Street’s origin has stumped Memphis researchers 90 years
By Matt Chaney, for chaneysblog.com
Posted Wednesday, January 12, 2022
Copyright ©2022 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, FourWallsPublishing
Beale Street in Memphis is America’s most iconic street, per a USA Today poll, known worldwide as Home of the Blues. Yet unknown, however, is exactly whom the street was named for in the 1840s.
Historians probed for answers through the 20th Century, generations of journalists, authors and academics. “Does Anyone In City Know How Beale Got Its Name?” headlined the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1938. Editors were “glad to publish the information” if available, pleaded Paul Coppock at the city desk, deluged with queries from local and afar.
Coppock, son of a history teacher, took up the Beale question as personal quest. But no substantial evidence resulted, only heresay of a namesake, supposedly a military officer of undetermined rank and identity.
So went the Beale mystery, decade after decade, outlasting Coppock in his 55 years of journalism and book-writing. More info sleuths picked up the case, trying to nail down a street origin, but no luck, and ’twas status quo into the 21st Century.
“Theories hit dead end,” resigned the Commercial Appeal in 2011, adding that Beale’s beginnings remained “as murky as the business and politics of early Memphis.”
Electronic search of old newspapers, meanwhile, was revolutionizing research application—and accuracy. Historical information was being revised, corrected and enhanced in topics such as American football, medicine and music, by this writer and others. Information formerly hidden within news-pages and microfilm, scattered about the globe, had come accessible timely and economically, through e-search from a fixed location.
Today the technology drives research for books, news, journal studies and film documentaries, among media. I’m compiling books on music history and legend. My e-search of old newspapers reveals, among gems, likely the first WSM radio show to become “Grand Ole Opry” from Nashville—aired earlier than histories had dated. This WSM police benefit from Ryman Auditorium, squeezing 6,000 fans for Uncle Dave Macon and cast, aired on Nov. 5, 1925, weeks prior to said “debut” show on the 28th.
I’ve uncovered the final tour of Jimmie Rodgers, famed Blue Yodeler of “hillbilly” ballads and folk blues, thanks to e-search of rural papers. In holiday season 1932 Rodgers played a string of delta towns through Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri—info soon buried in newspaper archives, as he died of tuberculosis. Today historic reports and advertisements detail the last road haul of Jimmie Rodgers, retrieved from pages like the Indianola Enterprise in Mississippi, the Steele Enterprise in Missouri, and the Dunklin Democrat, Kennett.
Currently I’m reconstructing old Memphis and Beale Street—“Beal Street” initially—for book chapters on blues, jazz, hillbilly music and rockabilly. Searching old newspapers, sifting tens of thousands of hits about Memphis, I’m culling and annotating a few thousand texts. Catchy advertisements stand out for the Walnut Palace Saloon, established on Beale in 1883 by owner Joshua Sartore, who bought space regularly in the Memphis Public Ledger. But instead of display ads, Sartore placed newsy plugs in the Personal notices and such.
Walnut Palace promos boasted mini headlines on pages, drawing readers into ditties on weather, sports, fishing, entertainment, crops, politics, history, science and municipal works. Wry twists were bonus. Wolf River was “sluggish,” for example, draining to the Mississippi, “not being dammed anywhere except in Memphis by the citizens who are forced to drink it.” Naturally each text concluded with salute to premium beverages. “To avoid drinking [Wolf River] go to the Walnut Palace Saloon, 52 Beal Street, and enquire what they recommend as a substitute.” Either Sartore or his ad designer read news and wrote it, and the hook was effective. The saloon thrived on the street for 20 years, first block off Main, well-patronized and boosted by advertising.
On Sept. 24, 1892, the following item appeared on Page 5 of the Public Ledger, headlined as “A Change in Spelling”:
“The city government and the maps of the city generally spell Beal Street with a final ‘e,’ making it Beale. The street was named in honor of Wm. M. Beal, who was a prominent merchant of New Orleans at the time South Memphis was laid off into streets. His name was Beal and not Beale. This, however, does not alter the fact that it is one of the principal streets in the city and that the Walnut Palace Saloon, located at 52 Beal, deals in the finest wines and liquors in the United States.”
That was cap end of news coverage on William M. Beal, prominent businessman, certainly, of the 1830s and ’40s. “Wm. M. Beal” wasn’t only of New Orleans; he worked the entire Lower Mississippi Valley and up the Ohio to Louisville, around to Nashville. He cultivated heavy contacts in Washington, turns out, from Capitol Hill to the president’s office. E-searches zeroed in on Beal’s name at outset of the Victorian Era, and newspaper evidence popped from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky and elsewhere. Tennessee reports on Beal generated from Memphis, Nashville and rural locations.
