Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Death of Bessie Smith

When writing about the lives - and especially the deaths - of black Americans, one runs the risk of sounding like a broken record, which is certainly an unforgivable offense in the case of Bessie Smith, if inevitable, since her death could be described as the ultimate broken record...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFrom her debut in 1923 onward, Bessie Smith made a lot of white men very wealthy; in the last 14 years of her life she worked tirelessly, both recording and performing the blues throughout the United States, only to die - it is said - because of the prevailing racism of the times.

Yet the powerful myth surrounding Smith's death - while instrumental in the creation of any legend as mighty as hers - is not more moving than the real story...

On this day in 1937, at about 3 AM, while traveling along Route 61 from Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi, the car Bessie Smith was in was struck by a van. Her right arm was nearly severed at the elbow in the initial impact, and the right side of her body was severely traumatized. Although the driver of the car, Richard Morgan, was uninjured, Bessie never regained consciousness.

While the driver of the van stopped, he later fled the scene; though he was later apprehended and arrested, history does not record his name. Had he used his van to take Bessie to hospital, she may well have lived. Then again, shock is a fast-moving, ruthless killer, and possibly nothing could have saved her from it.

Dr. Hugh Smith happened along with a Mr. Broughton, his fishing buddy, and while administering first aid to her, his own car was struck; its driver was likely drunk. In any event, neither he nor his female passenger were seriously hurt, although they narrowly missed hitting both the unconscious Bessie and the doctor, and they totaled the doctor's car.

Two ambulances arrived; the first one took Bessie to the blacks-only hospital in Clarksdale, the second conveyed the joyriders to the white hospital. Although the myth was that Bessie was originally taken to the whites-only hospital and refused treatment there a) her ambulance driver was a black man named Willie Miller, who would have known better than to take her to the wrong place, and b) even if he had, the two hospitals in Clarksdale were about a half-mile apart.

Unfortunately, the blacks-only G. T. Thomas Hospital was both understaffed and under-equipped. Nevertheless, it was there that Bessie Smith died, likely of shock, exacerbated by the comedy of errors which played out on Route 61. Her time of death was listed as 11:30 AM.

Though it's understandable why so much misinformation regarding the death of Bessie Smith was disseminated in the thirty years after her death, historians owe a debt of gratitude to Chris Albertson; his 1972 biography of the Empress of the Blues is still the best text available on her life and death.
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