Across the nation, Memphis is getting a reputation as a dangerous place.

Take it from Frank Gurnsey who came from the small town of Weyauwega, Wisconsin for a temporary assignment- and a big culture shock- when he was sent to Memphis. 

In an email to his fiancé back home he mentioned a woman who abandoned a baby on the street. "The same evening they also found a man laying dead upon the walk, probably  murdered. Robbery and murder are frequent occurrence. It is not safe for a man to be on the street unless he is armed to the teeth," he said. "It seems the lowest and hardest cases of both sex have flocked into the city." 

That was Gurnsey's theory. Another is many Memphians lack of respect for the police. The evidence? Within a decade eight Memphis Police officers were killed at the hands of others while protecting the city.

We even made it into the but of jokes. Comedian Stephen Colbert  met  Mayor Strickland when he came to Memphis. Colbert, prominent for his political satire, mentioned that Memphis was known nationwide for its murder rate. The mayor defended the city saying part of the reason was due to our top-notch hospitals who accept people from around the area so people assaulted in other areas and come here for medical care, die and skew the numbers. Colbert asked "What kind of city is this where you have to shoot a man to get him to come here?"

In still another incident that made national news, a flash mob of about 50 people alerted by social media met in the northeast part of town to watch and or participate in a revenge killing. After the torture and murder, one of the thugs felt compelled to photographed his remains. 

Yes, those incidents happened. Yes they happened in Shelby County, well sort of. 

Sergeant Major Frank Gurnsey of Wisconsin wrote that letter to his fiancé via snail mail, not email as this was written  February 10, 1863. He was on assignment here as part of the Union Army stationed in Memphis after its surrender. 

Eight Memphis police officers killed by suspects in a decade? Shocking but true, but don't blame video games, music  or  your least favorite politician. The decade was the 1920's. In comparison the last eight Memphis Police Officers murdered in the line of duty were killed in a span of thirty two years.

The mayor was not Jim Strickland but Rowlett Paine, mayor from 1920-28. The comedian- Will Rogers. 

And the revenge-murder? It happened near the current location of the Summer Drive In theater and the Wolf River - May 22, 1917 as El Pearson was killed as a suspect of the rape and murder of a white girl. Of course in 1917 there was no social media so there was no flash mob of 50 people showing up. 

It was closer to 5,000. 

Watch the news and one would wonder what has happened to the Memphis and Shelby County many of us remember and misremember from the "good old days." But from about  1900 to  1940, your were more likely –often much more likely- to be murdered in Shelby County than even today when the 10 o’clock news seems to be a parade of blue lights and yellow tape. 

From 1996 to 2015, the Shelby County Health Department reported an average of 18 homicides per 100,000. But a few words about those numbers are in order. 

The health department counts homicides different than law enforcement does so what shows up in the media often comes from the Memphis Police Department - generally crimes that take place within the city limits of Memphis. The Sheriff's department investigates within the county but outside of the incorporated cities of Memphis, Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville and Millington, who have their own  police. Sometimes those lists include justifiable homicides in total numbers, sometimes not.

 But the Shelby County Health Department looks at causes of death within the county. It could be justified or unjustified, but it's still listed as a homicide. Or if someone is shot in Somerville or stabbed in Senatobia and comes to the Regional One Trauma Center and dies, that person is also listed as a Shelby County homicide. Police focus on jurisdictions and culpability, healthcare focuses on the cause of death. 

The years 1918 to 1927 had only Memphis data.  1919 and 1920 had no data either through the Health department nor press reports. 

Population estimates were based on the census taken every decade  with population between those years extrapolated  so if one census had a population of 100,000 and ten years later there were 200,000 I went on the premise there would have been 150,000 halfway through the decade. An assumption, I know. Also, these are rounded to whole numbers.

That number of 18 homicides per 100,000 in the past two decades is down from 1990 and 1993 where it was 26 per 100,000, which was double the rate in the late 1960's and early 1970's. There has been a general decrease in violent crime in the last 25 years nationwide and Memphis has followed the trend. But old Memphis made even the toughest years of the early 1990's look like Mayberry, North Carolina under Sheriff Andy Griffith.

Take 1925 which was a year where Memphis was a city of progress. We  got our auditorium at Main and Poplar ( replaced in the early 2000's by the Canon Performing Arts Center), the current Peabody Hotel opened along with Southwestern College ( now Rhodes College ) which still impress people of today. But there was also the Memphis polite people did not discuss. It was a place that had about twice the murder rate of the 1990's with 50 per 100,000.  But that was far from our most murderous year. It  tied 1930 and 1934 for tenth place.

