Notorious ‘black widow’ of Memphis focus of TV show

Feature story for The Commercial Appeal

Feb. 7, 2013

On a recent cold and rainy early morning, an Australian film crew worked setting up lights and testing microphone levels in Phillips Cottage at Elmwood Cemetery. They were in search not of ghosts, but of the story of Alma Theede, prostitute and notorious murderer of three men, also known as Vance Avenue Alma.

Alma Theede was married seven times to six different men in the early to mid-1900s, and was charged with the murder of three of them.

This photo of Alma Theede appeared with the 1970 obituary that ran in the Commercial Appeal. Theede died in a Millington nursing home at the age of 75.

Interviews were being recorded that day for a show called “Deadly Women” on the Investigation Discovery Channel. The show is produced by the Australian company Beyond Productions, which specializes in factual and documentary-style programs and is best known for the “Myth Busters” series. The Memphis segment is scheduled to air this fall.

“It explores the psychological motivation behind why some women commit homicide,” producer Dora Weekley said of the show. “We hope to create a greater awareness and understanding of the effects of such crimes, both on the individual and larger society.”

To tell their story, the team, which also included cameraman David Maguire and sound man Phillip Rossini, call on people involved in the cases, from police and prosecutors to journalists, historians and the victims’ families. The production crew went to Elmwood to see Theede’s final resting place and to interview staff historian Dale Schaefer, assistant cemetery director Jody Schmidt; and board president Dan Conaway.

“We do a mix of stories from way back in the late 1800s to last year,” Weekley said. “Anything where, obviously, the case is closed.”

Alma Herring came to Memphis from Mississippi with her sister, brother and mother, Nettie Green Herring, who worked for the American Snuff Co. By age 16, Alma was frequenting an area of Downtown known for its more lascivious businesses.

“South Main and Vance, it was known for the gambling, the brothels and the bars, and she appeared to be attracted to that,” Schaefer said. This proclivity garnered her the name “Vance Avenue Alma.”

At age 17, she married Charles Cox, only to divorce him and elope to Little Rock with Roy Calvert, Schaefer said. In 1919, she was charged with Calvert’s murder with a verdict of justifiable homicide returned. Back in Memphis, she remarried Cox, who later died in a car wreck … (read more)


Austin takes reins of Wolf River Conservancy

Law Talk profile for The Memphis Daily News

Feb. 7, 2013

Commercial real estate lawyer Stewart Austin of Glankler Brown, PLLC, has been named the new board president for the Wolf River Conservancy as of Jan. 1.

“Like most people, I was drawn to the group after taking a canoe trip, the river really sells itself once you’ve been out there and seen it,” he said. “But after I did that and got a little more involved it was a big plus that I could use some of my work skills to help a nonprofit.”

The Wolf River Conservancy is a land trust whose mission is to protect the Wolf River and its watershed, a mission that is accomplished by buying land when available and holding conservation easements.

“We’ve taken it a step further in that we not only want to protect the river and the land, but we want to promote conservation, education and recreation,” Austin said. “Those are our three main missions.”

The conservancy has protected more than 18,000 acres so far. That’s a lot of land, and handling any buying of it is what Austin has trained to do since an undergraduate studying business and real estate finance at Texas Christian University.

After school in Fort Worth, he entered the University of Alabama School of Law in 1993. “It was really more of an offshoot of business,” he said about his decision to obtain a Juris Doctorate. “I liked business, but I was intrigued by the law and luckily it came together for me doing real estate law, which is my entire practice now.”

The Memphis native, and Memphis University School alum, grew up with an affinity for the outdoors, but it escalated during his time as a clerk for Federal District Judge Daniel H. Thomas in Mobile, Ala … (Read more)


Whatshername shouldn’t take offense at dad’s forgetfulness

‘Because I Said So’ column for The Commercial Appeal

Jan. 31, 2013

Names not so important if you can’t recall them

The best part of having a baby isn’t its cherubic smile or the smell of the top of a newborn’s head. That’s all myth, anyway. No, the best part of having an offspring is getting to name it.

I’ve had four, and they never really smelled all that good. So, for me, bestowing a name upon each of them has been the best. It’s an opportunity to be an F. Scott Fitzgerald as he put Gatsby into the vernacular, or Mario Puzo with Don Corleone. Penning that first and middle name on a birth certificate must be what Stan Lee felt like when he first inked “Peter Parker” and “Spider-Man.”

