In the nineteenth century, many Irish citizens immigrated to Memphis. The poorest of these lived in an area of downtown known as the Pinch District. The name is credited to Mr. Craven Peyton, an early Memphian, who called the area “Pinch gut” after noticing the near emaciated look of the inhabitants. However, not all of Memphis’ Irish immigrants were the working poor.
Eugene Magevney was born in County Fermanagh, Ireland, and immigrated to the United States in 1828 before settling in Memphis in 1833. He opened a school for boys and eventually lived in a boarding house run by the McKeon family on Adams Avenue. In 1837, he purchased the white frame, six-room home for $2,500 (roughly $60,000 in 2015 dollars). Magevney continued buying real estate and purchased a pasture at the current intersection at Main and Union in 1839. As the city grew, he was able to sell the pasture for a handsome profit and reinvest the money is further real estate ventures.
Father Stokes celebrated the first Catholic mass in Memphis in Magevney’s house. Eugene married Mary Smyth, a former pupil from Ireland, in the house two and a half years later. It was the first Catholic marriage in Memphis. Also in the Adams Avenue home, Magevney’s daughter Mary had Memphis’s first Catholic baptism. He was also one of the men who helped build St. Peter’s, Memphis’ first Catholic Church, in 1841 in the lot next to his home. The first church building was a small brick structure. One decade later the congregation rebuilt the church on a much grander scale. Magevney was a major contributor to the building fund.
Eugene Magevney died in the 1873 yellow fever epidemic. After a lengthy probate of his will, the house on Adams passed to Blanche Hamilton Harsch, the adopted daughter of Eugene and Mary’s second daughter, Katherine. In 1941, Mrs. Harsch gave the property to the City of Memphis with the stipulation that no admission fee could be charged.
You can visit the Magevney House on the first Saturday of the month from 1-4 PM. Admission is, as promised, free.
Information from this post came from “The Magevney House, Memphis” by Charles Crawford and Robert McBride published in the winter 1969 edition of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico works in the Exhibit Department at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. She has a graduate degree in history from The University of Memphis, and her favorite artifacts are the Cold War civil defense supplies.