secret_history (2006-14)

The Jar in the Basement

A startling discovery on Gay Street

by Jack Neely

The Commerce Building on Gay Street is pretty in the spring sunshine, a four-story building of a deep reddish-brown brick. It’s being renovated for upscale residences. You can look at the plans posted on the sidewalk.

A couple of weeks ago, the guys digging around in the basement of the Commerce Building had a start. When you talk about a basement on that part of Gay Street, you need to be specific. The bottoms of the buildings on the 100 block of Gay aren’t like the bottoms of other buildings. Some are very deep, with two or three basements, one on top of another. The lower parts of the buildings were covered when they leveled the street with the construction of the viaduct over the railyard in 1919.

What they found was in the third basement down, the lowest one, the very bottom of the building.

It wasn’t the regular crew rummaging around down there, but some subcontractors who’d come in to test the dirt to determine where to put in a footer for a new stairwell. They were just poking around in some of the darker recesses of that obscure floor; the remotest part of the building is the part toward Gay Street, maybe 50 feet under the sidewalk. Even if you go down to the first basement, the place where it’s found is tough to get down to. Today the workers just want to point to it.

One renovation worker for Buckhead Construction, who doesn’t want his name in print, told me about that day. He wasn’t the one who found the object, but he got a good look at it.

“They were just exploring,” he says. “You’re always hoping you’ll find that rare nickel or whatever, something to retire on. But they found more than they wanted.”

On a brick ledge deep underneath the street end of the building, they found a jar. It was covered with dirt, a jar of thick glass with an old-fashioned glass-and-cork stopper. Wondering if it was an antique, they wiped the dirt off the glass. What was inside startled them.

“It was a little baby,” another workman recalls, “with a string around its neck.”

Awash in some sort of solution, half suspended by a string, was what appeared to be a human fetus. The men who saw it estimate it was about four inches long.

The first who saw the jar, from the workmen to a surgeon who lives in the building next door, assumed perhaps a doctor or pharmacist had had his office in the building, and used the fetus for educational purposes. Or maybe it was a specimen available from a medical-supply store.

The Commerce Building has a full history. Its elaborate beaux-arts facade fronts four individual buildings, at addresses 120-126 South Gay. Built around 1890, when Knoxville was exploding in business and population, the building has undergone multiple modifications to suit scores of tenants over the last 125 years, sometimes combining addresses together to suit one big business. It’s possible that the capacious basements were sometimes shared.

As its name suggests, the building’s early history is strictly business. From 1890 to 1920, when this part of town nearest the busy Southern railyard was first being developed in a big way, the Commerce Building hosted mostly wholesale firms: hardware, furniture, and clothing stores—companies specializing in shoes, hats, pants, skirts. One saddlery, early on.

Beginning in the 1920s, the Commerce Building showed the stress of a changing economy, perhaps struggling a little, with a lot of turnover and some spells of vacancy in between.

From 1922 to 1926, the southernmost quarter of the main Commerce Building, at number 126, was the home of the old daily, The Knoxville News —just before it merged with an older paper called the Sentinel . Edward Meeman, a progressive and something of a legend in the history of Tennessee journalism, was editor; during the News’ tenure in this building, which coincided with the Scopes trial, Meeman outspokenly opposed the state’s anti-evolution laws, and also opposed prohibition, even as it was the law of the nation.

But that wasn’t very near where they found the strange jar. As described, it sounds as if it was underneath 122 S. Gay. At that address was a shoe company, a clothing company, a furniture company, and in the early ’40s, the Dupont Paint Company. After the war, it was Bill’s Auto Supply.

In a day’s research I didn’t find a trace of any medical professional or medical-supplies firm ever being associated with any part of the Commerce Building. It was never a residence, at least not legally, to anyone until recent years.

I did find one detail that we might prefer not to believe as the explanation for why there was a human fetus in a fancy jar in the basement.

The part of the building that fronts at 124 South Gay had long been a clothing store, sometimes even a small factory, producing pants and later skirts. But around 1933, after a few years of vacancy, it became home to a business known as the Southern Distributing Company. According to the city directories, they specialized in “carnival supplies.”

Regardless of your political affiliations, it’s not the sort of association you want to make with a human fetus.

Here’s where we’re supposed to have the experts’ assessment of the remains. Neighbor Patti Smith contacted UT’s famous anthropology department and talked to a graduate assistant, who came out and saw the jar briefly, then referred them to the Knoxville Police Department. Smith and construction supervisor Jim Pennington say they were there the evening a Knoxville Police officer arrived, with his blue lights on, and picked up the jar. They don’t remember the officer’s name. They understood the jar would be taken to the morgue at UT Hospital for further study. The forensics department at UT Hospital refers all calls to the KPD.

However, KPD spokesman Darrell DeBusk, who says he’s had other queries about the discovery, says the Gay Street fetus is only a rumor; he says they have no record of such a report.