The names we give our children come from different sources: literature or film, ancestors, geography. We might take the name of a favorite aunt or a distant relative, one we later learn is somewhat of a family pariah. It happens. There are names biblical, musical, nautical and foreign.

It’s an awesome responsibility, saddling a brand new person with a handle he’ll carry around for life. Up until that moment a tiny human person makes her appearance, the only experience most of us have had with names is in naming a pet. Such a thin line between Fido and Katherine.

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. Not for me, anyway, as I can’t remember my own kids’ names from minute to minute. Oh, I can list them if asked: Calvin, Joshua, Somerset and Genevieve.

But when they’re standing right in front of me, that’s a different matter. I cannot seem to say the name of whoever is there, and it amuses them to no end. Most of what I do distresses them, but they take great pleasure in pointing out my mistake.

“You called me Somerset,” Genevieve says.

“Yes, I know, but whoever you are needs to pick that ice cream up off the floor.”

There is something triggered in my mind in those moments, synapses not fully bridged. What I’ve begun doing is to just say both of their names to cover my bases so that my daughters, despite whichever I’m looking at, become “Somersetgenevieve” and the boys, “Calvinjoshua.” When I’m angry, forget it; any combination could issue forth from my mouth, some unprintable in a family newspaper.

I don’t know why this happens with my children, because it doesn’t happen with anything else. I don’t walk into the kitchen and refer to the refrigerator as a microwave oven. I don’t hold a meatloaf I’ve made and tell Somersetgenevieve that we’re having tuna casserole for dinner. I don’t refer to our mail carrier as Margaret because that is not his name.

It may be genetic. When I visit my mother, I share a name with my brothers as we morph into “Johndavidrichard.”

It’s a mystery, one I will contemplate while I go into the kitchen to take the tuna casserole from the dishwasher for little Doncorleonepeterparker and Gatsby-what’s-his-name to eat.

Permanent link to The Commercial Appeal


Bailey finds ideal job with community Legal Center

Law Talk profile for The Memphis Daily News

Jan. 31, 2013

At the beginning of January, Johnna Bailey began work as immigration attorney for the Community Legal Center, a resource for the working poor.

“It’s defined as those who are just above the poverty line, meaning that legal aid would not serve them, but it’s still too expensive for them to hire a private attorney,” Bailey said.

In addition to the immigrant justice program, directed by Bailey, there is also, within the CLC, a civil division handling cases such as uncontested divorces, tenant-landlord issues, wills and estates.

Immigration falls under federal law and, because the immigration court for the region is in Memphis, the program services all of Tennessee, Arkansas, the western third of Kentucky and areas north of Jackson in Mississippi. It keeps Bailey and her colleague, Sally Joyner, a 2012 graduate of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, extremely busy.

“We obviously see a lot of clients, many of whom we aren’t able to service just because of capacity, so half of my job is representing those clients, but the other half would be placing those clients with pro bono attorneys,” Bailey said.

She has found the Memphis legal community to be willing and eager to help when called upon and, to that end, the CLC also works to train lawyers who don’t have any previous immigration experience … (read more)



Annual “20 under 30″ issue highlighting 20-somethings making great strides in the city for The Memphis Flyer

Jan. 24, 2013

These young people have graduated from their teens with a sense of responsibility beyond their years, and it is driving them to do good, to leave Memphis a better place. Within their ranks, there are advanced college degrees and long hours spent learning and perfecting a craft. The members of this group can dribble a ball, carry a tune, cook a meal, tell a joke, take a picture, book a show, raise money, raise awareness, and raise us all up if we put ourselves in their capable, young hands.

Each is an ambassador for our city. They are giving their best to make themselves and their community a better place to live and to visit.

News of violence and scandal can make the future seem bleak, but we can rest easier knowing that these 20 men and women are a part of that future. Keep an eye on them and watch what they can do when they put their minds and hearts to it … (read more)

Flyer cover 2013

Flyer cover 2013


Johnson blends law, love of writing at QP Legal

Law Talk profile for The Memphis Daily News

Jan. 24, 2013

As a student at Central High School and the University of Miami, Tiffany Johnson enjoyed writing more than anything.

