City Councilman Bill Boyd began with a genealogy quest, but unearthed a love story worthy of Rhett and Scarlett and an eventual demise worthy of Jimmy Hoffa.
Boyd, 73, knew most of the history of his great-great-grandfather, Marcus Winchester. He was the city’s first mayor, an aristocrat whom one historian calls “the most graceful, courtly, elegant gentleman that ever appeared upon Main Street.”
Several historians have written about Winchester’s colorful past. He grew up on a palatial Middle Tennessee farm near Gallatin, son of Gen. James Winchester, one of the original owners of the land now called Memphis. In fact, it was James Winchester who gave the city its name, likening it to the Egyptian city on the Nile.
… It was Marcus, the eldest, whom Winchester dispatched to West Tennessee in 1818 to inspect a land acquisition by the Winchesters and partners Andrew Jackson and John Overton.
Boyd says Marcus and a surveyor arrived in 1819 “to lay out a subdivision. The owners were anxious to get the town laid out so they could sell lots.”
Boyd, who would become a member of the West Tennessee Historical Society and the Descendants of the Early Settlers of Shelby County, says Winchester quickly rose to prominence.
…Marcus himself was a member of the city’s first Quarterly Court and town register. When the city was incorporated in 1826, he became its first mayor. But the historical accounts indicate the seeds of his undoing were planted in 1823 when he married “a woman of color.”
Attorney Lee Winchester, 85, an indirect descendant of the mayor, says that while many landowners lived with women of mixed race, it was rare, even illegal, for them to marry. Marcus threw caution to the wind. He wed Amirante “Mary” Loiselle in New Orleans, her hometown, where mixed-race marriages were legal.
“She was reputedly one of the most beautiful women ever seen in this part of the country. Her father had her educated in France, and she was brilliant. She was also one-sixteenth black. It was enough for her to be ostracized by what was then a pretty raggedy social society,” says Lee Winchester.
Shelby County historian Ed Williams says the divisiveness of politics and social tensions leading up to the Civil War turned Winchester into a target. Eventually, city aldermen “passed a law that anyone of mixed race could not live within the city limits of Memphis. It made it necessary for Mrs. Winchester to live about a half-block outside the city limits.”
Lee Winchester says Marcus remained with his wife.
“He was a pretty fine man, and the romance that brought him down was probably one of the most perfect romances that there was.”
Mary died in 1840, and Marcus Winchester remarried two years later, but his failing business and a series of lawsuits would impoverish him.