Welcome to the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s episode, we’ll travel to the Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock-n-Roll to explore a peculiar, haunted tale that includes a startling apparition, seances, an untimely robbery, and an old musty jar full of treasure. Allow me to introduce you to one of Memphis’s most famous ghost stories, Pink Lizzie and the Mystery Jar.
Our tale begins in 1855 prior to the onset of the U.S. Civil War. Memphis was a bustling riverfront town growing in leaps and bounds based on the city’s strategic placement on the Mississippi River trade routes. A Memphis resident named Colonel WJ Davie borrowed funds against his home from another colonel, Robert Brinkley, to invest in the Memphis-Charleston Railroad. Versions of this tale use the last name Davie, Davis, and Davidson interchangeably. For today’s story, I’ll be using Davie. When the Civil War broke out, the railroad was seized by the military and his stock investment became worthless. To hold off the bankers from foreclosure, he worked out a deal to sell his mansion back to Col Brinkley, plus and extra $15,000 to cover his stock debts. Colonel Davie’s finances were ruined, and the stresses of his loss took a heavy toll. He passed away a few short years later, rumored to have gone insane before his death.
Col Brinkley was on much more stable financial footing and decided to use the Davie home for a new purpose. The beautiful mansion stood on the corner of Fifth and Georgia Streets, and Brinkley spent the next two years renovating the stately home into an all-female college. Many who worked on the renovations reported strange happenings on the property even before it opened as the Brinkley Female College, with many believing the demented ghost of Colonel Davie had returned to haunt his old house and was unhappy with the renovations. The rumors of Col Davie’s ghost gave the property its haunted reputation, but the ghost story of the Brinkley Female College was only getting started. In 1868, the Brinkley Female College opened its doors under Headmaster J.D. Meredith with space for 50 female students.
A young Brinkley student named Clara Robertson sat upstairs at the ornate upright piano on the second floor with the window open. It was a cool February day in 1871, and Clara had a recital to practice for. She laid out her performance piece on the music desk and was grateful this was a piece she enjoyed playing. Her instructor always wanted her to play scales, but the actual music was much more fun. As she played the first notes, a frigid breeze blew through the open window, sending her sheet music floating to the floor. Pushing back the bench, she turned to collect them and realized she was not alone. A young girl in a dirty pink dress stood at the far side of the room staring at Clara with a blank expression. The sudden appearance of the girl startled her, and she let out a yelp. The girl was small and very thin, almost starving. At first, Clara thought perhaps she was a beggar who had snuck in to find something to eat. She never even heard the girl enter the room. That’s when she noticed her face wasn’t just dirty, it was skeletal.
She took a step toward the frightened Clara, and that was all it took. She fled from the parlor screaming and into a bedroom. Clara jumped on the bed and pulled a pillow up over her head to hide her face, praying that the frightening apparition was just in her imagination. The young skeletal girl in the dirty pink dress followed her, coming up to her bedside while Clara trembled in fear, barely able to look. The ghastly girl placed her hand next to Clara’s face on the pillow and stared down with blank hollow eyes, then, just as quietly as she appeared, she then disappeared. Clara bolted from the room to find the headmaster but instead found a group of her classmates. As she breathlessly related the story, her friends laughed at her without believing a word of it. Clara was so upset that she ran home.
Clara’s father, a well-known Memphis lawyer named J.D. Robertson, had trouble consoling Clara but finally persuaded her to go back to school in the morning and forget whatever she had seen. When she arrived for class, no one spoke of anything that happened the day before, making Clara suspicious that perhaps the whole incident was some cruel joke played by a classmate. She scanned the room of girls looking for one who could have pulled off the ghoulish disguise, but none of them seemed to fit the bill. The rest of the day went on as usual and without incident. However, that would change on the following day.
When the ghost appeared this time, more than just Clara was present to witness it. Two of Clara’s friends and a teacher, whose names were not readily found, were in the room when the skeletal girl appeared though they never claimed they actually saw her. Some investigators think the others said they had seen the ghost to placate Clara, but Clara claimed she absolutely saw the little girl again in the same dingy pink dress and distorted face. Clara went home that day and declared to her father that she would not go back to the school again, so he decided to investigate the claims himself.
Mr. Robertson enlisted a client who also claimed to be a clairvoyant to visit the school and assess what it was his daughter was seeing. The client, identified as Mary Nourse, spoke with her about the encounters and developed a theory that the ghostly girl is trying to communicate or must want something from Clara. Mrs. Nourse told her if the little girl appeared again to not be frightened and speak to her. The next day, Clara got the chance to do just that.
