A Little Urban Mystery at the Train Station

Charlotte Tolley inside the Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, January 2014
Charlotte Tolley inside the Southern Railway Station, Knoxville, January 2014

Did you notice the inscription on the fireplace behind Charlotte in one of the photographs from yesterday’s blog? It’s on one of many fireplaces scattered around the Southern Railway Train Station and, since I didn’t have access to the others, I couldn’t say whether the same inscription is located on the others, but I’m suspecting based on what I’ve learned that their are quotes above the others, but they vary. It reads, “Be Ye Not Unmindful to Entertain Strangers.”

I probably would not have noticed it had Linn Slocum not pointed it out. I’m bad like that. It’s easy to see why she might be so taken with it since it embodies the spirit of her new enterprise. She noted it is from the book of Hebrews in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. I looked it up and it is a close quote. Here’s an extended quote including that bit from chapter 13 of that book, “Let brotherly love continue. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” I intended to include it in the article from a couple of days ago – but I noticed something odd.

Charlotte Tolley inside the Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, J

Curiously, the quote didn’t precisely match that from the Bible. There is very little difference, but the inscription had quotes indicating it is a direct quote. It seemed odd for Victorian era Knoxvillians to misquote the holy scripture. Also, while it’s a good thought, it’s not the first I would have thought of for a train depot. So, I looked a little further.

What I found was that the quote was adapted and included in a publication by the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, originally called the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen, a labor organization founded in 1883. In their trade publication, “The Railroad Trainman, Volume 26, page 321, you find, ” ‘Be ye not unmindful to entertain strangers.’ Who of us but will recognize this as being one of the many grand thoughts expressed by the Nazarene . . .” Interestingly, they got the quote just a bit off from the King James Version of the Bible – and Hebrews was written by Paul and not presented as a quote by “the Nazarene,” which is a reference to Jesus.

Charlotte Tolley inside the Southern Railway Depot, Knoxville, J

Then I found a connection with Cormac McCarthy and, perhaps, Robert Burns. Maybe some of my more literary readers can sort out the final knot. I found a quote in a book called Cormac McCarthy’s House: Reading McCarthy Without Walls. It seems to connect the quote to Robert Burns and implies that McCarthy mentioned the inscriptions in one of his books – perhaps Suttree – I’d have to re-read it to be sure. The author lists a group of quotes including the one in question when talking of significant McCarthy sites not visited for his treatise. He says, “those encouraging Scotch oddments engraved in marble and framed over fireplaces now in private offices in what had been the Southern Railway Terminal.”

So, perhaps Burns re-framed those words slightly. Or perhaps he used an earlier version of the Bible. I thought perhaps it could be the Tyndale Bible, but I found the passage for that version, “Be not forgetfull to lodge straungers,” so that’s not quite it, either. In any case, Linn was correct” however imprecise, it is a rough quote from Hebrews via the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. It also, apparently has Cormac McCarthy connections which, in Knoxville, makes it almost holy scripture of its own. Be sure to notice it this Saturday at the Winter Market, or the next time you walk around inside the station.

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