photo courtesy Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library
Of all of our city’s parks, downtown’s Court Square probably seems the unlikeliest place for anybody to die by drowning. After all, it’s blocks away from the Mississippi River, and the square’s historic fountain is too shallow to be a danger. Besides, there’s a cast-iron fence around the entire basin.
But it didn’t always look that way. When the massive fountain was unveiled back in 1876, topped with the bronze statue of Hebe, that octagonal basin was actually a concrete moat more than six feet deep, often stocked with catfish, turtles, and — if you can believe some accounts — a couple of alligators. And there was no fence around it. If anybody thought the showpiece of Court Square was a hazard, they never said anything about it until the afternoon of August 26, 1884.
That day, 10-year-old Claude Pugh, described as “a newsboy and small for his age,” was sitting on the stone rim of the fountain, playing with a toy boat in the water. He leaned too far over and tumbled in, and since the bottom of the fountain was sloped, and slippery from algae, he couldn’t regain his footing.
What’s incredible is that the park was filled with visitors that day who could have saved the boy, but didn’t even try. “There were a number of men, women, and children in the square at the time,” reported the Memphis Daily Appeal the following day, “and not an effort was made to save him. Stalwart men did not move a muscle, but stood silently by with staring eyes and gaping mouths.”
After struggling for several minutes, Pugh slipped beneath the surface. Newspaper editors expressed their outrage at the people who witnessed the tragedy: “Their hearts must have been made of stone, and the milk of human kindness in their breasts sour whey. More consideration should have been given a dumb beast.”
When a fireman was finally called to the scene, it took him more than 15 minutes to recover the boy’s body from the water. By that time, of course, it was too late. Little Claude Pugh, described by the Appeal as “the only son of a widow of good family and her chief pride and comfort,” was buried in Elmwood Cemetery. No gravestone marks the site today.