Armed with the courage instilled in her by the spiritual medium, Clara returned to the Brinkley School the following day. She was playing with two of her friends in an upstairs room when the little girl appeared again. Clara stood and faced the spirit, suppressing the urge to scream or run. The ghost simply stood there and stared back. Clara raised her trembling hand and gave a nervous wave. The skeletal girl mimicked her movements and waved back. Feeling less scared, Clara took a step forward. Again, the girl mimicked her and took a step forward. She took another step, so did the girl. Everything Clara did, the little girl did too until they were only a few feet from each other. Remembering the medium’s instructions, Clara found her voice and asked the girl for her name. She was shocked to get a reply. The little girl said her name was Lizzie Davie and Clara didn’t need to be afraid of her. She said this was her house, not some school, and she wanted all these people to leave except for Clara. She was adamant that her father didn’t want anyone else in the house. Clara told her that was impossible, that old Colonel Davie had died, and the house was now her school. Lizzie said she could not rest until she knew the house was going to be taken care of like her father wanted it. Clara, being only thirteen, told Lizzie there wasn’t anything that she could do about it, but her father was a lawyer, and he would know what to do. Lizzie told her that she would visit Clara’s father with instructions, then she vanished. Clara immediately ran several blocks home as fast as she could to tell her father what Lizzie said.
Mr. Robertson called Mrs. Nourse and Headmaster Meredith to be present to hear Clara’s claims from the ghost. He was skeptical of the whole business but believed his daughter was telling him the truth. The headmaster became angry, worried that all this ghost-story business would sully the school’s spotless reputation. He argued with Mr. Robertson, who himself was more concerned about his daughter’s well-being than what people thought of the school. They implored Mrs. Nourse for guidance on what to do, and she recommended holding a séance at the Robertson house to contact Lizzie. The event would need some of Mr. Robertson’s closest friends and be made public. He was even more skeptical of this request from Mrs. Nourse, but finally relented. A date was set, invitations were sent out, and the public and media became very interested in the otherworldly goings-on at the Brinkley Women’s College. A crowd gathered outside the Robertson home for the séance.
Like some macabre scene from an H.P. Lovecraft tale, Mrs. Nourse settled several participants around the Robertson’s darkened dining table, including some of Robertson’s neighbors, Headmaster Meredith, Clara, and her father, and attempted to conjure the spirit of Lizzie Davie to put this haunting business to rest once and for all. She called out for Lizzie to communicate her instructions and make herself known. Before long, young Clara began to act strange, like she was having a seizure. Mr. Robertson wanted to stop but Mrs. Nourse pushed on. Clara continued to convulse, then suddenly went limp. Her father thought she had died, but Mrs. Nourse pushed him away, telling him this was normal. Mr. Robertson argued this whole charade was anything but normal. Suddenly, Clara flailed around wildly and had to be restrained by several of the men present. A few moments later, she calmed and sat normally at the table as if nothing had happened. Mrs. Nourse gave Clara a piece of paper and pencil and asked to whom she was talking to. Clara wrote the name Lizzie Davie on it. Mrs. Nourse asked all sorts of questions about the incidents Clara relayed, and Lizzie answered them all just as Clara described them. She then told the neighbors to begin asking questions, which again through Clara, Lizzie answered them all. Finally, it was Mr. Robertson’s turn to ask. He wanted to know why she had chosen to talk to his daughter, to which Lizzie replied, “She is the kindest person in the house, and I want her to own it.” She went on to tell Mr. Robertson that there was a large jar buried under a stump behind the house that her father buried before he died. Lizzy said it contained jewelry, money, gold, and papers that would let Clara claim the house as hers. Along with the promise of buried riches, she issued a warning. Lizzie said that her soul would not rest until Clara became the new owner of her father’s house, otherwise she would curse the property to be of no value to anyone forever. Suddenly, Clara convulsed wildly again and then went still. Lizzie had departed, but ghost fever was now an epidemic in all of Memphis.
The town was abuzz for weeks after news of the séance and claims of buried treasure. The newspapers ran sensational headlines in every issue. Mediums and clairvoyants became all the rage, though how many were legitimate and how many were frauds was anyone’s guess. Those who could afford it booked them at all hours, hoping to channel dead family members or find out about their own buried treasure. Even Clara was dragged along for the ones Mrs. Nourse performed, continually channeling Lizzie through her to the amazement of others. Bars created “ghost cocktail” recipes for the upper society parties held around seances. Table tipping, slate writing, Ouija boards, and tambourines were all used to communicate with the dead. In all cases, ghost fever became a money-making venture, and those who knew how to do it could charge whatever they wanted for their services.
After Lizzie’s initial warning and declaration of treasure, Mr. Robertson and Headmaster Meredith employed some of the others that attended their séance to seek out the stump behind the school and see if the ghost was telling the truth. The announcement to commence digging set the local media ablaze with wild speculation of what might be found. The frenzy of public attention put the whole school schedule in turmoil. The school faculty was nervous over all the disruption, and they wanted the whole ordeal put to rest once and for all. So, the men took their shovels, found a stump matching Lizzie’s description, and set to work. At a depth of around five feet, they hit a solid layer of brick.
