The news of the day was scattered about the pages of the weekly paper—tidbits of information about life in a small town as of July 4, 1952. The spacious, newly constructed courthouse was open and ready for business. The annual horse show had drawn a large crowd and the Catfish Derby was in full swing (professional fisherman Lewis Welch had landed a 56 pound cat while his amateur counterpart, Leroy Reed of Corinth, turned in one that tipped the scales at 25—according to the next edition, neither would win).
The A. M. Patterson home place and its 33 acres of oak trees was up for sale. Rex Turman was doing post-graduate work at Peabody Summer School while Mr. and Mrs. D. G. White were at U.T. Knoxville doing the same. Stephens Supermarket was selling a one and one half pound box of Borden’s Cheese for $.49. Eureka and East End Methodist Churches were holding competing revivals. In a horrifying violation of the HIPPA laws (which didn’t exist in 1952) Hardin County General listed all the births and patient admissions and releases for the prior seven days. And the Savannah Theater had a busy week planned starting with showings of “The Las Vegas Story” starring Jane Russell and Victor Mature and ending with Abbott and Costello’s “Jack and the Beanstalk”.
All the mundane doings of Savannah, Tennessee, recorded for posterity in the pages of the Savannah Courier. Except for one event which made the front page, the title of which spanned three columns . . .
Six Dead As Speeding Car Crashes Head-on Into Another Here Tuesday . . .
In precise journalist detail, the writer told of a family outing that ended in tragedy. Thomas Franklin Wilkerson, his wife Gertie, and his sister Annie Belle had been traveling on Highway 64 about three miles east of town. With them in their 1932 Chevrolet were their nine year old daughter Bettie and her eight year old friend, Elizabeth Ann Funderburk. Meanwhile, Robert Lee Melton, the driver of the other car, was traveling at “an enormous rate of speed”, attempting to flee after sideswiping a car in the heart of town. He took the curve at the east end of Turkey Creek levee on the wrong side of the road, hitting the Wilkerson car head-on, demolishing it along with his 1952 Chrysler, and taking the lives of almost everyone involved, including his passenger Emmett Woodrow Parrish of Waterloo. Melton was the only one to survive the accident and was transported to Baptist Hospital in Memphis. The two young girls died after reaching Hardin County General; the others were dead on arrival.
At that point this particular article draws to a close with the observation that “Funeral arrangements for the victims are incomplete.” From our records I can tell you the Wilkerson family members were taken to Mr. Wilkerson’s home while little Elizabeth Ann was carried to the home of her grandparents. Services were conducted with burials following in Savannah Cemetery.
Today, if you walk through those hallowed grounds, paying close attention to the stories the stones have to tell, you’ll see four monuments, each measuring one foot by two feet, each bearing the same date of death—July 1, 1952. Little Bettie rests between her parents while Belle was laid to rest on the other side of her brother Frank. A few rows farther into the cemetery is Elizabeth; her mother was eventually buried beside her in 1995.
It was a week just like any other. The movies were still playing. The stores were hoping to increase business with tantalizing and informative ads. There were celebrations and competitions and people going about their ordinary, everyday lives. Even after such a horrific event, the world kept right on turning . . .
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.