Prior to 1850, no organized asylum for orphans existed in Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee.  As a matter of fact, there were very few such institutions in the United States at that time.  The fate of orphans in Memphis and elsewhere in those days was bleak.  Unless relatives or friends took them in, such children were committed to the county poorhouse or permitted to run loose in the community.  Because no provision was made for destitute widows, their lot was also in question. Life in Memphis during this time was not far from the world Charles Dickens described in Oliver Twist.

In 1850, the same year that the towns of Memphis and South Memphis merged to make the City of Memphis, a group of concerned Memphians including Mrs. Sarah Leath, Lyttleton Henderson, Mrs. Margaret Doyle and Mr. and Mrs. John Craft met at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and organized the Protestant Widows’ and Orphans’ Asylum.  Judge Pettit served as the first president of the Asylum’s Board of Trustees.  An outpouring of public support helped ensure a state charter for Memphis’ first institution for the care of the destitute in 1851.  The Asylum was incorporated the following year.

Read more about Sarah Leath from a featured Elmwood Cemetery blog post.

Sarah Leath

Sarah Leath portrait