Tom “Midtown is Memphis” Foster Draws the Palace

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In 1979, Memphis artist Tom Foster drew a series of cartoon postcards for the Pink Palace. Foster is an accomplished local artist who had drawn courtroom trials, album covers, comic books and theater sets. He trained at Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Memphis and Memphis College of Art. After school, Foster worked professionally as a courtroom artist, art director for WMC TV-5 and a graphics coordinator for the University of Memphis. In the 1990s, he decided to become a free-lancer and eventually self-published several books of his work. Arguably his best known work is his collaboration on the original “Midtown is Memphis” bumper sticker.

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Foster drew these postcards soon after the museum’s 1977 expansion and featured the then brand new exhibits. Some of the exhibits, like the log cabin and the drug store, are still on display. Others, such as the eagle exhibit and the tree, have since been updated.

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Clarence Saunders and the German Spy

In the summer of 1934, Clarence Saunders had seen his second fortune vanish with the bankruptcy of his “Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of Name” stores. A well-dressed, suave, continental gentleman with impeccable manners and letters of introduction approached him with an intriguing story. The man, Armgaard Karl Graves, was a well-known celebrity of sorts who may or may not have been originally named Max Meinke, who was also known as Peter Gunther von Kanitz and Dr. Louis Clement. He was born in Switzerland in 1877 and trained as a chemist. He fought in the Boer War until he was jailed for breaking military code. He then was recruited by the German Intelligence agency and sent to Great Britain where he was caught transmitting coded messages in Scotland and sentenced to prison. While there he was recruited by British Intelligence as a double agent and sent back to Germany. From Europe he sailed to the U.S. and became a sensation, publishing two books on his life as a spy and about the Hohenzollern royal family whom he regarded as usurpers.

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He blackmailed the wife of German Ambassador to the United States with information so sensitive that the case was dropped. He was arrested for impersonating an official of the state department, and he claimed that a famed Hollywood actress had information to back his claim that the Hohenzollern family were frauds. He talked investors into backing his plan to make synthetic gasoline, and he was a suspect in the sensational “Torch Murder” of a Park Avenue governess.

Graves was urbane and never ruffled. He was often seen with vaudeville starlets such as “Musette, the Dancing Violinist.” When confronted with his crimes, he often hid in plain sight, writing letters to the police professing his innocence and sometimes walked into the police station on his own. When accused of deceiving investors in his chemical company, he performed a dramatic mixing of chemicals for the police and produced a substance that could run two cars but would cost more than gasoline. And while there were doubts about his claims (he was often referred to in newspapers as the “self-styled” German spy), he never had trouble in charming new investors.

In August 1934, Graves came to Memphis to meet Clarence Saunders. According to Saunders, Graves had a letter of introduction from Wall Street genius Jesse Livermore who Saunders knew from his attempt to corner Piggly Wiggly stock in 1923. In Saunders own words, Grave told “a brilliant story.”

Graves claimed that during WWI the German cruiser Emden was carrying millions of dollars in gold in the Caribbean. As allied ships closed in, the ship’s carpenter built teak boxes to hide the gold in the shallows and jungles of Haiti. Graves claimed that he had already recovered some of it and was putting together an expedition to get the rest. Saunders, in his own words, was sold. Saunders gave Graves $1,500 in cash and sent his son Lee to New Orleans with Graves to test out the new diving suit that would be used in the expedition. Graves slipped away once the two arrived in New Orleans..

Saunders had him tracked to Texas and brought back to Memphis to face charges. Even in custody in Memphis, Graves maintained his cool charm. “I talked to him this morning and I am convinced he was trying to rob me,” Saunders said, “he denies everything…” Saunders had discovered that Graves had used this same trick several times and had a telegram from a man in St. Augustine that said that Graves had bilked him of $1,400 with the same story. “I asked him if he wanted me to show the telegram to [the police] and he said go ahead.” Saunders was bemused. “He is like a ball of putty. You can squeeze him anyway, but you can’t make anything out of him,” Saunders said.

As he was led away, Dr. Graves told Saunders, “They are going to give me a bath; I wish that you would buy me some clean linens…underwear, socks and so on.” Saunders placed his hand on Grave’s shoulder. “I’ll do that,” Saunders told Graves.

Graves was convicted of the theft and sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary. As Graves was taken away, Saunders shook his head and mused, “I suppose I had better add that linen to the $1500.”

Quotes from the August 27, 1934, front page of the Memphis Press-Scimitar.

The idea for this post comes from a brief mention of the incident in Mike Freeman’s book, Clarence Saunders and the Founding of Piggly Wiggly: The Rise and Fall of a Memphis Maverick. History Press, 2011.

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Chain Store Head Defies Death Threat

The following news article was published in the January 7, 1928 edition of The New York Times:

 ‘Three Ghostmen’ Demand $5,500 From Saunders and Warn of ‘Most Brutal Crime.’

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Memphis, Tenn., Jan. 6 (AP)-

Warned in a letter today that “the most brutal crime ever committed” would result if he failed to leave $5,500 in a secluded spot, Clarence Saunders, chain grocery store operator, defied the writers, who signed themselves ‘The Three Ghostmen,” to attempt to carry out their threat.

“Put it in the paper that I will not have any bodyguard, and if they want to take a shot at me—let them try,” was the challenge hurled by Saunders, who four years ago became prominent in affairs of the Piggly Wiggly Stores Corporation, of which he was President.

Instead of paying the money demanded, Saunders offered a $1,000 reward for the arrest of the writers of the letter.

The police announced tonight that they had uncovered clues that likely would lead to the arrest soon or of one or more of the “ghost men.”

