Buffalo Jack Sheehan was king of the neighborhood. Jim Dennigan ran a criminal gang within its borders and hundreds of poor Irish immigrants eked out a living there. The place was known as Goat Hill and it was one of the most colorful neighborhoods in Memphis history.
Located in the northern edge of the city east of the Pinch, Goat Hill was so named because milk delivery was so spotty that residents were forced to keep goats to insure a supply of fresh milk.
As the name suggests, residents were often subjected to ridicule. Newspapers routinely described them as “wretches,” “thugs” and “toughs,” who refused to seek gainful employment. Violence often mingled with these anti-Irish stereotypes on the streets of Goat Hill, making it one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Memphis. Workers doing business in the area were often pelted with rocks while murder and mayhem were common occurrences.
For example, The Commercial Appeal reported on Oct. 26, 1894, that “Jimmie Dennigan, the flower of Goat Hill; Joe Knight, one of the high hobo chiefs of the slum tribes of Memphis and Tom Honan, a member in good standing of the great Anti-Work Society, appeared in their fighting clothes at the corner of Fourth and Washington Streets about 9:30 o’clock last night, and as a result Harry Scovall, a white man also, is in critical condition, the effect of three knife wounds in his back.”
A year later Dennigan’s gang robbed Charles Studer of Arkansas who was passing through the Bluff City on his way to Kentucky. Dennigan was also an officer in the Goat Hill Tammany Club, which supported conservative Democrats for public office.
Dennigan’s political activities made it difficult for authorities to successfully charge him with the many crimes he committed. However, in June of 1895, Dennigan went too far and was sentenced to a year in prison for assault.
His political influence broken, three months later an additional five years was added to Dennigan’s stretch for highway robbery. When he died on Nov. 23, 1900, the power of his gang was broken and peace settled over Goat Hill.
While Dennigan was working to exploit and terrorize the residents of Goat Hill, Jack Sheehan was helping them overcome the dank poverty that made their lives difficult.
Known affectionately as Buffalo Jack, he was the most respected citizen of Goat Hill and was often referred to as its king. Sheehan was born in County Clare, Ireland, but emigrated to the United States while still a young man.
Sheehan worked as a merchant sailor, which led him to Memphis in 1856. After the Civil War, he settled in Goat Hill and opened a grocery store, which became the center of the neighborhood. According to The Commercial Appeal, “Men, women and children in his neighborhood loved him. He adjusted family quarrels and helped to bury the dead, and provided many a poor widow with food for her orphan children.”
He continued to serve the people of Goat Hill until his own death in 1911.
Like Dennigan and Sheehan, the Irish population of Goat Hill either died or moved into other parts of the city.
By the early 1920s, Goat Hill ceased to be a cohesive community, but its colorful past remains an important part of Memphis history.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.