This week in Nashville history: Educators, coppers, insurance men and more

Our time with Banner Managing Editor Marmaduke B. Morton is drawing to a close, as only two more installments of his serialized memoir from autumn 1930 remain after this week’s column.

If you have been reading the episodes posted in recent weeks, you know by now that the old gentleman goes on in a more-or-less stream-of-consciousness manner, sometimes leaving modern readers scratching their heads, but that there are moments of discovery in his ramblings.

23 Nov. 1930: “Nashville Becomes a Great Center of Education — Some Great Teachers — Old Metropolitan Police Force — John L. Sullivan’s Arrest and Trial — ‘The Headless Horror’”

There was a number of others, from time to time, who served on the detective force, among them, Alex Bolton, popularly known among his associates, when he was not present, as “Horsehead.” He was one out of a number on the force who were friends of Frank James, when he lived in Nashville under the name of Mr. Woodson. Every once in a while the force was given a tip to look out for some member of the James Gang, but it never occurred to them that its chief was their friend Mr. Woodson.

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A.M. Burton’s best-laid plans

As detailed in a Nashville Scene blog post a year ago, The Nashville Tennessean led off the business section of its Sunday paper for Thanksgiving week 1925 with a photo of Life & Casualty insurance honcho A.M. Burton, accompanied on page 2 by a fawning profile of Burton and his business and on page 3 by a photo of the new office building at 159 Fourth Ave. N. that the insurance company would occupy until it moved nextdoor, 32 years later, into the L&C tower — the South’s tallest skyscraper at the time it opened in 1957.

Why all the ink? Maybe it had something to do with the double-truck L&C ad spread that appears later in the section.

A.M. Burton died in 1966, but he planned on L&C lasting forever. He established a series of trusts under which his heirs could never sell the L&C stock he bequeathed to them. L&C paid an ample dividend, which he deemed sufficient to keep the coming generations of Burton progeny well-endowed. Problem was, American General bought L&C in 1969, so the heirs became involuntary shareholders of that Houston-based insurer. Still, the dividends remained OK.

Then AIG bought American General in 2001. AIG historically paid only a tiny dividend, far less per share than L&C or American General had doled out. By now there were scores of Burton heirs in Nashville and around the country, and they had varying opinions over whether they wanted to have major parts of their nest eggs tied up in AIG stock. SunTrust Bank, as trustee, sued to ask a court to decide whether it still had to enforce the restriction in the old man’s will.

Chancellor Carol McCoy eventually presided over a settlement that provided for the gradual diversification of the trusts so that by 2012, AIG stock would make up between 10 and 20 percent of their holdings. Court documents show that by January 2007, the trusts had a total value of $36.75 million. The court file does not reveal how much of the AIG stock was sold off by then or in the 19 months afterward, but the rules of the settlement indicate that it must have still owned a substantial amount when AIG imploded amid the financial crisis in late 2008.

Two years on, the best estimate I can come up with is that the trust corpus value may well have shrunken to between $1 million and $2 million — an amount several dozen heirs across the country would share in owning. Scheduled Chancery proceedings in 2012 should provide an update on the remaining assets.

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Bring on the Sesquicentennial spectacle

If the word sesquicentennial sounds a little exotic to you now, you’ll be sick to your back teeth of it by May 2015. It means 150th anniversary, and American society has now embarked on a sesquicentenary commemoration of all that transpired in the Late Unpleasantness from 1861 through 1865.

(See, if you call it the L.U., you can steer clear of zealots who insist, rightly, that there was nothing “Civil” about the war, along with those Foghorn Leghorn-wannabes who — with more justification than you may find it comfortable to contemplate — cling to wording such as the “War Between the States” and the “War of Northern Aggression.”)

Odds are that if you know the word, you are a confirmed numismatist. The commemorative half-dollars issued for the 1926 sesquicentennial of American independence haven’t held their value especially well but are known to many coin collectors.

Some of our readers will also remember the media phenomenon that was the nation’s Civil War centennial in the 1960s. I was born halfway through those years, but I have read many of the reflections published for the occasion — which coincided, in Nashville anyway, with major steps toward ameliorating the consequences of slavery that still impacted the descendants of slaves and free persons of color.

So far, The New York Times is doing a fine job cataloging the run-up to war in late 1860 with blog posts that draw on its archives, stretching back into the 1850s. But outside the dreaded mainstream media, a crowdsourcing effort is also underway in Tennessee.

The State Library & Archives is now on the hunt for family memorabilia related to the War. They will send teams out to capture digital images of artifacts, photos and documents in family hands. They are interested only in original materials. Here’s hoping plenty of good stuff comes out of the attic for this TSLA effort.

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About Tom

I'm an old news man, any way you look at me. Not as old in years as some local journos I much admire, but committed to bringing old news from Nashville's deeper past back to life.
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