The Grave Mystery at Shelby Farms



Several weeks ago, one of my colleagues asked if anyone had ever “ask-vanced” me about the headstone in the woods at Shelby Farms that marks the grave of Robert and Mary Mann, who died in the 1890s. It was, she said, along a trail that runs close to an old barn that is falling to pieces and — another surprise — a couple of abandoned cars from the 1950s.

The truth is that in recent months, I have actually received several inquiries about this mysterious tombstone, the barn, and the cars. But I did nothing about it because delving into this would require superhuman physical effort — namely, walking in the woods — and the Lauderdales have never been known for their wilderness adventures. Also, none of the previous queries gave me the precise location of these oddities, and the idea of getting lost in the forest, covered with ticks and brambles, just made my skin crawl.

But one pleasant Saturday afternoon, my colleague offered to guide me to this strange site, so off we went. I can’t really tell you the exact location, except that it’s in the far northeastern corner of the park. You basically start from Gate 13, hike across a field, then plunge into the woods and trudge along a dirt trail for what seems like 40 miles. And if you look closely, you’ll start to notice many interesting things.

The first manmade object you come across is a small, square stone that at one time served as the foundation for a grave marker (see the scans below). The marker itself is missing, but a six-foot-long depression in the ground alongside the stone suggests this does indeed mark the site of a burial. But without a marker, we can never know who was buried there, and when.

A bit farther along the path is a rough concrete slab, with the name “Lanny” scrawled in the surface. Another mystery.

Then things really get interesting. Propped against the trunk of a mighty oak is a double tombstone for Robert and Mary Mann. The carving is very shallow, so the stone is hard to read, but the inscription reads, “In Memory of Our Parents, Robert Mann and Mary Mann.” Robert was born April 4, 1843, and died November 25, 1891. Mary was born June 22, 1848, and died just 10 days after her husband, on December 5, 1891.

The stone is broken in half, and since it’s not perched on a foundation, I don’t think it marks the actual site of a burial. What’s puzzling however, is the cluster of artificial flowers planted in the ground in front of it. Who would have done such a thing? And the stone itself is neatly carved, with very delicate ornamentation. It’s not the typical inexpensive (and often handmade) gravestone you normally find marking the graves of farming families.

A dozen yards away are five tombstone bases, missing the grave markers. Four of them are neatly chiseled cubes with a nice slot cut into the top; the fifth one is more crudely made. Since they are arranged all helter-skelter, I doubt the actual graves are nearby. For reasons unknown, somebody moved these, and the Mann marker, to this location.

Farther along this path are other surprises: a tumbledown wooden barn or shed, painted a lovely shade of blue, and a pair of abandoned cars: a blue 1952 Ford Crestliner missing its interior and engine, and the front half — just the hood and fenders, really — of a yellow car that I think was once a Pontiac. The barn is really not that old, considering it has a poured-concrete foundation, a corrugated metal roof, and fairly modern electrical junction boxes inside.

So what are we to make of all this? Well, I just don’t know. I realize this column is supposed to provide answers, but this adventure just left me with lots and lots of questions.

I don’t know who the Manns were. They were probably a farming family who lived (and died) in that area long before the land was acquired for use as the old Penal Farm in 1929. The prison operated until 1964, so the derelict barn and cars were probably left over from that operation, though it’s a mystery to me how they got where they are today. I mean, I don’t know much about agriculture, but I do know you don’t build a barn in the middle of the woods, where it would be pretty hard to get livestock in and out, and I also know that you usually need a road or driveway for cars, and that hasn’t survived. The entire area is completely surrounded by dense woods. So why was the barn constructed, and how did those cars get there? I have no idea.

Various officials at Shelby Farms have seen the graves and other odd relics, but they don’t know the history of them either. Does anyone?

