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About this collection

A leading citizen of Memphis in the decades after the Civil War, Colton Greene is best remembered as the originator of the Memphis Mardi Gras.  Little is known of Greene's early life other than that he was born in South Carolina in 1832.  Greene was living in St. Louis when he enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861 and took part in an unsuccessful effort to seize the U.S. Arsenal in that city.  He served as commander of the 3rd Missouri Cavalry Brigade throughout the war, taking part in many battles in the Trans-Mississippi Military District.


After the war, Greene began a successful career in the insurance business.  He was employed by the Memphis branch of the Knickerbocker Life Insurance Company of New York and established his own firm, Greene & Lucas, in 1871.  He also founded and served as the first president of the State Savings Bank and helped organize the Tennessee Club.  Greene provided enlightened leadership during the difficult years of growing debt and devastation which followed several yellow fever epidemics that forced the city to surrender its charter in 1879.  Along with other concerned citizens including Elias Lowenstein and John Overton, Jr., he served on a Walter Committee which was formed to investigate the feasibility of constructing a municipal water works.


When the Memphis newspaper, The Appeal, called for a public discussion of ideas to attract business to the community, Greene proposed that the city celebrate Mardi Gras and established the Mystic Society of Memphi to promote the social events of the festival.  The "Mystic Memphi" organized grand parades, supervised the construction of floats and the design of costumes and sponsored an exclusive ball for its members.  With the help of others, notably David P. Hadden, Greene persuaded railroad companies to lower fares during the celebrations and hired fashionable artists and costumers to decorate the city for Mardi Gras.  The first festival was held in 1872, and the Memphis celebrations rivaled those of New Orleans and Mobile in magnificance throughout the 1870s.  From the 1880s until the turn of the century, the tradition continued, but on a diminished scale.


A world traveler and a highly educated man, Greene was an avid collector of books.  His bequest of more than 500 titles to the Cossitt Library upon his death in 1900 included a large selection of classics as well as many of the latest works in history, science and philosophy.


The Colton Greene Collection consists of primarily correspondence related to Greene's military service during the Civil War and records of the Society of Memphi.  The military correspondence includes hand-drawn maps of some of the areas in the Trans-Mississippi Military District where Greene took part in military actions and a series of letters and depositions concerning the "mule imbroglio."  In 1864, Greene was accused and later found innocent of encouraging officers under his command to disobey an order that required all soldiers to turn over their mules to the government.  The portion of the collection related to Mardi Gras includes receipts, bills, correspondence, invitations, parade programs, sketches and items related to artists hired by the Memphi to decorate for the celebrations.  The collection also includes Colton Greene's passport (containing a written description of his physical features), a photograph of Greene and a deed for property on Main Street which was sold to John H. Stephenson by Frederick H. Cossitt, founder of the Cossitt Library.


- Collection description from the Guide to the Processed Manuscript Collections in the Memphis and Shelby County Room by Gina Cordell.  


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