It was this passion, and not necessarily one for the law itself, that took her to Georgetown University Law School.

“I went to law school because I loved writing and I wasn’t quite ready to get a job,” she said. “Some lawyers that I knew always talked about how much writing you do in law school, so I did that because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do for a living yet.”

She graduated a year early from Miami with a degree in English.

“It’s a myth that the best preparation is to do political science or something like that, doing as much writing as you can is the best preparation for law school and for practice,” she said.

Law may not have been her first choice for a profession, but she grew up with a profound respect for the legal system from her late father, General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Anthony Johnson, who passed away in 2009. Johnson was caught unaware when she found she would graduate early and hadn’t applied anywhere. It was her father, and his belief in his daughter and the legal profession, that ushered her to law school.

“All of the application deadlines had passed, so I had to pay a boatload of money in late application fees and I had to go groveling to my dad for that money,” she said. “He gladly gave it to me for Georgetown, and when I got accepted he was thrilled, he was so excited. We had different motivations, but we were on the same page.”

After graduation from Georgetown, Johnson returned to Memphis and taught for a semester at Westwood High School … (read more)


Dad’s real job is to help kids find mom

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

Jan. 17, 2013

Dad’s real job is to help kids find mom

Santa showed up recently with a sack full of electronic tablets for the kids. Since Christmas, we’ve had fun finding apps for games and apps for education. There have been books downloaded as well, and curiosity sated.

My children have questions. Questions about how the world works and why, what a trillion-dollar coin might look like, upcoming “Doctor Who” plot lines and who the 8th president of the United States was.

Their main question, though, is “Where is Mom?” There is no app for that; I looked. What there is for that is a dad.

I’m going to let you brand new fathers in on a secret of the brotherhood. I know you’re changing diapers and waking up at 2 a.m. for a feeding, whether needed or not, to show your wife some solidarity. That’s all very commendable. And I know that in the most primitive of your genes, you just want to provide for your new little family — hunting and gathering, small engine repair, and all of that.

But here’s what your real duty will be: Your sole responsibility as a father is to know where your child’s mother is at all times and to be ready with that information at a moment’s notice.

They can’t be bothered to look, yet they will ask whenever she is not sitting within their field of vision. I’ve had a kid walk into the kitchen where I’m cooking dinner (hunting, gathering, et al), ask “where’s Mom?” and then ask her what’s for dinner.

We’ve seen those documentaries with the penguins and the way a chick can find its mother among a throng of similarly dressed penguins. I have a sneaking suspicion that within that group are the fathers, and if we understood penguin-speak, we’d hear them sighing and saying, “Third ice floe on the left.”

Santa managed to find our house out of millions of houses all the way from the North Pole, yet my kids can’t find their own mother where she sits reading a book a room away. I am the GPS — the Global Parenting System — and it’s gotten to the point where I answer before the question is even asked. My 6-year-old daughter walks into the room where I am and I say, “Bathroom.” Is she in the bathroom? I have no idea, but maybe Genevieve will find her on the way to look (and she will look).

Where’s Mom? There is most certainly no app for that. I just asked Google where she is, and it gave me a list of cookbooks. I’m not touching that one.

With their new electronic devices, information is readily had, and the world, as they say, is at my kids’ fingertips. I’m proud to report that they can find Chile on a map, yet embarrassed that they can’t find their mother, who is, as I write this, in this house somewhere.

This is our lot in life, guys. We are but a signpost within our own homes. You know it, I know it, Santa knows it, and so did the 8th president of the United States, Martin Van Buren.

Permanent Link to The Commercial Appeal


Christoff aims to empower young lawyers in bar role

Law Talk profile for The Memphis Daily News

Jan. 17, 2013

Annie Christoff of Bass, Berry & Sims PLC is the new president of the Young Lawyers Division of the Memphis Bar Association for 2013.

The Young Lawyers Division is comprised of lawyers under the age of 36 or within their first three years of practice. The division sponsors monthly continuing legal education (CLE) seminars, networking functions and fundraising for organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Christoff hopes to continue the group’s focus on the mentoring of young lawyers by those more experienced especially for those who recently passed the bar and may have had trouble finding work in a down economy, or who hung out their own shingle straight out of law school.

