Episode Seven: The Tale of Pink Lizzie

Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society…I call this story The Tale of Pink Lizzy. 

A two story mansion at 683 Fifth Street, on the corner of Fifth & Georgia, became home to one of Memphis’s most iconic, yet not widely known today, ghost stories. 

Col. W.J. Davie, the President of Southern Bank of Tennessee, built his mansion between the years 1855-1859 and lived there until October 1866. Apparently, in 1860, Davie secured a loan from Col. Robert C. Brinkley for $30,000 worth of stock in the Memphis Charleston Railroad, using his home as collateral. He was to repay the loan in four years. Unfortunately, the Civil War broke out, the bank was failing, and the military took over the railroad rendering the stock useless. To avoid Brinkley foreclosing on Davie’s mortgage, Davie decided to “sell” Brinkley the home, for the cost of the bond and $15,000, to clear his debt. 

Over the next two years, Brinkley renovated the mansion into a school for girls. And in 1868, the Brinkley Female College opened its doors as a boarding school housing 50 girls, under the headmaster J.D. Meredith. Upon opening, the college already had a reputation for being haunted by Davie, who was rumored to have gone insane after he went bankrupt. 

Brinkley Female College

Our story begins on February 21, 1871, a 13 year old blonde haired student, Clara Robertson was in an upstairs room of the Brinkley Female College, practicing piano when she noticed an emaciated little girl, about 8 years old, in a dirty pink dress, coming towards her. Panic stricken, Clara ran to another room and jumped on the bed, hiding her face in the pillow. The transparent little girl followed her into the room and placed her hand on the pillow near Clara’s head. After a few minutes, the little girl disappeared. Clara ran to tell her fellow classmates what happened and of course, no one believed her. She ran home crying because of all the teasing and taunting from her classmates. When she returned to school the next day, no one spoke of the incident and Clara began to think it was just a prank. 

Her fears were only set aside for one day though. The following day, the little girl appeared again. This time there were other students present. It’s not really known if the two other girls really saw anything or if they were just playing around with Clara. Regardless, they all screamed and ran downstairs to get a teacher. This time, when Clara returned upstairs, the little girl spoke to her as the newspaper called it, “like a perturbed spirit in Hamlet”. The little ghost girl told her there were valuables buried in the yard and she wanted Clara to find them. 

It was now apparent that the adults needed to get involved. Clara’s father, J.C. Robertson, a prominent Memphis lawyer, spoke with the headmaster, Mr. Meredith and decided there needed to be an investigation. Robertson was worried about his daughter’s well being, while Meredith was worried about the reputation of his school. The following week, Mr. Meredith decided to question the students about the ghost, while Clara was made to wait outside. While Clara was in the schoolyard, the little ghost girl appeared to her again. This time, when she spoke, she told Clara to not be alarmed, her name was Lizzie, and that she would not harm her. Lizzie told Clara that her family had owned this building and it was stolen from them. She wanted Clara to undo the wrongs that had been done to her family. If Clara could find the papers and other valuables buried in the yard, she could claim possession of the property as her own. She also added that if Clara did not do what she had asked, then Lizzie would never do any good to or for anyone. After this incident, Clara told her father she was not going back to school. Her father contacted one of his clients, Mrs. Nourse, a spiritual medium, for help. 

Mrs. Nourse convinced Mr. Robertson to hold a seance at their home. Several neighbors came over and gathered around the table. Not long after the seance started, it appeared something had taken over Clara. At first, she sat slumped over, but then her arms began to flail around to the point where she needed to be restrained so that she wouldn’t hurt herself. Once she calmed down, she was given a pencil and paper. She first wrote the name Lizzie Davie, and then began writing down, filling page after page, everything that had happened in the past week. As people started asking her questions, she began to write down the answers. 

Lizzie, through Clara, began to tell of the valuables buried in the schoolyard. Under a tree stump, there was jewelry, several thousand dollars, and the title to the home. Men who attended the seance decided to go to the schoolyard and locate the stump and began digging. Mr. Meredith agreed to this because he knew it was the only way to lay this story to rest.

