Angels Of Our Better Nature

By Dan Conaway

SPIRITS OF A CITY. Emily Sutton and Annie Cook were prostitutes. And angels.

“The providence of her Judge, her God,” states the Elmwood monument of Emily Sutton – also infamously known as Fannie Walker – who died selflessly nursing the sick during the yellow fever epidemic of 1873. Annie Cook was so well known that the city directory officially listed her as “madam” and her house as a “palatial resort” for “commercial affection.” In both 1873 and 1878, she closed it and turned it into a hospital, dying herself nursing the dying. For just over 100 years her Elmwood grave was unmarked, finally reading, “A Nineteenth Century Mary Magdalene who gave her life trying to save the lives of others.”

Mattie Stephenson was jilted by her lover, loved by a city, and dead at 18. And an angel.

Within one week in 1873, Mattie arrived in Memphis heartbroken, captured the city’s heart with her dedication, and gave her life. Her monument stands over “No Man’s Land,” the area in Elmwood where some 1,500 yellow fever victims are buried in four unmarked lots, so many dying daily and the common need so great for burial that Mattie stands for them all.

Charles Parsons and Louis Schuyler were Episcopal priests. And angels, one after the other.

Father Parsons came as rector of St. Lazarus in 1876 and then Grace Church, heroically staying to serve during the 1878 epidemic and dying of the fever. With no one left in the city to administer sacraments to the dying, Father Schuyler rushed here from New Jersey to help and died within a week.

The Episcopal nuns running St. Mary’s School in 1878 – Sisters Constance, Thecla, Ruth and Frances – were buried together at Elmwood around a common marker at right angles to form a cross. Because they were angels.

The 1985 General Convention of the Episcopal Church designated the nuns as the Martyrs of Memphis, recognizing what they were called to do, and what they did.

The Howard Association was an organization formed to aid those stricken with yellow fever. And an order of angels. They raised money nationally to fight the epidemics here and organized a massive effort, and a third of their local membership died in that effort.

I spent a peaceful moment with all of them recently – those mentioned here and so many more. I wasn’t at Elmwood, that storied and sacred ground where so much of our history rests and resonates, but at a place dedicated to the whole host of angels who saw us through a time of plague.

Early for a taping at Channel 3, I turned off just before the station into Martyrs Park, a quiet spot on the bluff between the bridges, the river below and always moving, the city behind and beside you, martyrs depicted in sculpture, history engraved on plaques.

As it always seems when I visit, there was no one there but me. And all of them.

I’m a Memphian, and you should spend a little time with our angels.

Dan Conaway, a communication strategist and author of “I’m a Memphian,” can be reached at