“This is the only notice that we will give you,” read the letter, which was neatly written and correctly punctuated. It then directed that the money be left under a railroad trestle, be placed there by Saunders and be in old $100 bills.

Saunders was warned that if he informed the police it would mean “disaster for you and your whole family.” The last two paragraphs, written in capital letters, reiterated the warning.

“Do not notify the police. This is final and we do not intend to take any foolishness. Take heed and do the right thing.

Don’t fail—if you do, it will be the most brutal crime ever committed.”

At the time of the threat, Saunders had two sons, Clay, 18, and Lee, 21. He also had a daughter named Amy Clare, 15. He made a statement that while he did not need a bodyguard, he was hiring protection for his family. The police posted officers at the Saunders home while others searched for the “Ghostmen.” The police eventually jailed five suspects.

In late February, police inspector W.T. Griffin and Saunders each received a letter from the “Three Ghostmen” stating that the original letter sent to Saunders was part of a $500 bet to see if Saunders’ picture would be in that afternoon’s newspaper. The “Ghostmen” wrote the letter to free the innocently jailed suspects. The men were released that next Saturday, and the “Ghostmen were never heard from again.

CHAIN STORE HEAD DEFIED DEATH THREAT: ‘Three Ghostmen’ Demand $5,000… New York Times (1923-Current file); Jan 7, 1928; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2010) pg. 2.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

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A Planetarium for Memphis

In November 1953, a group of high school boys formed the Memphis Astronomical Society. They gathered monthly at the Memphis Museum to hold astronomy programs and then look at stars from the museum lawn. Their programs were open to the public and anyone over the age of 12 could join the club. One of the members, Mike Snowden, wanted to take the club’s passion to a new level and get a planetarium for the city.

The Astronomical Society hosted two meetings at the museum in March 1954 to see if there was enough interest in their idea. At the second meeting, Spitz Laboratories sent a man to demonstrate the Spitz projector on a portable canvas dome in the museum’s club room. Former mayor Walter Chandler and Park Commissioner H.S. Lewis attended the demonstration and left in favor of procuring a planetarium. Early conversations suggested putting the new attraction at the fairgrounds, Memphis State, Southwestern (now Rhodes College) or the museum. The museum won and museum director Ruth Bush got to work turning the religion exhibit gallery, which was located on the landing of the grand staircase, into a planetarium. She had the walls painted black, installed tilting chairs around the perimeter of the room and fireproofed the canvas dome.. The projector was installed in October 1954, opened to the public in December and was air conditioned the following August. The total cost of the project was $6,500.00, and shows were initially free for visitors.

Since the museum did not have the funds to hire a planetarium director, the boys of the Astronomical Society hosted the shows. John Buhler, Michael Peck and Ned Lawrence presented shows on the weekends, but the planetarium closed during the week because they were in school. They pointed out constellations, talked about the Christmas star and did any other programming that they felt was needed. Eventually, the museum was able to hire staff to run the planetarium.

The U.S.S.R. launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957adding a “space race” to the Cold War. The space age had begun. These events triggered broad public curiosity about space and astronomy. Because of the persistence of a group of teenaged boys, the Memphis Museum had a planetarium to feed that interest.

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Extra! Shooting in Congress!

In the 1920s, Clifford Davis was a Memphis lawyer who wanted to enter politics. He ran for a judgeship and won with the support of the Memphis Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1940, political boss Edward Hull Crump chose Davis to fill a vacant seat in the United States House of Representatives. The availability occurred after the city council appointed Representative Walter Chandler as mayor of Memphis. Davis served as a member of the Post Office and Civil Service Committees as well as the chairman of the Committee on Flood Control. During World War II, he was on the Military Affairs Committee and used his position to get military installations for Memphis.

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On March 1, 1954, Davis was in the Capitol for a vote. The House of Representatives convened at noon to consider House Resolution 450. This resolution would re-authorize a program to allow migrant Mexican farmhands to work in the United States. During the debate, four Puerto Rican nationals, Lolita Lebron, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero and Irving Flores Rodriguez entered the gallery. 243 members of the House were present for the vote after the debate. While the representatives waited for the votes to be counted, Lebron opened fire, emptied her pistol and then unfurled a Puerto Rican flag. The four assailants were members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, which called for full Puerto Rican independence and had previously used violence to advance their cause. Five representatives were wounded, including Clifford Davis who was shot in the leg. House Pages took the lead in ordering stretchers and identifying the wounded. Meanwhile, police sealed the Capitol and searched the grounds until all four of the shooters were in custody.

Lebron, Miranda, Cordero and Rodriguez were indicted, tried and convicted for their actions. They were all given maximum sentances in federal prison. In 1962, the House of Representatives’ sergeant-at-arms held a raffle among the wounded Congressmen. The “winners” received the pistols and the Puerto Rican flag that were the evidence in the trial. Rep. Davis “won” the pistol. He decided to donate the gun to the Memphis Museum, and it is still a part of our collection.
Politically, Davis went on to co-sponsor the Federal-Aid Highway Act and as well as a bill which allowed the Tennessee Valley Authority to issue bonds to become self-financing. Both of these measures had a lasting impact on the state of Tennessee. In total, he won reelection to Congress twelve times before losing his seat in 1964.

Lebron, Miranda, Cordero and Rodriguez all received clemency from President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
You can see the Universal News coverage of the shooting on C-SPAN at http://www.c-span.org/video/standalone/?317988-1/1954-newsreel-shooting-congress. You can also view oral histories about the event at http://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Events/1954-Shooting/.

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