Explore the city’s ‘dark history’
When you’re an entrepreneur whose business portfolio includes ghosts, witchcraft and beer, how do you branch out?
With a murder, perhaps?
Thus was born, from history and tragedy, the “Memphis True Crime Tour”, a mini-bus tour that takes place every two weeks – at night, of course – in front of the Broom Closet, a gift shop metaphysics plus magic across from Central Station in the historic South Main district.
The tour introduces visitors to a gallery of stranglers, shooters, poisoners, cutthroats, baby-stealers and other generally demented miscreants whose misdeeds have inspired grim headlines from the 19th to the 21st century.
“We love Memphis, we’re not trying to be negative about it, but every city has a dark history,” said Stephen Guenther, 60, owner of the Broom Closet and his business within a business, Historical Haunts, a seven-year-old company that runs regular getaways for the heart and liver like the “Haunted Memphis Bus Tour,” “Haunted Pub Crawl,” “Memphis Ghost Walk,” and “Memphis Beer Bus.”
HAUNTED MEMPHIS:Ghost Stories: Discover the supernatural side of Memphis
Launched during last year’s Halloween season, as pandemic restrictions eased and fun-seekers emerged from hiding, the Memphis True Crime Tour was inspired by the success of rides similar to New Orleans organized by friends of Guenther and his partner in crime, so to speak, his wife, Emily Guenther.
Plus, “where I’m from, in Southern California, there’s a lot,” said Stephen Guenther, who moved to Memphis about a decade ago. “You have the Manson Family Tour, the Hillside Strangler, the Night Stalker…”
Specifically, the tour is another manifestation of the seemingly insatiable bloodlust of an audience that has made true crime “the fastest growing segment of the streaming industry,” according to a recent report by The Ringer, a cultural site.
The numbers can be staggering: the first season of Netflix’s “Tiger King,” for example, was watched by 34 million people, while the “Serial” podcast has been downloaded more than 340 million times, according to Variety.
But even less famous (infamous?) programs attract millions of viewers, which is why the cable/streaming landscape sparkles with an arterial spray pattern of macabre amusements: “Unsolved Mysteries,” “Worst Roommate Ever,” “Murder Among the Mormons”, “Why did you kill me? ” And so on.
MEMPHIS QUIZ:From crime to scandal, what do you know about the city’s past?
True crime aficionados from near and far
Of course, the Memphis True Crime Tour, in this context, is just a drop in the blood bank. Its minibuses do not carry more than 20 customers. The fee is $25 per person and the tour usually sells out, Guenther said. (Dates and ticket information can be found at HistoricalHauntsMemphis.com.)
Earlier this month, a journalist and photographer from The Commercial Appeal joined Guenther, tour guide Amber Dawson, driver Keith Pipkin and 11 thrill seekers on the crime tour, for a hike along a dozen crime-relevant, albeit sometimes rather vague, landmarks (most of the bloody old brothels and orphanages have been replaced by condos and parking lots, so this is a guided tour with an emphasis on storytelling).
That night’s attendees – who proudly admitted to being true crime buffs – were a mix of local residents and out-of-town visitors.
“We like to do original things,” said Scott Jones, a chemistry professor from Lincoln, Illinois, who was vacationing in Memphis with his family.
Michele Langford, 47, of Bartlett, was more philosophical.
“I think there’s something about hearing about all the horrible things that are happening, it makes you wonder about humanity – what drives people to do these things,” she reflected.
Consuming true crime stories “probably makes me a little more self-aware,” Langford’s friend Jessica Usher, 36, said. “I feel like I can identify a creep a little faster.”
She said the True Crime Tour offered friends not just a night on the town, but a night out of Bartlett. “They have really nice landscaping, but nothing ever happens there.”
MEMPHIS HISTORY:A bicentennial of Bluff City: From comic to tragic, here are 200 pieces of Memphis history
Georgia Tann, George Howard Putt and more
The approximately 90-minute tour departed from the Broom Closet and its inventory of crystals, mojo bags and Wicca candles around 7:30 p.m. As the bus drove north toward the jail at 201 Poplar, Dawson called out famous names of people. arrested or imprisoned in Memphis: Elvis (in 1956, charged with assault and disorderly conduct which was ultimately dismissed); Jerry Lee Lewis; Ozzy Osbourne; George “Machine Gun” Kelly; even the fictional Hannibal Lecter, who in the 1991 film “The Silence of the Lambs” occupies a freestanding cell inside the Shelby County Courthouse.