In 1909 blues man William C Handy was hired by the Edward H. Crump campaign to write a song for the mayoral candidate. “When we played that song at Main and Madison we stopped traffic. Stenographers were dancing with their bosses and men ran up asking ‘what’s the name of that song?” he remembered in an interview decades later. Sounds like a scene from a hybrid of "Oklahoma" and "West Side Story" that's so corny in a musical sort of way audiences would love it. But in 1909,  "Assassins" would have been a more appropriate title for a Memphis musical set in this era with a 52 per 100,000 murder rate.

The night of August 22, 1916 Memphis Police officers John C. "Sandy" Lyons and Charlie Davis were on foot patrol in the area of Poplar and Dunlap and keeping an eye on William Latura's place at the southwest corner. 

Officially it was a hamburger restaurant but the state had been putting the screws to Tennessee's prohibition violators and Latura was known to sell beer out of the place. The two officers were threatened with their jobs if their beat had any more alcohol for sale.

Latura was known to the police. In 1902 he killed a man with a baseball bat – ruled self defense. He went into a bar on Beale Street in 1908 and shot seven people, four –some accounts say five- of them dying. The verdict- not guilty due to insanity.

Later he shot "Alabama Tom" dead at his hamburger spot when the men were gambling - self defense it was rulled. He had more than a few scrapes where guns and or knives ended the fight. A scar along his jaw was put there during a fight where the other man was obviously aiming lower. 

Words were exchanged between the officers and Latura when he accused the two of harassing his employees. “Bill your under arrest!” The officers said to him. Latura reached for his pistol. Officer Lyons beat him to the draw putting four bullets in his torso. Though ruled justified, "Wild Bill" ( don't call him that to his face) became one of the 128 homicides that year. That was 62 out of 100,000 residents.

1915 was the era the  South Main was booming as two train stations opened in 1911 and 1912. The new West Tennessee State Normal School ( now University of Memphis) turned three years old. Still  crime lurked Shelby Streets with 68 murders per 100,000.

Much of Dill Anderson's life and his death  was lost to history. He was from Memphis, born in 1875. He worked as  a laborer. June 10, 1903 he married Nannie Pearson. January 10, 1906 he married Maud Alexander. His life came to an end on January 2, 1910 he was shot at Baltimore Street at the train tracks becoming  the first homicide of the year. He was laid to rest at Zion cemetery section 7, row 1, grave 69. 

His death began a murderous year. It was the year that beat all others with 70 deaths by others per 100,000. That would be the equivalent of about 657 homicides per year in today's Shelby County. 

There is some truth to the idea of a safer Memphis in days gone by. Crime began falling significantly in the late 1930's. In 1935 the rate was 44 homicides, by 1940 it was down to 23 and averaged between 13 to 14 through the rest of the decade. 

The 1950's the rate fell further, down into the single digits in 1953, a zone where it remained until 1967 when we had 12 homicides per 100,000. But nationally things were changing, and those changes included Memphis. 

Crime across the nation increased by 135  percent from 1960 to 1970 for reasons that demographers and sociologists still debate. Safe streets and homes became much more of a national issue in the 1968 Presidential election where it was mostly a local issue during the election four years earlier.  Locally the city saw the riots of 1968 and the murder of Martin Luther King Jr the same year. the next year, about the time the nation was learning of what would later be called the Manson family and the Zodiac killer, we had our own serial killer who slew 5 Memphians that August and September. 

From 1990 to 1996, homicides peaked. 26 in 1990 and 1993, 25 in 1992 and 23 in 1991 and began falling after that.

But on January 1, 2016 at 2:52 pm. Patrick Couch was found shot and was pronounced dead on the scene on South 4th. It was the first homicide in what became one of the bloodiest years since 1990.That year  Memphis and Shelby County combined had 245 homicides, press reports said. That was 26 per 100,000 residents. The Census Bureau estimated a population of 938,069. A trend or an anomaly? It is too soon to tell.

Crime in the 1910's, 1920's and the 1930's  may evoke the imagery of the Wild West or Al Capone's gang teaching Bugs Moran's boys to dance the Thompson Two Step on the streets of Chicago while in pious Memphis we had a censor to make sure our movies did not corrupt us, blue laws kept Sunday as a church day and everyone knew their neighbors.Hardly.

If you catch yourself longing for the good old days, be careful what you wish for.

National peak in homicides


Historic rates