At this point, the Memphis newspapers went wild with reports of the Pink Lizzie ghost story. It was the talk of the town. Bars even started creating “Ghost Cocktails” for their patrons. Spiritual mediums started holding seances all over the city, using techniques like table tipping, slate writing (writing on a small chalkboard), and tambourine banging to communicate with the dead. Clara began attending some of these seances, communicating with Lizzie through slate writing. 

While the men were digging under the tree stump, about five feet down, they found a layer of bricks. During this time, Clara was at home playing when Lizzie appeared to her again, questioning why she was not the one digging for the valuables. She told Clara that she was to find them for herself, and then she disappeared. Clara immediately went to the school and told the men digging what happened. As she stepped into the hole that the men had dug, she fainted. Once revived, she told them that she had seen a glass jar with the valuables inside. 

Clara returned home and Mrs. Nourse was called over for another seance. Clara told Lizzie she was not able to dig and asked if her father could take her place. Lizzie agreed but told her, once her father recovered the glass jar, it could not be opened for sixty days. Mr. Robertson and a crew of people went back to the schoolyard and after about an hour of digging, he found a moldy jar containing several bags and a large envelope. He brought the jar home and hid it in the safest place he could think of, the outhouse. 

Infamous Jar

Clara was sent to visit relatives until it was time to open the jar. She had been through enough stress and her father thought she needed rest. Mr. Robertson had decided to open the jar at the Greenlaw Opera House, at the southwest corner of Union Ave and Second St. The public could purchase tickets for one dollar and half the proceeds would go to Clara for her troubles and the other half to an orphanage called Church Home. 

Unfortunately the public opening never happened. Prior to the big event, Mr. Robertson had guests to his home for a party and overheard some noise outside. He went to investigate and came upon thieves stealing the jar. They hit him over the head, rendering him bleeding and unconscious. The jar was never recovered. 

Since Lizzie’s request was never fulfilled, it appears a “curse” was put upon the school. Brinkley Female College closed shortly after the events in 1871. Mr. Meredith opened the Meredith Female College at the corner of Main St and Broadway. It survived for only three years. 

Brinkley had a hard time finding tenants for the home. He let it to the Corn family for many years, in exchange for maintaining the property. They eventually were forced to move out as a man from up north offered to rent the house. Brinkley agreed but soon discovered he was holding seances there and asked him to leave. The Corn family moved back in and took care of the property for several more years. 

The property was eventually sold and divided into apartments for the railroad workers and then became tenement housing. As the area around the home began to become more industrialized, the Wurzburg Paper manufacturer bought the land and moved its residents to homes of their choosing. 

In 1972, the home was dismantled and Jim Williams, a local businessman, purchased it and planned on reconstructing it on land outside of Jonesboro, AR. 

Even though the home was gone and new warehouses were built on the land, it’s rumored that contractors working at night would still hear noises, papers would fly off shelves, and drastic temperature changes were felt in the buildings. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for spirits to return to new structures that have been built on the same site of previous hauntings.

So what happened to little Clara Robertson? One of Clara’s closest friends in school was Lula Franklin. She said that Clara was a changed girl after the incidents. She became distant from her friends. There are claims that Clara began to practice spiritualism in her home. It is also said that she became the second wife of a spiritualist, whose first wife’s ghost would kick Clara out of her bed at night. But it was also said that when she was 18, she married a wealthy 72 year old widower and they had several children. Clara would pass from tuberculosis. 

In 1871, friends of the Davie family verified the information Clara had given was true. Lizzie Davie had died in the home in 1861 and she was buried in a little pink dress. 

So was the story of Pink Lizzie an elaborate hoax made up by a bored, creative, mischievous child, or did a young girl come back from the grave to seek revenge for her family? 

Citations & Video

Haunted Memphis Laura Cunningham 2009 History Press


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