An American Ghost Gallery: The Brinkley College Ghost

Spectral Edition

In early March of 1871, news of a ghost haunting Memphis’s Brinkley Female College made headlines. The Avalanche and the Public Ledger reported that the ghost wandered and spoke, even mentioning that its name was Lizzie. More dramatically, the chatty phantom claimed to own the property on which the college had been built. The deed and other valuable items, declared the ghost, were buried beside a particular tree stump on campus.

All of this was said to a thirteen-year-old girl named Clara Robertson. Clara was the only witness to the ghostly proclamation, according to the Public Ledger, and her history of suffering from a nervous temperament cast some suspicions on her experience. Nonetheless, her story excited enough interest that a deep hole was dug by that stump. Curious onlookers had to be dispersed by the police. Disappointingly, nothing spectacular was unearthed. The reporter, though, shrewdly predicted, “The ghost of Lizzie is not yet at rest, and we look for further manifestations from this disembodied spirit.”

Sure enough, the very next day, the Public Ledger reported that clairvoyants and Spiritualists claimed to have been in contact with Lizzie. The phantom explained that a sealed jar containing the deed and other valuables still rested near that stump. Clara’s father, J.R. Robinson, and a party of believers returned to the hole.

And the jar was then found!  In it, documents could be seen. But before its discovery, the spectral Lizzie had informed her clairvoyant messengers that one condition must be met before opening the jar:  a period of 60 days must pass. Lizzie, it seemed, liked to build dramatic tension.

Or was someone still among the living prolonging the ghost sensation in order to profit from it? With surprising speed, a publisher named Mansford offered a pamphlet recounting the ghost story. It sold for ten cents, and reportedly, it sold very well — though Mansford claimed that he wished rumors of the pamphlet earning $5,000 were true. Even Clara’s own father took financial advantage of his daughter’s haunting by writing his own small book about the events. The publication was announced in April, just one month after the ghost had come and gone. By May, it was on stands and selling for thirty cents.

1870-postcard-of-memphis
An 1870 post card of Memphis

The Avalanche, the newspaper that first broke the news, presumably made considerable sales from the story, too. Indeed, the case had gained enough notoriety that the editors of the Memphis Daily Appeal took a stand:  “It is humiliating that the people of Memphis should be made the laughing-stock of the whole country. These published sensational accounts about ghosts would indicate that our people are illiterate, superstitious fools.” About a week later, the Appeal used the event to decry yellow journalism. The editors blamed the sensational reports about the alleged ghost for having made “Mr. S. W. Philips, late keeper of the Elmwood Cemetery, a raving maniac.” (The Public Ledger made the same diagnosis.) “Journalism is fast becoming a science,” the Appeal editor argued, “and it is time its disciples assumed their proper office as directors of public taste, and ceased to pander to its improper desires.” Meanwhile, the Bolivar Bulletin took a wait-and-see attitude, saying that “either the Avalanche has published for the truth a downright falsehood or a strange and unaccountable revelation has been made by a departed soul to an innocent and harmless child.”

The saga of the Brinkley College Ghost ends with a twist. With bit of P.T. Barnum’s flair, Clara’s father made plans to sell tickets and open the jar before a crowd at the Greenlaw Opera House on March 30. Half the profit, he said, would be awarded to his daughter and the other half would go to the Orphans’ Home. The Public Ledger asked if it wouldn’t be better for Robertson to “divide the receipts between the orphans and Brinkley College,” given the damages done to the school. The same paper later reported that that Orphans’ Home had not approved of Robertson’s exhibition and would not accept his money. “The proprietors of the show can have their voodoo performance and pocket the proceeds,” the reporter laments, implying that Clara’s ghostly encounter had become a money-making scheme, if it hadn’t been that from the very start.

Tragically — or, at least, dramatically — on the evening prior to the jar’s grandiose opening, Clara’s father was victim to a crime. Robertson “was assaulted in the backyard of his residence . . . by four men, who after producing pistols, forced him to disclose the hiding place of the jar, and then knocked him senseless. . . . In the mean time, the ruffians had disappeared with the jar,” according to the Nashville Union and American. With a certain smugness, the Appeal continued its campaign against sensational journalism: “The ghost story was a falsehood from the start; it had been kept alive by falsehood; it has taken the money of hard-working men, without giving them their money’s worth in the ghost; it has encouraged superstition and ignorance, made false impressions upon the minds of the young, and finally has terminated in outlawry and robbery.” With a kind of poetry to it, on April Fool’s Day, the Bolivar Bulletin recapped the entire story, reducing the number of ruffians to two and declaring that the whole affair “was gotten up for no other purpose than to make money.”

It’s hard to disagree. There’s something suspiciously odd about a ghost telling a thirteen-year-old girl to dig for a jar holding treasure and that quickly transforming into a staged exhibition of the jar’s opening. (Robertson, by the way, hadn’t waited the full sixty days required by the ghost.) But the sudden theft of the jar seems to have derailed the entire project. Did the robbers believe the jar must certainly contain something precious? Or did Robertson begin to worry he’d be tar-and-feathered once it was revealed to contain nothing of value? Did he fake his own victimization, as that last Bolivar Bulletin article suggests? Or was there something else at work behind the scenes — or possibly even beyond this mortal coil?

All we can know for sure is that the Brinkley College Ghost sparked a good deal of public controversy in 1871 and, specifically, the purported specter prompted journalists to reassess and reaffirm the power of the press.

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