Review: Memphis Ghost Tour

The Hernando de Soto Bridge
The Hernando de Soto Bridge in Memphis, TN
Photo © John F. Carroll

Perched on the high bluffs above the Mississippi River is Memphis, Tennessee. Founded in 1819 and named after the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis has seen some incredible history. From the Chickasaw Indian Tribe, the slave trade and cotton boom, the Civil War, the yellow fever epidemic in the 1870s, the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elvis Presley and more musicians than I have time to mention here. Memphis is also frequently on the top ten list of most dangerous cities in the US. With such a wealth of history to draw upon, I was very excited and earger to take the Memphis Walking Ghost Tour, provided by Backbeat Tours.

We began our tour at the head of historic Beale Street and walked a few blocks over for a brief introduction before visiting the first site. Our guide set the tone of the tour very quickly. With tongue firmly in cheek our guide proceeded to play towards her family, who happened also be on the tour. Inappropriate inside jokes aside,  the guide was cheating the rest of us out of the atmosphere of a ghost tour. Setting a tone of comedy (that wasn’t very funny) we proceeded to our first stop, the Gayoso House. Now an apartment complex, the site was home to the first luxury hotel in Memphis which burned down in 1899. The newer building has seen paranormal activity for most of its history. Based upon what our guide told us, a radio celebrity was brutally murdered and raped in one of the apartments–an apartment that now is haunted and has failed to keep tenants.

Our next stop, the Orpheum Theatre, is said to be haunted by a ghost known as ‘Little Mary.’ Whether Little Mary was killed by the fire that broke out in 1923 or, as our guide stated, was hit by a street car right outside the theatre, is still up for debate. Whatever the case, the Orpheum always keeps seat C-5 open for Mary and many people say they have seen her–especially during shows that appeal to children. Mary is reputed to be nine years old and is said to play pranks on employees and patrons alike. Often, wallets and jewelry as well as stage props will go missing only to end up in a corner of the basement. The  Little Mary ghost story is arguably the most famous of the Memphis ghost stories. While on tour with The King and I, Yule Brenner is said to have had a secret conversation with Mary. When the media reported this encounter with the celebrity, Little Mary’s place in Memphis legend was firmly set.

From here, the tour get’s a bit sketchy. We walked a block or so over to see two private residences. One was an old motel where a man died and another was a victorian home where a couple died. Between the drunken passersby yelling at the tour group and our guide running out of steam (and legitimate stories) this is probably where the tour should have ended–and I seriously considered abandoning the group and calling it a night. However, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was and I was not in a pleasant part of town, so I decided to stick out the rest of the tour.

Earnestine & Hasel's sign
Earnestine & Hasel’s in downtown Memphis
Photo © John F. Carroll

After a long walk and more than one made up story by our guide (who admitted as much) we passed by the Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine motel where the MLK assaination took place. Our guide pointed out the historic significance of the site and encouraged us to visit the museum. The final stop on the tour was a local bar called Ernestine & Hazel’s. This former brothel is said to be home to the ghostly spirits of former prostitutes. We did go to the second floor of Ernestine & Hazel’s which is still retains the floor plan of its past. The walls and building in general where pretty worse for wear and very much gave off that paranormal vibe.

So, do I recommend shelling out the $20.00 (plus fees) to go on this tour? No–I can’t. I fully recommend visiting these sites yourself. The Orpheum is open during the day (for free)–we did not get to go inside. You can walk by the other sites at your leisure and see them–there is certainly nothing special to see, nor is there any involved story. You can also go to Ernestine & Hazel’s and see the inside. During they day they serve awesome burgers and at night you can go in for a drink. Undoubtably the bartender will have far more colorful stories.

I also have to point out we did not see half of what was listed on the Backbeat website for this tour. The guide was trying to be funny for most of the tour and honestly just wasn’t a good story teller. If you visit Memphis and want to ghost hunt, I suggest doing some research before you go and visiting the sites yourself. Most areas are pretty safe, but as Memphis has a notorious reputation of crime, so if ever you have a bad feeling about an area, listen to your gut.

At any rate, save your money and skip this tour. It’s just not worth it.

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