Bessie Smith, the greatest singer of the classical blues era was killed in a car accident near Coahoma, Mississippi in 1937. But, why is her death still shrouded in mystery and controversy today?
Smith was on her way to a performance in Darling, Mississippi just outside of Memphis, Tennessee on Sept. 26, 1937, at about two in the morning. Richard Morgan, who was Smith’s lover, was driving down a dark country road in their old Packard. They crashed into a truck that was parked on the shoulder of the road to check its tires and just pulled out.
Tire marks at the scene suggested Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of the old Packard. Smith was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window. She took the full brunt of the impact.
Smith’s right arm was nearly severed in the accident. Morgan escaped without injuries. A few minutes later, a doctor drove down the same road and stopped to tend to Smith. As he was taking care of her, another car carrying a white couple crashed into the back of the doctor’s car.
After Smith’s death, a myth emerged that she bled to death, after being refused admission to a “whites only” hospital in Clarksdale. Her ambulance drove around in search of a hospital that would treat black patients. The white doctor at the scene ignored Smith, while he tended to the bumps and scrapes of the white couple. The white woman in the second car was rushed to the hospital in the ambulance that had arrived to take Smith away. Smith became a martyr, because she was thought to be a victim of the racist medical system in the Southern U.S.
This version of events originated in an article written in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine, by Jazz writer/producer John Hammond. In addition, this story was the basis for Edward Albee’s 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith. This scenario was easy to believe. Jim Crow racial laws segregated schools, hospitals, public places and public transportation, restrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains for whites and blacks.
The myth perpetuated by the play was largely accepted as fact until convincing evidence to the contrary appeared in the original 1972 edition of Bessie, a biography of the singer. The author Chris Albertson interviewed the white surgeon, Doctor Hugh Smith, who came upon the wreck. The doctor and his friend Henry Broughton were on the way to a fishing trip.
What is known about the incident is that Morgan flagged down Dr.Smith and Broughton, and asked for help. Dr. Smith examined Smith using the headlights of his car. Her right arm was torn loose at the elbow and the bones in the elbow were shattered. Her nerves were intact and the artery in her arm was still intact. A hemorrhage to Smith’s arm did not cause her death. She did not need a tourniquet, so Dr. Smith covered the wound with a handkerchief. However, Smith had severe internal injuries to her chest and abdomen. She was semi-conscious and was having trouble breathing.
Dr. Smith and Broughton were helping Smith when a car travelling at high speed, carrying a white man and a woman crashed into Dr. Smith’s car. The man, who was driving, sustained injuries to his chest from the steering wheel. Two ambulances arrived at the scene within three or four minutes of each other.The first one was called by the truck driver, who left the scene. The second one was called by Broughton, who walked to a nearby house.
Smith was taken by the first ambulance to arrive and was promptly driven directly to a black hospital. In 1937, an ambulance driver would not even think of taking a black patient to a white hospital. She was most likely in shock, close to death and unconscious, before reaching the hospital. By the time she arrived at the hospital, it was around 11 am. Smith’s arm was amputated and she was pronounced dead at 11:30 am.
Smith was buried near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 4, 1937. Some 7,000 mourners attended her funeral. There is no record of Smith’s exact birth date, but she was about 43 years old.
In the summer of 1970, shortly before her own death from a heroin overdose, the young blues singer Janis Joplin had a headstone made for Smith’s unmarked grave. It reads, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”
Dr. Smith was an intern at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis at the time of Smith’s accident. When Albertson called the clinic in 1971, Dr. Smith was still there and had long been the head of the clinic. He was tired of reading stories about how Smith bled to death, so he agreed to be interviewed. Albertson sent a list of questions to Dr. Smith and he sent back the answers on a tape.The original audio recording is available in a blog on Alberson’s web site.