Vance Avenue Alma

Alma Theede had too many husbands, so she killed three of them. She served a time out behind bars for two of those killings, but the third was ruled justifiable.

Alma came to my attention through a couple of friends who were visiting the historical sites of Memphis. Besides Graceland and Beal Street, they took a tour of Elmwood Cemetery. There, they heard the story of Alma, who from 1919 to 1960 was married seven times to six different men.

Originally from Mississippi, Alma Herring came to Memphis with her mother, Nettie. A sister and a brother may have also been in the picture. By age 16, she was supporting herself and her mother as a streetwalker on Vance Avenue in an area known for red lights, booze and craps games. At the time street walkers made $1 a trick or $2 if they were lucky. In no time, the teenage Alma earned the nickname “Vance Avenue Alma.”

When she was just 17, she married Halprin Cox. He ran a dice table in one of the gambling dens. Love didn’t conquer all, though. The union between the hooker and the gambler ended in divorce after a short time.

Next, she and railroad worker Roy Calvert ran off and got hitched in Little Rock, Arkansas. The marriage was rocky to say the least and proved to be a death sentence for Calvert. “Roy drank,” Alma said. “My, that marriage was a wild one.” She was charged with his murder after shooting him in 1919. The jury took pity on the 20-year-old widow and found it to be a justifiable homicide. Alma went back to Memphis and remarried Cox, who was later killed in an auto accident. At some point–though it’s not clear when–Alma was allowed to adopt Cox’s two children.

If Alma was in mourning, it didn’t show. Thanks to her most recent husband, she had been bitten by the gambling bug. That and her mother’s needs were draining her coffers, so she went back to Vance Avenue. This time she traded the streets for more profitable work in a cathouse.

By the time she met Michael McClavery, her looks were gone and she was pretty well used up. In fact, the madam had kicked her out of the house, so she bundled up her black lace nighties and moved to a second, seedier establishment. McClavery was a prosperous businessman and a good deal older than Alma. What he saw in her is anybody’s guess, except history has it that he was somewhat hard of hearing; his eyesight was fading; and he wasn’t much to look at either.

McClavery was a kind soul. He even allowed Alma’s mother to come live with them, and he gave his bride money to gamble, which after awhile got to be problem financially. So Alma considered going back to the streets to help pay for her addiction. But she decided against that in favor of taking in a boarder. His name was Charles Miller, a good looking ex-jockey who was closer to Alma’s age. And the inevitable happened.

McClavery died with a bullet wound to the heart. Police were suspicious of Alma and Miller right away. Alma tearfully told the cops that Miller had vanished. Witnesses had overheard the illusive boarder threaten to kill McClavery if he tried to break up the duo. It was also reported that Alma bought a gun for Miller. Police began to gather evidence, taking into consideration that she had shot a previous husband in Little Rock. By keeping tabs on Alma, police soon collared Miller, then arrested the ex-streetwalker and charged her as an accessory.

The 1928 trial was colorful. Alma was passionate in her pleas of innocence before the jury, claiming she worshipped her husband. After all, he had taken her out of a “den of iniquity” she cried, and “made a lady” of her. It was true, she told the court, that he did drink, but he was a good man and husband. At one point she was so loud with her entreaties that the courtroom doors had to be closed.

In his final argument the prosecutor claimed that she had repaid her husband’s kindness and love by planning his murder and supplying the weapon. The jury agreed. Both Alma and Miller were sentenced to 15 years.

Alma could find love anywhere, and jail was no exception. In the course of her prison job, she met and fell head over heels with Bill Theede. Theede was doing 21 years for gunning down a 15-year-old kid during a grocery store robbery.

Lucky for them, they were paroled around the same time, and they tied the knot in 1933.

Alma’s mother had saved up some cash, so she gave it to her daughter to buy a run down, derelict shack at the edge of town. The property had some acreage, so Alma, her mother and Theede raised chickens and pigs.

All was well for a couple of years until love grew cold, and Theede wanted out. Alma had lost all her looks by this time, and Theede said the house was literally a pigsty, and besides that he was afraid of her.

Just as Theede was about to get his divorce, the newspapers ran pictures of him and Alma. As bad luck would have it, a woman took a look at their pictures and fingered them as a pair who had stolen her silver. Both Alma and her husband were convicted of the theft and served short sentences at the Shelby County penal farm.

After this stint behind bars, Alma went back to the pitiful cottage, her needy mother and the pigs and chickens.

The next time she ran afoul of the law was for stealing a cow. She told authorities that she needed milk for the children. By now she had adopted another child, an illegitimate baby from an Arkansas women, so she had three children in tow. The cow cost her 90 days in the workhouse. Her mother tried to care for the orphans while Alma was in jail, but do-gooders took the children away.

A sixty-two-year-old mill worker named Ed Gill accompanied Alma on her sixth trip down the aisle. Three years later, poor Ed’s body was found lying in the street with a bullet hole in his head shot from a .38 caliber gun. The sheriff’s men knew where to find the shooter.

Alma denied having anything to do with the slaying, even though she owned a .38 caliber pistol. When the ballistics matched up, she changed her tune. In the new story, she claimed they were driving home from a friend’s house. Ed had been drinking heavily for about a week, and they were arguing because he had made up his mind to leave her. The exchange got so heated that he stopped the truck and grabbed a gun from the glove compartment and loaded it. They got out of the truck and started to scuffle. The gun went off, she claimed, and Ed slumped the ground.

The evidence didn’t match up with her story. For one thing, Ed’s friends and co-workers told police they had never known Ed to drink. For another, the passenger door on the truck didn’t open. And the altercation between Alma and Ed was not believable. He was a foot taller than she was and had at least a hundred pounds on her.

Alma knew her record wasn’t good. Afraid to go to trial, she took a plea bargain for second-degree murder. She was sentenced to ten years. She was paroled in 1955.

Not much is written about Alma’s seventh husband, William Massey. All that’s known is she met and married him shortly after she was released from jail. That marriage didn’t last long, and the couple was divorced.

In her last years, she ran a boarding house in Memphis. She died in 1970 at the age of 75. It’s probably a blessing that she died before she had the chance to marry again.