Bizarre First Visit

October 15, 1887

People poured into Memphis on trains for days and thousands lined the streets as the city hosted its first "real live president."

It's hard to know where to start in describing Grover Cleveland's visit: the over the top pomp of the day, including the newspaper’s full front-page poster welcoming Cleveland, his grand entrance aboard a steamer that struggled to get docked and drop its gangplank, or the band of pickpockets that preyed on visitors.

But grand as it all was — the "event of events" as the newspaper described it — many were horror-struck by what they witnessed on stage. They packed Court Square to glimpse Cleveland only to sit in shock after seeing a prominent local citizen, Judge Henry T. Ellett, grandly introduce the 24th president of the United States then promptly drop dead on stage, the next day’s Appeal describing it as "one of the saddest incidents that ever characterized a gala occasion." The newspaper provided a vivid, minute-by-minute description of Ellett’s demise.

Judge Ellett was placed upon the platform, his shoes removed, and all that mortal effort and medical science could suggest applied to bring resuscitation. It was useless, his spirit had fled. For the time the vast concourse, of those near enough to gather what had occurred, lost interest in the presidential movements, and the police and committeemen found all they could do to keep them back from the platform.