Now here’s something else. Later that day, I returned to the gravesite by myself just before sundown to take more photographs, and I discovered that portion of Shelby Farms has a considerably different feel to it as it begins to grow dark. As I was walking along the trail again, I kept hearing what sounded like a child crying, perhaps a little girl. She seemed to be saying, “Mama, help me!” and then, “Mama, why did you leave me here?” But I couldn’t hear her very clearly, though several times — and this is the really strange part of my experience there — I believe I saw her, just as the light was beginning to fade. I certainly saw something, which appeared to be a child in a white dress, and she was always running just ahead of me on the path that cut through the dense woods. But whenever I got close enough, she would disappear around a bend. No matter how fast I walked, I could never quite catch up to her.

It finally got too dark to see any more, and yes, I was beginning to get a bit spooked, so I left. Then, as I was walking back to my car, in those areas of the trail where there was mud, I noticed the bare footprints of a child. They had certainly not been there when I first ventured in. And as I finally walked out of those mysterious woods and stepped out into an open field, I very clearly heard a girl cry, “Please mister, don’t leave me in here — all alone!”

I don’t think I’ll be going back.




1. Bonnie Kourvelas, on October 10th, 2008 at 12:03 pm Said:
Holy smokes, Vance. I got chills just reading about this.
Anyone who’s ever been lost in the woods, even just for a few minutes, probably never forgets the sheer terror that overtakes you. There is a basic human fear, encoded into our DNA, of being lost and alone in the woods. I think that’s why “The Blair Witch Project” was so frightening to some people.
But I digress! The only commentary I can offer is that when I was doing historical research for WKNO, I scanned numerous photos of the old Penal Farm, and there was a pretty big dairy operation there at one time. I’m guessing maybe when the old barn was built, it was not actually located in heavy woods—maybe it was pasture then, or close to pasture?— and it was a place to shelter some of the cows. Seems like I read that dairy cows need a lot of acreage to get enough grass, so maybe the barn was an outpost for the Penal Farm dairy. Just a theory.
As always, I LOVE your blog!

2. Charlee Griffith, on October 11th, 2008 at 9:39 am Said:
Great story, Vance, and excellent timing with Halloween just around the corner. I hope you - or someone - will do some research into the Mann family and find out what happened. Thanks so much for the new Memphis haint tale!

3. steve L, on October 13th, 2008 at 9:52 am Said:
i was a reserve ranger at the park 95-99 and i know about the head stone and and bases i have seen them.there are also open grave sites there with no markers.i know they are grave sites as they are lined with bricks a practice done during that time period.i was told that this area was an old cemetary during the civil war and that the county bull dozed it over many years ago but i do not know what year that took place and i dont remember the reason why as i was told by the chief ranger at that time.and yes there some creepy mojo in that part of the park as i have been back there many times on safety patrol.

4. Darin, on October 13th, 2008 at 12:20 pm Said:
I really enjoyed this. I ride my bike pass that barn every weekend. Last year I stopped there, by the tombstone leaning against the tree, to catch my breath and drink some water. I got this overwhelming feeling that somebody else was there and then I heard something in the woods. I thought it was an animal, but it really spooked me. Now, if I hit the trail late I will not take that route.

5. Vance, on October 14th, 2008 at 9:51 am Said:
Steve, do you think those open, brick-lined graves are still there? Where were they in relation to the Mann gravestone that is propped against the tree? Is there any way you can tell me (or show me) specifically where they were? And what is your theory about the abandoned cars? Since there doesn’t seem to be a road, how do you think they got there? Finally, do you remember the “ranger’s house” close to the corner of Walnut Grove and Germantown Road? So many questions . . .

6. steve L, on October 14th, 2008 at 11:11 pm Said:
i am assuming that they are still there.i do not know if someone has moved the mann headstone from the place i where i first saw it.but the graves were close to the headstone as i remember but i have not been back there since 99.i could show you better than i could tell you so if you want to send me an email or give a contact number for you i will conatct you.i dont know why the cars are there or how they got there.i did not know about the rangers house at wg and gt road.

7. Devin Greaney, on October 15th, 2008 at 1:47 am Said:
wow!!! one of the better “Ask Vances”… and that is saying a lot!!! After that story the aformentioned graveyard and barn are now going to be more visited than Graceland!!!