While this was happening, Lizzie appeared to Clara back at her home and demanded to know why Clara was not the one digging. She emphasized that Clara was to find the jar herself if she was going to stave off the curse, then disappeared. Clara ran to the school to tell them what happened, so they gave her a shovel and helped her down in the hole. After a couple shovels full of dirt, either the Memphis heat or the stress of the whole ordeal set in, and Clara collapsed.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Robertson requested Mrs. Nourse conduct another séance with an offer to switch places with Clara. He would dig in her stead if it meant peace of mind for his daughter. The séance was conducted and Lizzie agreed, but with one condition: The jar had to remain closed for 60 days once it was found. After that, it could be opened. She did not give a reason for the odd timetable delay but was adamant that her instructions be followed. The next day, Mr. Robertson took up a shovel himself and worked through the bricks into the old and damp soil below. After about an hour of digging, the lid of a musty jar shone through the dirt. He carefully extracted it, cautious not to break or damage it. Inside, he could see different sized bags and envelopes. He took the jar home without telling anyone he found it yet for security reasons and hid it in his backyard outhouse where no one would think to look.
Eventually he revealed to the press that the jar had been found exactly as Lizzie’s ghost described, and the 60-day countdown had started. There would be a public opening of the jar at the Greenlaw Opera House with $1 tickets available for the spectacle. The proceeds were pledged to a local orphanage, to which skeptics thought was the only redeeming moment of the whole jar fervor. All of the hubbub around the incident had taken a toll on Clara, so her father sent her to visit relatives far from Memphis until the big day that Lizzy’s curse would be no more. They all looked forward to the quiet until then. Sadly, no peace would come.
Speculation ran wild over the jar and its contents. What was inside? Jewels? Gold? Money? Many inquired about seeing the jar, touching it, shaking it; anything to satisfy their curiosity but Mr. Robertson held firm that the jar was in safe keeping until the appointed time. His assurances were not enough to keep thieves at bay. One afternoon about a week before the opening event, Mr. Robertson hosted a small gathering at his home for his law office colleagues. A loud noise from the backyard caused him to investigate and find three men pulling the jar from his outhouse hiding place. As he confronted them, they clubbed him on the head, jumped the wrought-iron fence and ran away with the jar. It was gone, along with the contents, and never recovered.
Even though Lizzy’s instructions were not met, she never appeared to Clara again after that. Her curse held true, however. Shortly after the buzz about Lizzy and the jar died down, with some claiming the whole story was some elaborate hoax, the Brinkley College would fall into ruin and close its doors forever. Clara completed her education elsewhere, married, and moved to Arkansas where she continued to regale people with the strange tale of Lizzy and the jar. Clara’s school friends would later claim they never saw what Clara was looking at or who she was talking to, but did say they heard a strange hum, almost like murmuring, on the other side of the room whenever Lizzy supposedly appeared.
As for the house where all this occurred, the building became run down and was rented out to a local family for the simple fee of keeping the property maintained. They lived there for many years until a wealthy northerner offered to rent the house from Col Brinkley. That arrangement quickly fell apart when Brinkley discovered the man only rented the house to hold seances again and try to revive the fervor around Memphis’s ghost jar. He was soon evicted, and the original caretaker family moved back in for many more years. Hard times called for even harder decisions, and the home was eventually split up into tenement apartments for railroad workers up until the property and several others around it were purchased by a paper company for pennies on the dollar. It would seem Lizzie’s curse held true afterall. The homes were scheduled to be demolished to make room for the manufacturing space needed for the paper company’s warehouses. An investor came along to buy and dismantle the Davie house materials with an intent to rebuild it in Jonesboro, Arkansas. As of the recording of this episode, I could not find any record stating whether the investor followed through with rebuilding the mansion in Arkansas or not. Once the paper manufacturing plant warehouse was built over the old Davie home site, bizarre occurrences started up again with workers reporting strange noises at night, objects moving on their own, and intense hot and cold spots throughout the structure. In the paranormal world, drastic temperature changes are believed to be a sign of a spirit presence, though no one has ever claimed to see Lizzie manifest again.
In my later research, one of the reasons I found that possibly caused Colonel Davie to go insane was not totally due to his financial ruin but because of the death of his young daughter, Lizzy Davie, on October 6th, 1863. It is not known how she died, but it is said she died in the house that her father built before selling it. Her body was interred at the Winchester Cemetery in Memphis until 1931, when it was moved to another gravesite because Winchester Cemetery became a city park. Her grave now resides in another local cemetery in Memphis. Members of the Davie family confirmed that Lizzy died in the mansion and was buried in a pink dress that had strawberry juice stains down the front. She spilled the juice on her dress the day she died, making the dress look stained and dingy. However, it was her favorite dress, and she hardly ever wore anything else, even to the grave.
So, is Lizzy and her mysterious jar a real haunting? Or is this an elaborate hoax concocted by the Robertson family with Mary Nourse’s help? All of the principal characters are verifiable people with real stories and backgrounds, and all good ghost stories have an element of verifiable truth to them. It was also not uncommon for people to hide and bury valuables in jars, particularly during the Civil War. Could this have been Colonel Davie’s way of hiding his valuables? To this day, the story of Pink Lizzie leaves more questions than answers. Perhaps another séance is in order to solve the mystery, but you can do that at your house and let me know what you find out.
Thank you for listening to today’s Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast episode. I would like to invite you to visit my website at www.lylerussell.net if you’d like to learn more about this and other stories I’m working on. I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next time.