled enough funds to break the bank. As Jessie said, “So many people lost their money.”

Many things were different back in the 1910s. One of those things was schooling. Jessie turned 19 in December 1913, and she was a senior in high school. According to her diary, she could have skipped her senior year and gone on to college (she was recruited by at least one college), but she chose to stay on for her final year. Reading her diary, it’s hard to believe she is in school. She doesn’t mention it that much (except to complain about going to school), but she does mention going out almost every night of the week.  She goes to dances, shows, parties, dinners, etc. etc., and as Jessie points out, “Going out every night sure makes you tired at school the next day.” (Feb. 27, 1914)

Jessie Latham, Florence Hamner and Sue John Norvelle, August 1913, Covington, Tenn.

Two of Jessie’s best friends, Sara and Sue John, got married in the first few months of 1914, and there were many parties in celebration of those two engagements. On February 28, 1914, Jessie, who was a bridesmaid in Sue John’s wedding, gave a luncheon for her. She had gone to town the previous day and bought favors to give with each course, and most of the favors had a symbolic meaning. Jessie got a little spoon in one of the favors. “That’s the sign I’m the spoonest girl. How perfectly absurd!” The Oxford Dictionary says that a dated and informal meaning of spoon or spooner is “a person kissing and cuddling another person amorously.” Jessie did date quite a few boys! She got another sign from the universe at Sue John’s wedding to Boyd in Covington, Tennessee (March 24, 1914).  An old Victorian custom that had mostly died out with the beginning of the 20th century, but evidently was still popular in more rural areas like Covington, had to do with the wedding cake. Typically there were three cakes at the wedding. One was for the guests, the groom had a cake, and the bride had a cake. In the bride’s cake there were little favors baked into the cake, and it was cut and divided between the bridal party. Jessie wrote, “The most dreadful thing happened. I cut the thimble in the wedding cake. ‘Twas awful.” Getting the thimble meant you were destined to never marry. (Spoiler alert! Jessie did eventually get married, but like most of the women in our family, she married rather late.)

Early Talkies in Memphis, 1913

On Wednesday, March 19, 1913, Jessie wrote in her diary:  “I went to the Orpheum tonight with Elmo – the show was splendid. Saw and heard the talking moving pictures. They were wonderful. This is the first time they have ever been heard. Edison is certainly a wonderful man. You forget it was only pictures you were looking at and would think it was the persons themselves.”  Five days later on March 24, 1913, she wrote again:  “Went to the Orpheum to-night with William F.  Had the talking moving pictures again, ‘The Temptation Scene from Faust.'” Jessie was a witness to one of the earliest public presentations of a moving picture with sound.

1913 advertisement

The first known public presentation of a projected moving picture with sound was in Paris in 1900.  Thomas Edison had been working on this problem of adding sound to moving pictures since the late 1800s. The three basic problems that Edison and the other inventors who were working on this project had were 1) synchronization of the sound with the visual image, 2) amplification of the sound, and finally 3) producing a good high quality recording.  In the late 1800s Edison invented the Kinetoscope. This was a device that a single person could look through to see a short moving picture. Edison had also invented a camera which took many pictures rapidly. Running the film of many separate images past a light source created the ‘moving’ picture. This was the same method used in all movies until the invention of video. Around 1913, using belts and pulleys,  he devised a way to sync the sound recorded on a cylinder to the film projector, and this was now called the Kinetophone. The resulting films could only last 6 minutes, limited by the size of the cylinder upon which the sound was recorded. February 17, 1913, Edison debuted this new Kinetophone system (click here to see a Kinetophone film from this presentation) at four vaudeville houses in New York City. The audiences loved it! Jessie and her friends loved it when they saw these films one month later in Memphis. Why then did it take until 1927 for The Jazz Singer,  the first talkie feature length film, to appear? In the case of the Kinetophone, a projectionist had to carefully keep the sound and visual images synced by the speed of their manual cranking. Most of the time this didn’t work and the results were sometimes hilarious, but finally frustrating and not worth the public’s money.  With the start of World War I in Europe and a fire in Edison’s laboratory in 1914 which destroyed all the original recordings, the Kinetophone was finished after only a year. It took 14 more years until the three basic problems of synchronizing the sound and visual images, amplifying the sound so that it could clearly be heard throughout an auditorium, and making high quality sound recordings was solved. By the 1930s the talkies were everywhere.

Kinetophone

Ragging in 1912

On Friday, November 1, 1912, Jessie wrote in her diary that they had a grand time at the dance “…but didn’t stay long because they started ragging.

This comment, that because the crowd started ragging Jessie and her friends felt they should leave the dance, really made me curious. A few months earlier in the year (on July 9, 1912) Jessie wrote: “Went to a picnic supper and dance at Riverside Pk. this evening with Richard in our car… All that ‘raggy’ bunch went. They are the *society* crowd but they sure do rag.” On July 18th she went to another dance and wrote: “…danced until 2 o’clock but later the crowd got a little raggy.” But on July 27th Jessie seemed to do a little ragging herself when she wrote that a bunch of her friends came over to her house. “We took up the rug in the parlor and danced. Had cake, some class. Sure did have a rag-doll party. Had a grand time.” (I am guessing a ‘rag-doll’ party was a ragging party.)