Comparing historic discussions of namesake candidates for Beale Street, numerous accounts in e-search, William M. Beal was only mentioned in the 1892 ad for Walnut Palace Saloon. But he’s the strongest lead, by far. William M. Beal fits tightly within the newspaper evidence.
Timeline news information—including of Mr. Beal’s property at Memphis in 1845—concludes this review.
Beale Street of the early 1900s was famed for music, featuring composer William C. Handy, publisher of hits like Memphis Blues, Yellow Dog Blues, Beale Street Blues, and his seminal St. Louis Blues.
In the 1930s and ’40s Beale was American chic for many types of people, nationalities. “People came from all over the world,” said Jake Salkey, pawnshop operator. “They heard the name Beale Street. Beale Street was like a trademark.”
Cherie Howard was a Memphis child accompanying her mother to Beale on Saturdays. “We ambled on down, enjoying the sights and sounds,” she recalled in 1985. “The cafes smelled wonderful! Aromas of fresh greens, pork chops and Johnny Mills’ barbecue and cold slaw. His ribs were world famous. We ate there one night with out-of-town guests—Bing Crosby was there. He walked over and patted us on the head. It was great. Crosby and other film celebrities used to have Mills’ ribs flown to Hollywood.”
Beale was “Harlem of the South,” magnetic for Afro-Americans during the Depression and World War. Southern blacks flocked to Memphis on the Mississippi, and an inverse migration pertained, too. Some blacks of the North, particularly Chicago and Detroit, moved south for the Beale neighborhood. This was prime ethnic culture for Afro-Americans, dominated by black-administered churches, schools, medical facilities, businesses, theaters, fraternal clubs and charitable organizations, among institutions. Beale Street entreated blacks who sought equality, storied nightlife notwithstanding.
The Memphis scene of American music was incomparable, artists local and touring, representing blues, jazz, hillbilly, folk and gospel, spirituals. Virtually all the delta blues greats played Beale, and Texas stars like Blind Lemon Jefferson, spanning country blues and early electronic. Their bands and ensembles shook the black clubs and upstairs joints, apartments, houses, barns, parks, picnic grounds, and the landing, “foot of Beale.”
Riley “B.B.” King was age 20 upon arrival in Memphis, a black guitarist from Indianola in the Yazoo bottoms. He wandered east on Beale, passing the One Minute Café and Pantazes Drug Store. On upper floors of the latter, Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell operated his hotel and Domino Lounge, with staircase entrance around the corner on Hernando.
Memphis was largely segregated in 1945 but not on Southside, and King was taken aback, coming off a Mississippi cotton farm. “Walking down Beale… I saw white people shopping the same street as blacks. That was new for me. I heard music coming from a park where men were playing guitars and harmonicas and clarinets and trombones. One man was bowing a violin, an instrument I’d never seen before. The sounds got me so excited, I started to run.”
“Handy Park to me was like community college,” said B.B. King. “You had a lot to learn from great musicians, great dancers, crap shooters, drinkers, you name it; they were there in the park until Number One would show up. Number One was the cop. When they showed up, everybody would scatter. It was everything going on and a lot of it was positive.”
Amidst the Beale hubbub, hordes of people, a certain question rose constantly: Who or what inspired the name of this street?
Any clues were flimsy. The common belief was old Robertson Topp had christened “Beal Street,” antebellum attorney and property developer of South Memphis. Topp built his mansion and country estate along the road in the early 1840s, but left no memo or direct quote on a Mr. Beal, or Beale. “The late Miss Eudora Topp told us her grandfather named it for a military hero, according to a tradition in the family,” Coppock reported in 1953. “The hero might have been a Navy man, but probably was in the Army, she said.”
From the 1930s until 1970s, Memphis editor Paul Coppack led researchers in group dive for Beale Street’s past, working with what they had, following vague legend of a military figure. Several possibilities were of the surname, various spellings. An antebellum folk hero surfaced in print history, Edward F. Beale, Navy man and gold prospector to boot—spelled with an “e,” too.
But Coppack quickly dismissed E.F. Beale, determining he wasn’t famous until 1848-49. This Beale personna ignited the California Gold Rush, touring with bags of gold from Sutter’s Mill, thrusting aloft his 8-pound nugget for crowds in the East and South. This guy wasn’t namesake for old Beal Street, which appeared in newspapers by January 1846, as South Memphis was incorporated. The street name was designated in filings for lawmakers in Nashville.
Another candidate was Major Lloyd Beale, or “Beal” or “Beall,” variously spelled in newspapers. Lloyd Beale was a publicized “Indian fighter” of the 1830s and ’40s, described as “old war-horse and yarn-spinner,” leading U.S. Army Dragoons on campaigns in Florida and the West. But no link to Tennessee or Memphis surfaced of him in articles retrieved.
