A Memorable Character from Another Time

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Article by Linda A. Thompson

Posted December 19, 2018

It has been said that the inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) dreamed of developing a “spirit phone,” one that could record the voices of the dead. If there were such a device, I’d take it to Greenwood Cemetery and use it to locate the grave of Nancy Hill (1846-1929), a veritable street angel in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Greenwood Cemetery is that twenty-plus-acre green space in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, marked with funerary architecture and stone and iron sculpture within a landscape of old trees and roses and a white-painted “summer house” from the 1870s. The cemetery is nearly as old as Jackson itself, founded in 1823 as a place for all its citizens to be buried. Originally located beyond Jackson’s western city limit (West Street) and known as the “city cemetery” and later the “old graveyard,” it was given its Greenwood name in 1900, at the suggestion of the ladies’ auxiliary cemetery association. The cemetery was about full by 1900, and the city fathers had purchased other burial lands in areas farther west from town.

By the end of its first century, about five thousand souls from all walks of life had been buried in Greenwood Cemetery . There are governors, mayors, judges, lawyers, doctors, dentists, nurses, soldiers, teachers, merchants, brick masons, dressmakers, laundresses, prisoners, slaves, and paupers beneath the ground – white, black, men, women – and children and babies resting under stone cradles. These burial grounds have always been integrated as to every sort of Jackson folk, unlike many other cemeteries with fences separating certain categories.

Many of Greenwood’s grave markers are gone, lost to the ravages of nature, careless mowers, and vandals. Some graves never had markers, and some may have had them at one time – but of wood or native limestone unable to withstand the decades of sun and rain.

Among those residing in Greenwood Cemetery there is no paucity of exceptional characters. One such memorable individual was buried there in 1929. Her real name was Nancy Thomas Hill, but she had a peculiar nickname – one that newspapers spelled with variations – Aunt Nancy JULESPICE (Christmas spice?) (the version that appeared in her Clarion-Ledger obituary in 1929), JUICESPICE or JUICESPICY (early newspapers articles written during her lifetime), or (in more modern accounts, none of the earlier ones mentioning a pipe) JUICEPIPE.

Newspaper reporters in her time claimed this extraordinary lady didn’t like the “Aunt Nancy Juice-----“ nickname. She wanted to be called Mrs. Hill, her “proper name.” Hill was the surname of her husband Frank.

Nancy Thomas was born in Alabama, likely into slavery, about 1846. Census records indicate Frank Hill may also have been an Alabama native, and maybe that was where they met. One newspaper account said Nancy lived most of her life in Jackson. She and Frank were here at least by the time of the devastating 1878 yellow fever epidemic. It was said Nancy Hill was not afraid to go into homes where parents had died of the fever to gather up living children and foster them until relatives could be found.

By 1900, Mrs. Hill told the census taker she was a widow, although the census reported Frank lived nearby but not in the same dwelling. On various records, she was listed as a cook or laundress and he, a laborer. A 1912 newspaper article described her as a midwife. Nancy and Frank had some children of their own, and she bragged that she raised 108 in all. She was known as the person to whom mothers could bring their “children of shame,” because this charitable woman could always find good homes for them.

On January 4, 1908, an article in the Clarion-Ledger reported that Nancy Hill had been seriously wounded in a hunting accident and odds were against her survival. The reporter described her as a “Jackson celebrity in her sphere. She is personally known to all the older residents as a Good Samaritan, the mother of the fatherless and the protector of the orphan, whether white or black – the color of the skin making no difference to her, and it is said that she has raised more children and started them out in the world than any orphanage in the land.” The article ended with, “No doubt a crown of glory awaits her on the other side of the river.” The Good Lord had to wait. A small bullet had gone in her back, through her lung, and lodged in her breast, but she was skillfully attended by Dr. Harley R. Shands (a founder of the Mississippi Baptist Hospital) and a Dr. McLain. She lived to continue her beneficent work for another 20 years.

Mrs. Hill was known as something of a clairvoyant with supernatural powers. She read palms and predicted the future. People came to her for help finding lost articles, such as diamond rings or missing horses. There was more than one newspaper story mentioning that God showed her the way to the location of a pot buried on the banks of the Pearl River, the pot containing silver (one story) or gold (another story) coins that she put to good use.