In 1912 and 1913 the craze that was sweeping the country was ragtime dancing. These were simple dances that anyone could pick up without special lessons, dances such as the Turkey Trot, the Bunny Hug, the Grizzly Bear and the Boll Weevil Wiggle. The “animal dances,” as they were called, shocked genteel America because couples danced alone and held each other, sometimes closely. President Woodrow Wilson actually cancelled the inaugural balls for January 1913 to avoid ‘ragging’ dancers creating a scandal. Even the Vatican got involved.  Archbishop Henry Moeller announced that Catholics in the Cincinnati diocese who danced the Turkey Trot and other such dances could not be forgiven for their sins. Some cities banned the Turkey Trot and such at all dances. In Spokane they even considered banning the dances in private homes. At least one scholar wrote a book proclaiming that all these dances were imitating sex actions of the ‘lower animals’ and this is what the dancers are thinking of when they dance the Turkey Trot, Fox Trot, Horse Trot, Fish Walk, Dog Walk, Tiger Dance, Buzzard Lope and Boll Weevil Wiggle. But societal changes have a life of their own and everything is connected. Women’s clothing was becoming less restrictive, dating was done in cars and away from the home, and women would soon get the right to vote. The last remnants of the Victorian Age were disappearing and the cultural separation between men and women was becoming a little smaller. The way the dancers held each other and the energetic and almost improvisatory steps to fast, syncopated music fit the times. The ragtime dance craze would fade away with the onset of World War I to be replaced a few years later with the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties.

Riverboat Cruise to Arkansas City, August 1912

On August 19, 1912, Jessie wrote in her diary, “This afternoon we left on the Kate Adams for our boat trip to Arkansas City. I realize fully that I cannot begin to write what a perfectly wonderful time we did have. There are 31 in our party – Marie Louise, Winnie, Cooper MacFarland, Elizabeth Roston, Sara C., Carolyn H., Emma R., Mary Carr, & myself, Glenn, Mitch, Jack Burch, Joe T., Herbert H., Billy, Bernard, Perry, Milton, Monty, Julius, Shep, Hurley, Lee, Cecil, Canuck, Paul, Everette, Swayne & Lucious, Mother & Mrs. Buck are our chaperones.” Who’s counting? But there are 9 girls, 20 boys – all teenagers – and 2 chaperones, Mrs. Latham and Mrs. Buck. Those two women must have had their hands full! Family stories about my great-grandmother, Mrs. Latham, also named Jessie, were that she was hilarious and a lot of fun to be around. All the kids enjoyed having her as chaperone on their river boat cruises or house parties.

Party on the Kate Adams, August 1912. Jessie is sitting in the 2nd row with a dark collar.
The girls. Jessie’s mother is wearing black and Jessie is leaning out right in front of her.
The boys.

For much of the summer Jessie had a crush on Glenn. This understandably made her long-time boyfriend Richard quite jealous and they had a few arguments on this topic. Glenn went on the River Boat Cruise but Richard did not.

Is this Glenn with Jessie? Jessie captioned this photo “At Sea.”
Jessie captioned this photo, “Can you name it? I can.” Is that Glenn on the right?
“Posing – the morning after”
“Cack and Emma R.”

During the second day of the cruise the boys and at least one of the girls put on a circus.

“Our gymnasts. Bernard, Marie Louise, Everette.” Jessie Latham, August 1912
“Oh! Circus Day.” Jessie Latham, August 1912
Friends. Jessie is on the left.
Jessie captioned this photo “The Fight,” but she does not mention a fight in her diary. Perhaps it was a performance for the ‘Circus.’
“Up in the air.” The circus!

Wednesday, August 21, 1912, Jessie wrote, “We reached Memphis late to-night. A bunch came home with us and we had a house party. Glenn, Monty, Perry, Lucious and Elizabeth P. spent the night here.”

“Home again.” Jessie Latham, August 1912

Automobiles, Summer of 1912

In the summer of 1912, going out for rides in “the machine” was one of the favorite activities for Jessie and her friends. So I decided to take note of the different makes of automobiles that Jessie mentions in her diary during June, July and August. On July 3rd she writes that “Rex Clark brought us home in his electric (Flanders).  Awfully sweet of him.”  The Flanders Company was in business from 1910 to 1914, based in Detroit. In 1912 an electric model, the “Colonial,” was introduced and produced for only three years – 1912, 1913 and 1914.  According the theoldmotor.com, there were 3000 orders for the electric model, even though the price of $1775 was fairly steep for the time. Unfortunately, fewer than 100 of those orders were delivered before the company went under.

