Memory  /  Biography

A Deadly Introduction

Who was Henry Ellett? Looking at his grave you wouldn't know much about him.

In 2013, I made a rough sketch of Henry Ellett’s grave in the notebook I was using on a research trip to Tennessee for what would become Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis. Ellett is buried in what I’ve always thought of as a “bathtub grave,” but the style, which has two low walls that connect to a headstone and a footstone, has a creepier name: “cradle grave.” The sunken basin, now overgrown with grass, once held blooming flowers. Families planted gardens that reflected the life the deceased lived. It’s a style of grave that describes much of the Victorian era: romantic, morbid, beautiful, and painful.

So who was Henry Ellett? In my notebook I scribbled “Judge. Name misspelled ELLBT in NYT. Not a full obit,” next to my sketch. The burial announcement was spare and professional, which led me to suspect that a lot of the story had been left out. But I had enough detective work to do for the book, so I put it aside for a future date that never arrived. 

I’d forgotten all about Ellet until, years later, I was reading a celebratory article about Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president, in the October 22, 1887 edition of the Milan Exchange, a local Tennessee paper. 

I scanned the rest of the column—short dispatches on firebugs, telegraph lines down—and then, in the third entry, there he was: On October 15, 1887, Henry Ellett, 75, had introduced President Cleveland during a trip to Memphis that year. When he finished, Ellett shook Cleveland’s hand, took his seat and, shortly after the president began speaking, dropped dead. 

The description, like the burial announcement, was short, sweet, and impersonal, which again left me suspicious. I knew that any Memphian described as a “beloved citizen of Memphis” was beloved by white men and likely white men alone. Alice Mitchell’s father, and also the judge on her case, were both lauded as such. Yet her father had his wife committed after every childbirth, and the judge, a founding member of the Tennessee Ku Klux Klan, was so vicious his descendants have since changed their last name.