“They may be missing out on some of those mentoring opportunities that hasn’t really been an issue in the past because you get that from your firm, usually,” Christoff said. “So we’re always looking for ways to reach out to those young lawyers and let them know that they have resources in the Memphis Bar Association to help them develop, especially in those critical first few years.”

The Hutchison School graduate went to Tulane University for an undergraduate degree in economics. The daughter of parents in the medical field was also a pre-med student, and after graduating, she moved back to Memphis to teach high school math and chemistry at Hutchison … (read more)


Prather parlays experience into job as ALSAC counsel

Law Talk profile for The Memphis Daily News

Jan. 10, 2013

After 12 years with Martin Tate Morrow & Marston PC, attorney Lauri Prather has made the move to in-house counsel with ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Specifically, Prather will be one of five attorneys working within ALSAC, the fundraising arm of the hospital.

Prather, who began at ALSAC on New Year’s Eve, said she can already tell it is a unique work environment.

“Even in orientation and their boot camp over here it’s pretty clear that everybody is here, not just to have a job, but more to support the mission here, and everybody is pretty passionate about it in a great way,” she said. “For everybody here, their clients are the children of St. Jude.”

Prather’s commitment to bettering the community is seen in her work as a board member of Hope House and the Junior League of Memphis, civic engagement enthusiastically supported by her previous employer.

The mother of two – son Hays, 7; and daughter, Wright, 4 – found that it was becoming more difficult for the hands-on volunteer work as her career and her kids’ activities demanded more time.

“I had always thought that it would be nice to parlay my private firm experience into some sort of nonprofit experience,” she said.

Another impetus for her move to ALSAC was the loss of her mother to cancer in 2010. It prompted her to run the St. Jude Memphis Marathon and to become more familiar with the mission of the hospital … (read more)


New year, clean slate for at least 3 months

‘Because I Said So’ column for The Commercial Appeal

Jan. 3, 2013

New year, clean slate for at least 3 months

A brand new year unwrapped, all shiny and sparkling. The packaging is still lying there on the floor, underfoot, where it will probably remain for another week or so. For even longer than that we’ll be writing the last year on our checks if we still do that sort of thing. In this day and age, though, the equivalent might be that your debit card’s expiration date is one notch higher on the online drop-down menu.

It’s still early enough in 2013 that we’re looking back to the past year, collecting its stories together and placing that volume on the shelf next to previous years to see how it holds up in size and weight within the timeline of our lives.

My kids keep their volumes spread out on their bedroom floors to be lost and stepped on, the pages dog-eared and the covers hanging by a thread or lost altogether. They’re there among Christmas presents, birthday gifts, school projects, summertime souvenirs and Halloween (perhaps Easter?) candy. The end of the year is a time of cleansing, of purging, and we take full advantage of it to get into our kids’ rooms and make them, once again, habitable.

This isn’t the only cleaning of the year, mind you. There is spring cleaning and fall cleaning, the massive cleanout at the beginning of the school year and, if there is any focus left in their eyes, at the end of that year.

But last weekend we tackled the task using the new year metaphor of a clean slate. And then we explained to them what a slate is. And then, low and behold, we found an actual slate in the substrata of toys and half-filled composition books.

Cleaning out my kids’ rooms becomes a game of logic, of moving this pile over here so I can get to that pile there; make room for these in that corner and it frees up floor space here for whatever that thing is. It also becomes a time of togetherness; we have to tether ourselves to each other like climbers on Everest in case one gets lost. Memories are scattershot, swept up from under the bed, and past holidays and sleepovers come rushing back to the forefront of our minds.

Being a captive audience — a willing audience, of course, since the kids aren’t literally held captive to clean their rooms; that would be wrong — we take the opportunity to fill that newly clean slate with fresh threats as well: “You will pick up your room every …”, “If your room gets like this again …”, ” … living like pigs.”

I suspect we’ll find that slate in the spring, the warnings partially erased and all but forgotten.

Each new year is like being given a gift of renewal every 365 days. Unwrap it slowly and linger over what might be inside, share it with your family, and, by all means, put that packaging in the garbage sometime before April.

Permanent link to The Commercial Appeal