The Commercial Appeal
Vance Ave. Alma
TV show explores case of notorious black widow of Memphis
On a recent cold and rainy early morning, an Australian film crew worked setting up lights and testing microphone levels in Phillips Cottage at Elmwood Cemetery. They were in search not of ghosts, but of the story of Alma Theede, prostitute and notorious murderer of three men, also known as Vance Avenue Alma.
Alma Theede was married seven times to six different men in the early to mid-1900s, and was charged with the murder of three of them.
Interviews were being recorded that day for a show called “Deadly Women” on the Investigation Discovery Channel. The show is produced by the Australian company Beyond Productions, which specializes in factual and documentary-style programs and is best known for the “Myth Busters” series. The Memphis segment is scheduled to air this fall.
“It explores the psychological motivation behind why some women commit homicide,” producer Dora Weekley said of the show. “We hope to create a greater awareness and understanding of the effects of such crimes, both on the individual and larger society.”
To tell their story, the team, which also included cameraman David Maguire and sound man Phillip Rossini, call on people involved in the cases, from police and prosecutors to journalists, historians and the victims’ families. The production crew went to Elmwood to see Theede’s final resting place and to interview staff historian Dale Schaefer, assistant cemetery director
Jody Schmidt; and board president Dan Conaway.
“We do a mix of stories from way back in the late 1800s to last year,” Weekley said. “Anything where, obviously, the case is closed.”
Alma Herring came to Memphis from Mississippi with her sister, brother and mother, Nettie Green Herring, who worked for the American Snuff Co. By age 16, Alma was frequenting an area of Downtown known for its more lascivious businesses.
“South Main and Vance, it was known for the gambling, the brothels and the bars, and she appeared to be attracted to that,” Schaefer said. This proclivity garnered her the name “Vance Avenue Alma.”
At age 17, she married Charles Cox, only to divorce him and elope to Little Rock with Roy Calvert, Schaefer said. In 1919, she was charged with Calvert’s murder with a verdict of justifiable homicide returned. Back in Memphis, she remarried Cox, who later died in a car wreck.
In 1926, she married Michael McClavey and was charged and convicted of accessory to his murder, along with Charles Miller, who was convicted of murder, in 1927. She was sentenced to 10 years and was paroled in 1931, when she married William Theede, also a newly paroled convicted murderer she met while in prison. She sued for divorce and in 1946 married Ed Gill.
“He (Theede) at one point in time claimed in court that he was scared of her and that she was a pig in the way that she kept house, and he didn’t want to be married to her,” Schaefer said.
According to her obituary, “… on the drizzling morning of Jan. 2, 1949, a sailor stumbled over the body of Gill on a lonely road, a short distance from her shanty.” Alma Theede was convicted of Gill’s murder and sentenced, again, to 10 years, though she was paroled after six. She married William Massey in 1960 and later divorced him.
“It’s a really interesting case,” Weekley said. “Often, we see cases where when women kill, there are all different motives, whether it’s insurance money or because they’ve been wronged or they’re having an affair. But this one, it seems like every This photo of Alma Theede appeared with her 1970 obituary that ran in The Commercial Appeal. Theede died in a Millington nursing home at the age of 75. time she killed, it was a little bit of a different motive. Alma kind of did what she did to move on, to get by. She wanted something, so she went out and got it. So she was a bit of a force to be reckoned with, I think.”
Despite her run-ins with the law and a history of working as a prostitute, Theede was allowed to adopt two children of her husband, Charles Cox, by a previous marriage.
Within the warmth of Phillips Cottage, where television camera lights glowed and hot coffee brewed, just off camera in the paneled and book-lined research room overlooking century-old monuments, Schaefer, cemetery director Kim McCollum and Schmidt posited theories on Theede; why she murdered some
This is that kind of duality of Alma. She apparently liked kids, and it appears the two she adopted liked her, or at least thought of her as a mother, and we’ve got records showing that she would take other people’s kids in. The social workers would find out where the kids were and would take them away but she apparently had some sort of a nurturing side to her.”
Elmwood staff historian, about Alma Theede