8. Louise, on October 15th, 2008 at 8:05 am Said:
Vance - Memphis Heritage did an exhaustive study of the Penal Farm in the 1990’s, the purpose of which was to have it considered as a National Historic Site. The study resulted in the farm being declared eligible for consideration.
Unfortunately, within a couple of months of the study, the County bulldozed the very buildings that made up the heart of the farming operation. Lovely manufactured metal buildings replace the mule barn, a dairy barn and other structures.
Check with MHI to see if they have a copy of the study. There is also a report done by the County in the 60’s with great pictures and history. May give you some clues.

9. Jen, on October 15th, 2008 at 8:47 am Said:
I work at Shelby Farms Park and have recently begun trying to piece together the facts about the gravestones, cars and barn. It’s really quite a mystery, and I get a lot of inquiries about it from Park users. We don’t know who is leaving the flowers, either, though I suspect it’s a kind of Poe Toaster. I’ve also heard from several people that that particular section of the trail is very eerie, so you aren’t alone there, Vance.
There’s a rumor that the old barn is a former Native American sweat lodge, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. The mystery continues!

10. Jeff, on November 5th, 2008 at 4:56 pm Said:
Fascinating. Whose legs would I have to break to get you to take me out to that place one evening just before sundown for a little research?
I recently finished my first haunted Memphis novel and am currently outlining another one, so I am interested in Memphis history and its ghosts both real and fictional. Your blog is a treasure trove, but I am going to have to buy your book now.

11. Kip, on November 8th, 2008 at 6:56 pm Said:
Hey, if anyone is gonna mount another expedition, I’m in!

12. Phil Richardson, on November 10th, 2008 at 2:02 pm Said:
I was out running yesterday and happened across the old barn and cars. I met a couple walking in the woods and they told me about the tombstones. I had past what now i realize were the grave markers line with stones.
I also had a wierd experience.I had my i-pod on while I was running and after I had past the couple, it was near dusk and I started wondering if I was going to make it out of the woods any time soon. Suddenly, I started hearing voices in my i-pod and was wondering if I was picking up cell phone signals but that deep in the woods I doubt it. I was glad when I finally came out of the woods near Ducks Unlimited.
Before the area was populated (around 1980) we use to dove hunt just across Germantown Rd. along Walnut grove where there was a big gravel pit. It is all big houses now but I remember Raleigh Lagrange Rd. use to come across Germantown Rd. in about the same area. Great to find someone else interested.

13. Jeff, on November 12th, 2008 at 11:36 am Said:
Kip, Me, too.

14. Darin, on November 20th, 2008 at 9:46 am Said:
This is just a follow up. I took one of my daughters mountain biking last Sunday. It was a big deal because she wanted to ride the entire 6 mile Tour D’ Wolf Trail. I told her, that if she rode this last part it was going to be more difficult, but the payoff was the graveyard and the old building. She agreed and was very excited about seeing this little bit of Memphis Haunted History. We got to the site and I told her the story. She was fascinated. All of a sudden the hair on my neck stood straight up and Josie asked me what was wrong. I told her I scared myself and got the creeps. She said said it was time to go, but then said she was going to go first. All-in-all it was great experience and thanks to this story my daughter has a great childhood memory and, if nothing else, a fun ghost story.

15. dana, on December 25th, 2008 at 3:58 pm Said:
my mother used to be a ranger at the park when i was younger,and as a result i spent an awful lot of time going through the woods.she showed us this site a few years ago,and when we were exploring it we found a journal,wrapped in a ziplock bag written by a little was left behind the mann tombstone with a pen for people to sign the back of once they have read it.i don’t remember really anything that was in the journal except that it was really old.i haven’t been back to the old barn since before “hurricane elvis” which did alot of damage to the park,and i was afraid had destroyed the barn. has anyone found the journal recently?

