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.
Was Ellett’s greatest accomplishment being bored to death by Cleveland? Of course not.
In 1846, Ellett filled the Congressional seat vacated by Jefferson Davis, who would go on to become the first and last President of the Confederate States of America. Davis had resigned from Congress—his first elected position—to lead the First Mississippi volunteers in the Mexican-American war, a territorial dispute over Texas that almost doubled the size of the United States of America. Davis was hailed a war hero who had successfully fought to expand the union. (Benedict Arnold was also a war hero before he became a traitor.)
But I digress. Ellett replaced Davis and went on to serve in the Mississippi State Senate during the Civil War. After the infamous 1857 Supreme Court ruling on the Dred Scott case upheld slavery, Ellett was one of three men to revise the last of the antebellum slave codes. He played a key role in drafting statutes that guided punishments for various offenses. A Black person, free or enslaved, received 100 lashes for assaulting a white person and 20 lashes if an enslaved person was found anywhere off of their master’s property without a pass. Any gathering, whether religious or otherwise, of enslaved or free Black people required the supervision of at least two white people.
Ellett’s inglorious contributions didn’t end there. In 1861, he helped frame Missippi’s ordinance of secession at the State secession convention. Jefferson Davis appointed him the Postmaster General of the Confederacy, but he declined in favor of private practice. After the South’s rebellion failed, the law took over from the lash, and Ellett became a Judge in the Mississippi Supreme Court. Ten years later, he moved to Memphis and joined a private practice. He must have put in a lot of effort that year in order to be described as a “beloved citizen of Memphis.” Or that was just the default description afforded to white men of affluence.
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