A viable possibility was Captain Thomas Beale of Louisiana, commander of Beale’s Rifles at the Battle of New Orleans, 1814-15, under General Andrew “Stonewall” Jackson. Afterward, Beale and his men were heroic figures of battle stories annually recounted and widely printed, a century and beyond. Andrew Jackson, cofounder of Memphis in 1819, Tennessee senator and U.S. president, spoke of Beale’s unit with admiration. Additionally, Thomas Beale’s proper surname was often misspelled “Beal” in the press and documents.
Paul Coppock died in 1983 at Memphis, having anointed Thomas Beale as leading suspect for a street namesake, but unconvinced. Undoubtedly Coppock would’ve been thrilled with the one name he never had, William M. Beal, and the 1892 saloon ad from Beale Street, complemented by news coverage of Beal from 1828 to 1859, readily available today.
William M. Beal died in early 1850 at New Orleans, a widely known banker, commodities broker and property investor. Beal succumbed of sudden “paralysis,” casting “gloom over a large circle in which he had moved for so long a time,” reported the Times-Picayune. “He had many warm friends, among whom it was our pleasure to number all the editors of this newspaper… He was a native of Georgia, and removed to this city in 1823, when quite a young man.” Beal was 40-something at death and a federal treasury official in New Orleans, appointed by President Zachary Taylor. W.M. Beal emancipated at least two slaves through his will: John B. Jordan and Stephen W. Rogers, later in press stories as freemen.
For the timeline of William M. Beale in newspapers, his business career included the following: 1828, cotton trade at New Orleans and Nashville; 1831, lawsuit victory in western Tennessee, Obion County north of Memphis; 1837, brokerage trade in Nashville and Selma; 1838 to 1839, brokerage trade in Jackson, Miss., and Louisville; 1838 to 1840, Beal sold “Texian Bonds” issued by the “Texian government,” speculating on U.S. annexation, and a Vicksburg bank claimed a $40,000 loss in his “operation”; 1841 to 1843, slave trade in Kentucky, Beal purchased a young “negro man named John” in Union County then resold him at Hopkinsville on the Ohio, within 16 months; 1841, sugar plantation listed for sale by Beal, Gulf Coast; 1841, property purchases in Tallahatchie County, Miss., where Beal enjoyed a power partner in Senator Robert J. Walker of Natchez; and, 1844, controversy of the Texas Annexation bill which, if passed, figured to reap riches for co-investors Beal and Walker, alleged the Vicksburg Whig. In 1845 the U.S. Senate confirmed Walker as Secretary of the Treasury, setting up Beal for his fed appointment, and meanwhile Texas was granted statehood.
In the 1830s William M. Beal visited Memphis regularly on steamboats, passing numerous times if not conducting business. In 1845 he owned Memphis land, news evidence confirms, as part of an investment group with his name on corporate registry. The Beal group’s Shelby County lot was assessed a $2,500 valuation for the “corporate year” ending February 1846, with tax and charges due of $13.15. The bill stood unpaid through June, according to accounts of the Memphis Enquirer, that year’s only local paper in e-search, currently.
The Enquirer identifies the investment group by only “Wm. M. Beal” for Lot No. 125 in county plats of the time. Tax-delinquent properties were auctioned July 13, 1846, but the paper printed neither a preview nor follow-up.
That August “Beal Street” was mentioned regularly in property ads, and henceforth. By comparison, the earliest mention I find of “Beale Street” is 1849, Oct. 4, Page 2 of the Memphis Eagle, report of a gunfight between cabinetmakers, partners, both shot.
After 1846 I don’t find William M. Beal in Memphis newspapers for decades. He doesn’t show again until the 1892 newsy ad for Walnut Palace Saloon, proclaiming him as Beale Street namesake, punctuated by address “52 Beal,” Public Ledger.
I think the saloon ad got it right. William M. Beal now stands as heavy favorite for inspiring the title of Beale Street in Memphis. The closest competitor, Thomas Beale of the Battle of New Orleans, falls to longshot. But an affirmative answer may never be determined. Doubt could endure.
Hopefully contemporary historians pick up the research in Memphis, getting back to local footwork for paper documents, records. I’ve scoured the open net. Memphis papers were published for years prior to editions currently in electronic databases. Microfilm pages from pre-1846 may not exist, therefor any around would to be newsprint, whether bound archives or stacks. If an 1841 Memphis map does in fact exist, designating Beal Street, as some say, the document should be shared online.
I’ll jump like Paul Coppock if further research verifies the Beale honoree in time for my upcoming book. I’ll be glad to publish the information, as he would say.
Matt Chaney is compiling companion books on Southern music, tentatively titled River Shows, Jazz, Blues and Country Music and, the sequel, Rockabillies in the Missouri Delta. See the page Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta. For more information, including Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: email@example.com.
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