16. Lisa McClain, on December 31st, 2008 at 6:20 am Said:
I have been exploring and researching the history of the stone for many years, before they cut the Tour de Wolf trail up to include the old dwellings. I was quite startled one day to look to the left along the old trail and find a random tombstone propped against a large tree.Over the years, this is the story that I have heard, provided, in part by a Civil War reconstructionist from Indiana who was hanging around the site one day.I do not remember what the confederate link was but I was struck by the poinant story of the young Robert Mann, who brought his bride to a settlement {possibly part of the Nashoba/Francis Wright commune but that has not been established.} They had a large number of children, 7 or 9. They tried to live out the yellow fever epidemic by growing their own crops, raising their own livestock and homeschooling the children. They succeeded in part but all of the children but one succumbed to what is believed to be scarlet fever at a young age. The surviving daughter lived at that site at least into the 1950’s. She erected the elaborate tombstone to her parents as well as her siblings. Only the bases of the childrens headstones survive today, scattered by people long ago, the tops of them stolen,apparently. The parents stone was dragged through the woods a short distance and discarded against the tree, due to its weight. It broke into 2 pieces altho recently it has been braced by someone. There are at least 3 grave holes visible to the right of the trail, lined with old bricks.The barn beyond housed chickens and next to that was an animal pen pretty much destroyed by the straight line storm in the 90’s that toppled a giant tree onto the structure. 50’s era cars are there and if you cast around the site, you’ll find other building ruins. But what I have not seen mentioned is that behind the barn just a few yards is the remains of the house. you can barely make out the corners of the structure, a ruined chimney, a sunken basement or root cellar currently being reclaimed by draping forest vines. There are naturalized daffodils still here as well as a type of desert plant not indiginous to this area. Just beyond that is the memory of an old paved driveway, probably the way the cars got there. Follow the driveway down and come out at the corner of Walnut Grove and Germantown Parkway. A ranger told me the family made a claim to the land sometime after the park was acquired in the 1920’s. The parks stand was that the family, although having lived there for almost 100 years, were “squatters” and the family lost their case. However, Shelby Farms allowed the family to live there at least until the 50’s when the daughter either moved away or died. A creepy turn I found on my most recent visit-someone has taken parts of a plastic baby skeleton and put pieces of it around the site-a leg up the the hip is nailed to a beam on the barn and it’s rib cage is nestled in a rusted grove on the old Crestliner car there. I have no idea why but did not search for the rest of it.Upon leaving at 515pm I heard some creepy stuff as the light failed rapidly but the most spectaclar sight I saw was that at 534pm, just above the lake there at the ‘dog run’ entrance, the sun was setting and Venus was visile next to the moon and further down on the left, Jupiter and Mercury were visible also. It was a perfect sky and will be visible again on New Years Eve.

17. Jeff, on January 12th, 2009 at 9:23 am Said:
Lisa, excellent work. A co-worker of mine walked that trail this past weekend. I had never told her Vance’s tail. She said that when she passed the old torn down building, she started feeling creepy. Then she saw a man standing off the trail, but when she looked again, there was nobody there, and that really scared her. She wasn’t thinking ghosts, she thought he might be dangerous, because she was by herself. She was just glad to get out and swore never to go back. She told me about it this morning, so I told her the ghost story and she said well she definitely wasn’t going back.

18. Jeff, on January 12th, 2009 at 9:24 am Said:
That would be Vance’s tale. Perhaps Vance has a tail, but if he does, it is better left untold.

19. Tracye, on January 13th, 2009 at 4:39 pm Said:
This is such an interesting tale! I’m going to tell my son and nephews about it and see if they want to explore it. They love spooky stuff. I’m very glad I stumbled onto your site.

20. mindy, on February 4th, 2009 at 10:07 pm Said:
Hey Vance - me again ! had I read THIS part first, it wouldn’t have been necessary for me to ask the birth and death date question. Ahh so know I know. But I will look them up, if needed. but heck, all of ya have got my curiosity goin! Thanks

21. Roxanne, on February 12th, 2009 at 4:19 pm Said:
Mindy — I, too, have access to the geneology records on the web. Although there are records for Shelby County in 1880, this family is not listed. Maybe the site just has Memphis census records. No other family trees had this couple in them at this time. It would be great if the court records were available. Vance??

22. Michael David, on February 17th, 2009 at 8:54 pm Said:
another cool place to examine further.


Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Comments (10)

Showing 1-10 of 10

Add a comment

Add a comment