1912 Hudson Torpedo

On July 9th Jessie mentions a couple of autos by name. “Richard & I sat on the river bank until the skeeters ran us off, then we got our Hudson & went riding.” The Hudson, of course, is the Latham’s black Hudson Torpedo, which Jessie sometimes called the Black Maria. In that entry she also mentions that her younger brother Swayne sprained his wrist cranking a friend’s Pierce Arrow.

1912 Pierce Arrow
Marathon 1911

On July 28, 1912, Jessie wrote: “I sure had some auto rides this evening – four. First I went out in a Marathon with Jack Jones & Dick – Winnie & Charlie G…”  The Marathon Motor Works company was based in Nashville, Tennessee and was in business from 1907 to 1914.   Jessie continues: “Then I went with Bud (in the Latham’s Hudson Torpedo), then Walter H. & Everette P. came by in J’s racer & I went riding with them until 6:30 then Glenn came & I rode with him until 8 (per diary entry 6/23/1912 – in his “big Cadillac”). A grand ride.”

1912 Stutz Bearcat racer
1912 touring Cadillac

Jessie mentions many times that her boyfriend of several years, Richard, has a Thomas Flyer. Edwin Ross Thomas, who started the Thomas Motor Company, began his career in 1896 selling small gasoline engine kits for bicycles. In the early 1900s the Thomas Company was selling motorized bicycles and various kinds of motorcycles. From 1902 to 1919 the Thomas Motor Company built cars. The first Thomas “Flyer” came out in 1904.

Thomas Flyer, Salt Lake City, 1909
1912 Thomas Flyer

 

 

 

 

 

 

April, 1912

Without a doubt, the main event occurring in April of 1912 in Memphis was the Flood (see my previous post, The Flood of 1912). Luckily, Jessie and her family lived on the bluff on which much of Memphis was built and were protected from the ravages of the flood. Life went on, even though parts of the city remained under water.

R.M.S. Titanic departing Southhampton on April 10, 1912.
R.M.S. Titanic departing Southhampton on April 10, 1912.

Early in the morning on April 15, 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic, on its maiden voyage, hit an iceberg and sank. The news went out over the wires and Jessie and her family read about the disaster later that morning in the newspaper, probably while they were eating breakfast and getting ready for the day. Jessie wrote in her diary: “Monday, April 15, 1912: We read in this morning’s paper about such a terrible thing. The sinking of the Titanic, the world’s greatest ship on which 1,595 persons lost their lives. Oh! it’s terrible to think of it. Most of the women and children were saved. John Jacob Astor the great millionaire was lost. How awful it is to think of the homes this has filled with sorrow.”

And finally, here is another cultural tidbit. On April 30th, 1912, Jessie wrote in her diary: “After my music [lesson] I went all over town looking at aigrettes. They sure are pretty but mighty expensive.” An aigrette is an ornamental head piece, often made of feathers, usually egret feathers.

Georges Barbier, 1912
Georges Barbier, 1912
Aigrettes, 1912
Aigrettes, 1912

The Flood of 1912 – Memphis

1912 Flood, Market St. in Memphis, J.C. Coovert, photographer
1912 Flood, Market St. in Memphis, J.C. Coovert, photographer

The Flood of 1912 was one of the worst floods ever documented on the Mississippi River. It was also the first major flood on the Mississippi River to be photographed. Throughout March and especially at the end of the month, Jessie wrote several times in her diary of the rain. On Thursday, March 28, 1912 she wrote: Rain! Rain! Rain! Will it ever stop? Seems as though we have been swimming around for the last month. The River is awful high, highest it’s been in years. In fact, the Mississippi had reached flood stage (35 feet) several days before on March 24th and would not go below that mark for 60 days. There had been a lot of snow that winter in the northern U.S. It suddenly melted, flooding the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Levees all along the River failed. On April 1 a huge chunk of the levee failed at Greenfields Landing, just across the River from Cairo, Illinois. The water from that break covered most of Mississippi County in Missouri. I read that at one point during this flood, the Mississippi River was 60 miles wide in one section. Perhaps this was the area.

Camping on the levee. Memphis 1912, J.C. Coovert, photographer
Camping on the levee. Memphis 1912, J.C. Coovert, photographer

The River crested for 3 days (April 6-9) in Memphis at 45.3 feet. Levees on both sides of the River at Memphis failed. Because most of downtown Memphis is built on a bluff overlooking the River, much of the city was spared. But in the lower lying areas as many as 1200 people were driven from their homes, primarily from the flooding of the tributaries. In the northern part of Memphis near the Bayou Gayoso  and Wolf River, homes were flooded by as much as 6 feet of water. People were camping out on the tops of levees. African Americans were disproportionately affected by the flood since many of their homes and farms were in these lower lying areas.

Mill Bridge at Bayou Gayoso in Memphis. J.C. Coovert, photographer
Mill Bridge at Bayou Gayoso in Memphis. J.C. Coovert, photographer
Main & Mill in Memphis, 1912. J.C. Coovert, photographer
Main & Mill in Memphis, 1912. J.C. Coovert, photographer