Tom Lee - A Memphis Hero



After a freak accident over-turned the steamer M.E. Norman on a sightseeing cruise, Lee risked his own life to save 32 men, women and children from drowning in the turbulent and muddy Mississippi River. 

This is a story of the right man being in the right place at the right time. Memphians are familiar with the name of Tom Lee.       The most prominent park in the city, at the Mississippi River’s edge, is named for him. Tourists from all over the world visit it, and learn why it is named in his honor. Tom Lee was a quiet, unassuming man, born in poverty across the river in Hopefield, Arkansas.   He made his living as a farm hand, fisherman, and river roustabout and willow cutter. 

Tom Lee became famous, at 39 years old, working for the C. W. Hunter Co., which had a contract to work on the levee.  On the morning of May 8, 1925, Tom Lee took a company official down to Helena in the company’s open motorboat, the Zev.  The official was to return to Memphis by train, so Lee was in the boat alone on his way back to Memphis that afternoon.                          

This was the week that the American Society of Civil Engineers was holding its Mid-South convention in Memphis.  That Friday afternoon, the Army Corps of Engineers provided two boats, the Choctaw and the M .E. Norman, for a sightseeing excursion for the engineers and their families. The passengers traveled to Cow Island, 15 or 16 miles below Memphis, to see how the levees were holding up against the springtime high water. 
 The Norman carried 75 people in all—65 passengers and 10 crewmembers.  It was a new boat, built only the year before at Morgan City, La., and was 113 feet long and 26 feet wide.  Most of the engineers from Memphis rode together on the Norman, so they could discuss forming a Memphis branch of the Society of Civil Engineers.  The Choctaw was larger and faster and carried more passengers.  Once the inspection of the revetments was finished, around 4p.m., the Choctaw left Cow Island first and headed back toward Memphis, disappearing around the river’s bend. The Norman lingered, and then also turned north toward Memphis.

That’s when something went wrong. The Norman listed to one side, then the other, and suddenly tipped over. Many of the engineers were below decks or in a screened-in portion of the boat, listening to a lecture.  When the Norman flipped, they were horribly trapped, disoriented and unable to find their way out, and drowned. Others of the engineers and their family members who had been out on deck were thrown into the water when the boat flipped. Those who could not swim or who got caught up in the swirling currents perished.  Those who could swim grabbed for life preservers, planks and crates from the boat’s wreckage.  There was one witness to the Norman’s sinking, and that was Tom Lee.

 Tom Lee had just passed the steamer in the 28-foot Zev. Afterwards, he told a reporter, “When I was about half a mile above (the Norman)  I happened to look back and I saw her wheel had stopped and she was leaning over to the right side.

I knew something was wrong, so t turned and started toward her.  “The boat started down”. It took me only a few minutes to get back, because I was making about seven miles an hour.  When I got back she was halfway under.  The water was full of people, both men and women. Some of them were sitting on top of the (overturned) boat.  I "started" dragging them into my boat as fast as I could. 

They were floating around with life preservers on and some was holding to boards.  The current was taking them out to the channel.  They weren't hollering very much.  “I got a boatload and put into the boat.  I don’t know how many I had, but my boat holds 12 and I went back.  One of the white men stayed in the boat and went back to help me pull them in. I don’t know who he was.  “We loaded up again. We tried to get to the ladies first.  We was afraid to go up too close to the boat, because she was going down we was afraid she might take us under.  The people sitting on top jumped out into the water and floated away, and then we picked them up.”  Lee deposited the rescued on a beach at the river’s edge.

The survivors huddled together for warmth and comfort. The sand was still warm from the day’s heat, and many lay down on it and covered themselves with it to keep warm.

  Miss Margaret Oates was one person plucked from the river by Lee, “I was swimming in the river, some distance downstream from the overturn Norman, when Tom Lee ran his motorboat beside me and pulled me aboard, she said later. “I guess it was the yellow dress that I was” wearing that caused him to see me “Miss Oates later married Hugo N Dixon;  their former home at 4339 Park Avenue in Memphis is now the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.

James M. Wood, secretary of the Fischer Lime & Cement Company, found himself in the water with his wife and another couple, Mr. and Mrs. G. W. Miller. Mr. Wood said later the accident had happened quickly—one minute he was standing on the boat, and the next minute he found himself treading water.

 “I was endeavoring to hold my wife up,” Wood said, “The boat had dropped from underneath us.  I continued the effort and was fast losing strength. Suddenly wife exclaimed, ‘Jim, there’s a boat!’  I whistled and Tom Lee shot his boat straight at us. I want to say right here that he is a born river man. The boat edged up to us and Lee reached out with one hand as he held the wheel with the other.  He drew my wife out of the water and into the boat. Then he helped Mrs. Miller out. Mr. Miller was next.  Then ... (Lee) pulled me up. We owe our lives to Tom Lee. That’s all there is to it.”

 Mrs. Charles E. Shearer held her child above the surface of the water and saved his life.  Her wet clothing twisted around her body, she used all her strength to hold up her son Bill until Lee spotted him.  As Lee took the boy from her hands, Mrs. Shearer slipped beneath the water, but Lee’s boat mate grabbed her hair and hauled her into the boat. Her husband did not survive the Norman, however.

  One of the last people Lee pulled from the water was Capt. Howard Fenton, the Norman’s skipper.
Lee had worked for him years before as a roustabout on another boat.