“Why was Memphis chosen for ‘The Silence of the Lambs’?” Dawson asked. “What about Memphis that made this seem like a good idea?”
As for Dawson (introduced by Guenther as “the mistress of murder, the maven of mystery”), her choice to be a tour guide on a true-crime tour was no mystery — in her mind, at least.
“I’ve always been really into the paranormal and true crime,” said the 32-year-old Goth, who said she also works as a tap dancer and improv comedian. “My mom let me watch ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ when I was a kid, which probably wasn’t a good thing.”
The True Crime bus spends most of the tour in and around the city center, although it does travel east for trips to sites associated with Georgia Tann (1891-1950), the market baby trafficker black man who essentially kidnapped hundreds of children, and serial killer George Howard Putt (1946-2006), who killed five people in two months before his arrest in September 1969.
“He got a bad hand and he played it to the end,” Dawson said, referring to Putt’s tough childhood.
GEORGIA TANN BABIES:Georgia Tann Victims Tell Stories of Lives Lost in Infamous Adoption Scandal
During the tour, Dawson stood at the front of the bus and consulted a laptop computer for much of her spiel. Sometimes she shared photos on the screen with the public.
Posting a photo of Putt, Dawson commented on the killer’s rude appearance. “I wouldn’t have turned him down if he had offered to buy me a drink, and that wouldn’t have been good for me,” she said.
As the bus rolled, Dawson asked passengers to recommend their favorite podcasts. The shouted responses established the true authenticity of the group’s crime: “Southern Fried Crime” (a series that exposes “the dark underbelly of the Deep South”, according to its Facebook page). “True Crime Campfire” (case of “stranger than fiction” murders). “Snapped” (women who murder).
At one point, the bus stops nearby but does not go down Lester Street, where six people were murdered and three others injured on March 3, 2008. The victims – shot, stabbed and bludgeoned – included five children, including the was only 3 months old.
Guenther said the Memphis True Crime Tour is very “selective” about its featured murders and generally avoids recent cases, so as not to appear to exploit tragedy. But he said the Lester Street murders had been so widely covered in the national media and by the true-crime industry – including in episodes of A&E Network’s ‘The First 48’, an investigative documentary series about the homicides – that the murders had to be understood.
“We don’t litigate cases, we don’t pull all the strings, we engage in storytelling,” Guenther said. “We consider ourselves an entertainment company.”
Death by poisoned milk?
Lester Street aside, most of the killers brought to light on the tour have operated far enough in the past to be treated with the macabre levity of Alfred Hitchcock introducing an episode of his television program or with the deadpan pedantry of a crime historian. Some of these more colorful malefactors include “Vance Avenue Alma”, a six-times-married “black widow” whose husbands have mostly met untimely ends; “Wild Bill” Latura of Beale Street, a burger stand operator who loves guns; and teenage Alice Mitchell, whose romance with former Higbee School for Young Ladies classmate Freda Ward, whom Alice cut to death in 1892, is about to be dramatized in a film by Australian Jennifer Kent, director of “The Babadook”.
The audience’s favorite character on The Commercial Appeal’s night tour was not a killer but a victim: Walter “Daddy” Sample, who died from poisoned milk delivered to his home in 1941 by one of his many lovers. , Bertha House.
MEMPHIS BOOKS:The author discovers ‘Secret Memphis’: the book serves as a guide to ‘Weird, Wonderful and Obscure’
Sample’s reputation as a “sex machine” will “make you feel confused and weird” once you see it, Dawson said, holding up a laptop photo of a dignified old man in metallic glasses who looked like more to a retired civil engineer (which he was) than a “lamb by day and a wolf by night. As House told police, according to contemporary reports: “I tried to away from him, but no woman can resist him. He was a human vampire.”
Returning to the relative safety of the Broom Closet, the riders seemed content with the tour.
“We don’t have HH Holmes in Memphis,” Usher said, referring to the 19th-century mass murderer whose exploits at the Chicago World’s Fair were chronicled in the best-selling “The Devil in Town.” White” by Erik Larson. “So it’s interesting to know what we have.”