Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #34: House of Horrors

The Yerger House, Greenwood Ms, home of Byron De La Beckwith, shortly before its demolition.

“Charles Edmundson, a reporter for the Commercial Appeal, wrote in an article published the day after De La was arrested: ‘Once a showplace, the family home was built by Lemuel P. Yerger in 1900 and still remains in the family. Now dilapidated and weather beaten, the three-story wood frame building originally was furnished in priceless antiques, some of which have been distributed to other family members. Unpainted for years, strips of white paint cling to the walls with almost visible effort. The yard is unkempt and bare of shrubbery but a political sign “Sullivan for me in ’63” in brilliant color has been attached at the front entrance.’

The sign referred to Charles Sullivan, who was running for Governor and I am sure did not care to receive such publicity on the front page of the Commercial Appeal. The article continued: ‘Visitors described as “dismal” the interior of the house where wallpaper was sagging from the ceiling and walls.’

“Cathy and Mary Carol and I had been in the house when De La and his wife Willie had decided to clean it out after the federal government bought it and others in the block to be torn down for construction of the federal building. His uncle, Willie Yerger, one of the crazy kin, had been living in the house which was jam full of things, old and new. A Newsweek article written after De La was arrested said they even found dead fish in a drawer, but I don’t know whether this was true or not.

“There were hundreds of dime store items in the house which Uncle Willie had bought and just stored away, never using any of them. There was a box full of Confederate hats of the dime store variety. There were hundreds of new pencils and balloons. I remember counting a dozen glass dishes (ten cent store type) for stuffed eggs, none of which had apparently ever been used.

“The upstairs bedrooms had been piled to the ceiling with old papers, letters, bank statements, etc., dating back to the 1800s, and they had had to get a big truck to back under the window so they could just toss them in it. Old papers which had been damaged when the roof leaked were hung out in the bathroom to dry. There were reminders of grander times such as a fancy evening purse and faded bits of lace. Mrs. Yerger had been a close friend of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, and among all the junk were pieces of china which had come from the Davis family. De La showed us through the house, and we were fascinated with the accumulation of memorabilia and junk.”

Ed. note: I have foggy memories of that visit to De La Beckwith’s house, but “fascinated” is not the word I would have chosen. It was like tumbling into a Twilight Zone episode, with an overlay of Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The odor of decay smacked you in the face as you walked through the front door, and there were yellowed, crumbling piles of newspapers and magazines stretching up like stalagmites from the nasty carpets and hardwood floors. Everything seemed to lean, like a carnival funhouse, but this was not fun. I remember walking up the stairs and being terrified that they would pull away from the walls or collapse beneath us. Huge swaths of faded wallpaper hung off the plaster and the ceilings were riddled with old water stains. All I wanted to do was to get out and get some air and leave De La and his world behind. In my child’s mind, this was evil and aberrant and I recognized that this sort of behavior, even in a town that tolerated eccentricity and individualism, was not healthy or acceptable. Now, looking back with the awareness that there are historic treasures in every junkpile, I would leap at the chance to venture back into that crumbling home, albeit with a mask on my face, to find the bits and pieces of Greenwood history that undoubtedly went into the dumpster with the dross.

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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