 After three or four trips, Lee had rescued all he could find. He gathered some driftwood, produced dry matches from his pocket and started a fire to keep the survivors warm.  Then he took off again in his motorboat to search for bodies. It would be a bright moonlit night, and Lee would spend the better part of it searching in his boat.

 Back on the riverbank, it started to drizzle. Mr. George Foster walked to the home of K. R. Armistead at Lake Cormorant, Miss., and called the Memphis police, the Commercial Appeal, and his wife, in that order. Dr. Louis Leroy of Memphis and two Commercial Appeal reporters were first to reach the scene, in Dr. Leroy’s motorboat. 

The doctor administered first aid as the reporters began collecting stories.  The passengers on the Choctaw knew nothing of the Norman’s fate until they reached the Memphis landing at around 6 p.m., where police and onlookers were waiting.  The call had gone out for medical personnel; 14 doctors and nurses from Memphis hospitals boarded the Choctaw and returned to tend the injured. The Chisca was dispatched to pick up the survivors at Cow Island.  She was a small boat, and once they saw her they were afraid to get on her, so they waited instead for the Mississippi.

The Chisca and the Monitor scoured  the banks for bodies.  At least six undertakers sent ambulances and  men the Memphis riverfront to wait for bodies.

 In all, Tom Lee had saved 32 people in his motorboat.  Another 20 survivors swam or floated to shore.  Twenty-three passengers and crewmembers lost their lives. The dead included men, women and children, from five-year-old Edgar Bosard to 73-year-old Lydia Hidinger.  Mrs. Hidinger had been on the trip with her son L. L. Hidinger, of Morgan Engineering, and five-year-old grandson Leroy Hidinger Jr. Hidinger and son were among those who swam to shore.                   

The first bodies recovered, on the day of the accident, were those of Edgar Bosard and professor W. G. Kirkpatrick of Oxford, Miss., who taught at Ole Miss.  More bodies surfaced throughout May and the early summer of 1925.

The last body recovered, on February 16, 1926, was that of W. M. Gardner, a corps of engineer’s employee.  Three bodies were never found.  Rain on May 9 kept searchers away from the wreck site, but on May 10 the Norman was discovered about 500 feet downriver from where she sank, in 50 feet of water, 300 feet off shore. Attempts to raise the bull were in vain, as the massive wreck broke chains and strained machinery. 

The government investigated the accident. Some survivors felt that the boat had tipped over when too many people stood on one side of the boat, to view the revetment work on the banks. One man, the president of the Engineers Club of Memphis, James Haylow, thought the Norman had hit a snag. Others felt the oil in the fuel tanks had shifted when the boat turned about.

 Some witnesses said that her oil tanks and machinery had too heavily weighed down the Norman, and that consequently the boat sat too low in the water.  Some passengers and crewmembers said the decks had been awash with waves that lapped over her sides. There was speculation that, she took on too much water, which collected in her hull and caused her to be unstable.  One crewmember felt that Capt. Fenton had become aware that the Norman

was in trouble and had intentionally turned the boat hard to shore. Fenton testified that he had not done so, because he knew turning, the boat broadside to the rivers current would cause it to be swamped. Fenton, who was 53 at the time, was an experienced river pilot, licensed since age 21.

 In the end, the inquiry found no explanation or cause for the Norman disaster.  Tom Lee was immediately hailed as a hero for his quick thinking and selfless work.  Astonishingly, it was discovered. That Tom Lee, who had acted with such bravery and saved 32 people from death by drowning, could not swim.

 On May 22, 1925, Lee accompanied Memphis Press-Scimitar editor George Morris to Washington, D. C., to meet President Calvin Coolidge, who called him an “outstanding marine hero.”

 The week after the accident, someone asked Tom Lee if there was anything he needed.  He replied that he wished he had a nice home. By October, the Engineers Club of Memphis and the Commercial Appeal had raised about $4,000 to buy Lee and his wife Margaret a new house at 923 Mansfield St. and new furniture for it. Each Christmas thereafter, the Engineers Club visited the Lees with food and gifts.                

 The city of Memphis gave Torn Lee a job for life, as a garbage collector, making 20 cents an hour (as long as it didn’t rain). Although it doesn’t sound like much today, the former itinerant worker Lee appreciated the gesture and the security it represented.

The city also retired him early; at age 62 in 1948, with a pension of $75 per month.  In 1950 Lee was diagnosed with cancer. The Engineers Club supplied the money for an operation, but it didn’t do much good; the cancer was too advanced.

 Lee’s health steadily dwindled over the next two years. In February 1952 he was released from John Gaston Hospital when doctors decided they could do no more for him.  He went home and died on April 1, 1952. He was subsequently buried in Mt. Carmel Cemetery at Elvis Presley Boulevard and Elliston Avenue.

 After Lee’s death, former Memphis Mayor E. H. Crump spearheaded the drive to raise a monument to his bravery.“He was a worthy man and he did a noble deed,” Crump told local newspapers.

 In 1954, Astor Park, between the Mississippi River and Riverside Drive, near the Monroe Avenue landing, was renamed Tom Lee Park, and an obelisk monument that tells his story was erected there.

 Sources: News clippings and microfilm at the History Department of the Memphis Shelby County Public Library & Information Center,  What Happened in Memphis by Fred Hutchins, and Memphis Sketches by Paul Coppock.

 Cover photo of Torn Lee courtesy of Special Collections at the University of Memphis Libraries