Some believed Nancy Hill was an animal whisperer who could work special talents to cure sick livestock. She rescued more than one mule from the brink of death, and in later life she drove one about town behind a curious wooden sled while she gathered junk to sell. On May 21, 1907, an article in the Clarion-Ledger noted that Mrs. Hill “has dragged off and skinned thousands of head of horses, mules and cows, retaining and selling the hide for her services, she has found more lost and stolen articles of value than all the detectives in the State put together, and somehow or other has managed to make a fair living for the scores of orphan children that are constantly around her.”

Once Mrs. Hill filed charges in police court alleging that a boy had stolen eight chickens from her. The boy and the chickens were found and brought to the jail yard. After hearing Mrs. Hill’s story, the court and a crowd of spectators adjourned to the jail yard. According to the Jackson Daily News on July 14, 1919, “On entering the yard Aunt Nancy commenced a weird incantation. Her vocalization was unlike any other chicken call ever heard on earth. The chickens, all of them behind the jail, and unable to see their owner, made a frantic dash for the front, and soon surrounded Aunt Nancy.” The judge turned the chickens over to Mrs. Hill, finding she had proved conclusively that the chickens were hers.

There was a similar story when Mrs. Hill missed a goose from her flock, a tale repeated in the Clarion-Ledger on September 23, 1979. A neighbor told her a fat man on South State Street had taken her goose. Mrs. Hill consulted her friend Judge Wiley Potter and cajoled him into accompanying her to the fat man’s house. When they reached the house Mrs. Hill flapped her hands in the air and gave a loud call in goose-speak. A fine goose came from behind the house and joined Mrs. Hill for the walk back home. Judge Potter laughed and said “that’s just another case where possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

Mrs. Hill was a patriot. In anticipation of Armistice Day in November 1918, the old Jackson No. 1 Fire Company bell, which was made in 1854, was brought to hang in the front of the Old Capitol. The bell had originally been housed in the fire engine house on the north end of the Capitol Green but in 1894 had been taken to the home of Charles H. Manship on Fortification Street (where it is still displayed today). Mr. Manship, a former Jackson mayor, was honored with the bell as a founder of the first fire company and its last living member at the time. To celebrate the end of the World War, Manship family members hired Mrs. Hill to ring the bell, and she pulled the bell rope all day long to announce that “the boys were coming home.”

“Aunt Nancy Juice Pipe” was such a landmark in downtown Jackson that there was a postcard made with her image on it. It was reproduced in the 1981 book Jackson the Way We Were: Old Postcard Views from the Collections of Forrest L. Cooper and Donald F. Garrett, with text by Carl McIntire. The picture shows her in a formidable stance with a pipe in her mouth, sun glinting off high cheekbones, gloved hands, the right holding a double-barrel shotgun, with a glimpse of the Old Capitol building in the background.

Mrs. Hill lived a few blocks south of the Capitol at 720 Court Street where it ended at Commerce Street on the floodwaters of the Pearl River in those days. Today, Entergy Mississippi has a facility there.

Around 1890, Mrs. Hill had been allowed to build a house along the A. and V. railroad spur track that ran to the Standard Oil tanks at the intersection of Court and Commerce Streets. Standard Oil had invoked eminent domain and taken her property when they built their supply facility in her neighborhood in 1889. She built her own shanty from whatever material she could find – sheet iron, galvanized roofing, lumber scraps, skins, and flattened tin cans, and she lived in that house until it was destroyed by fire in 1926, when she was about 80 years old. After the fire, friends raised the money to build a new cabin for her on the same spot, with the permission of the Illinois Central that had taken over the A. and V. railroad.

In March 1929, on her deathbed dying of pneumonia, Mrs. Hill asked that she be buried “in the white folks’ cemetery.” She apparently meant Greenwood Cemetery, although her notion that it was a burial ground only for white people was incorrect. And she is there, confirmed by death certificate as well as newspaper.

On the day of the funeral, March 21, 1929, the Clarion-Ledger related that Nancy Thomas Hill “will be interred in Greenwood cemetery this afternoon, arrayed in a white robe, in a white coffin, with white pall bearers, white preachers and white undertakers officiating.” Dr. W. A. Hewitt, pastor of the First Baptist Church, conducted the ceremony, and the assistant pastor, Alvon H. Doty, sang a tribute. Wright and Ferguson funeral home led the procession. Pall bearers were prominent businessmen: Mayor Walter A. Scott, R. E. Kennington, J. M. Hartfield, T. M. Hederman, Dr. Julius Crisler (who signed her death certificate), Isidore Dreyfus, Jake Baxter and R. H. Green. There is, unfortunately, no extant marker to memorialize the grave of the legendary Mrs. Hill.