The Long-Lost Grave Marker Of Elvis’ Mother Reveals The Truth About The King’s Heritage

The Long-Lost Grave Marker Of Elvis’ Mother Reveals The Truth About The King’s Heritage

On a very special night in 2018, a candlelight vigil was held at Elvis Presley’s iconic Graceland museum to honor the anniversary of his mother Gladys’ death. Fans in attendance there were the first to see something that had been returned to the Meditation Garden after decades away: Gladys’ original grave marker. Incredibly, it also publicly confirmed a little-known fact about the King’s roots.

Parental love

Naturally, Gladys and Vernon Presley were intensely proud of their son. In 1978 after Elvis had tragically passed, his father gave a candid interview to Good Housekeeping magazine. The latter revealed, “My love for my son began even before he was born on January 8, 1935. At that time there was almost nobody poorer than my wife Gladys and me.”

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A very special child

“But we were thrilled and excited when we learned we were going to be parents,” Vernon continued. He explained that during Elvis’ early years, he became convinced his son was meant for great things. Vernon stated, “… Certain things happened which convinced me that God had given my wife and me a very special child for whom He had some very special plans.”

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A strong bond

Elvis’ bond with his mother was also particularly strong. Vernon revealed, “Elvis grew up very close to his mother. He used to call her by a pet name, ‘Baby.’” When she died tragically young, Elvis had an ornate grave marker created. And the design pointed to the roots of her side of the family – revealing something many fans may not know about the King’s heritage.

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‘The roughest town in northern Mississippi’

The man who would become arguably the most iconic musician of all time was born on January 8, 1935, in East Tupelo, Mississippi. At that time, Elvis’ hometown was reportedly dubbed “the roughest town in northern Mississippi.” The family lived in a two-room house built by Vernon, along with his uncle and grandfather. These abodes were commonly known as “shotgun houses.”

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Growing up in poverty

The United States was in the midst of the Great Depression when Elvis was born. Vernon and Gladys were like many other Americans who lived in poverty. Many fans believe that Elvis lived in the shotgun house for his whole childhood, but that wasn’t actually the case. The Presley’s actually lost that home in 1938 when Elvis was only three, according to Mississippi HistoryNow.

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Vernon goes to jail

Elvis and Gladys were forced to move in with some relatives in Tupelo after Vernon went to jail for adjusting a check worth $4. He served eight months inside and, as revealed by one of Elvis’ cousins, the young boy often cried for his father on the porch. Upon his release, the family moved around a lot as renters – they simply couldn’t afford to buy another house.

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The Assembly of God Church

Despite this somewhat nomadic existence, there was one constant factor in the family’s life: religion. Elvis’ parents had met each other at the Assembly of God Church, and they continued to take their son there as he grew up. The music played at the church interested the young boy, and it was one of the youth pastors who gave Elvis his very first guitar lesson.

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‘Old Shep’

The stage soon began to call to young Elvis. At the age of ten he took part in a talent contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair – singing “Old Shep” to the hundreds of locals in attendance. Amazingly, he came fifth overall, according to Mississippi HistoryNow. The next year, he wanted his parents to buy him a bicycle, but Gladys convinced him to go for a guitar instead. The overprotective mom was apparently worried he would get injured riding a bike.

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Welcome to Memphis, Tennessee

In the end, it was an inspired purchase. Elvis took the guitar everywhere with him, and this came in very handy when the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1948. Now Elvis was in a U.S. music Mecca, and he became immersed in the scene. The singer made friends with other young people in the city who wanted to pursue music, and he was known for always bringing his guitar to school.

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Cutting that first record

After he graduated high school, Mississippi HistoryNow notes that the 18-year-old Elvis paid $3.95 to cut a record at the Memphis Recording Service – the home of Sun Records. This particular record didn’t move anyone at the company, so Elvis simply went back the next year and cut another record. This one got some traction, and his life soon changed forever.

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Not wasting any time

Marion Keisker – the assistant to Sun Records head honcho Sam Phillips – phoned Elvis on June 26, 1954. According to Mississippi HistoryNow, they had listened to the record and wanted to know if Elvis could make it down to the studio by 3:00 p.m. The future King of Rock n’ Roll later reportedly joked, “I was there by the time she hung up the phone.”

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‘That’s All Right’

After a slow start in the studio, Elvis eventually hit on something that Phillips liked the sound of. He played a sped-up version of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” and it became his first single. At 19 years old Elvis had become a sensation, with the single selling like gangbusters all over the country. Yep, a legend had been born.

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Elvis and Vernon work closely together

As he evolved into an American icon, Elvis remained close with his parents. They lived with him in Graceland and Vernon took an active part in his son’s career – he looked after the finances and even tagged along on tour. Vernon was also given work as an extra in some of his son’s movies such as Live A Little, Love A Little.

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A mama’s boy

Even though Vernon was active in the business side of Elvis’ life, it has always been reported that the King was closer to Gladys, who mostly stayed at home. In fact, from his childhood Elvis had been bullied by classmates for being a “mama’s boy.” As per the Daily Express, he once told an interviewer, “My mama never let me out of her sight. I couldn’t go down to the creek with the other kids.”

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Gladys’ health takes a turn for the worse

Unfortunately, Gladys seemed to struggle with her only son becoming so incredibly famous. She drank heavily and it resulted in problems with her liver. In 1958 – when Elvis reported for duty in Germany after being drafted by the U.S. Army – Gladys contracted hepatitis. As a result, the rocker was given emergency leave to go home to see his beloved ailing mother.

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‘I have never seen anyone as sad as Elvis was’

Elvis arrived in Memphis on August 12, 1958, and Gladys sadly passed away a mere two days later when her heart gave out. Her tragic death at only 46 naturally left Elvis distraught. In Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, the King’s friend Judy Spreckels revealed, “I have never seen anyone as sad as Elvis was.”

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‘He was crying and crying and crying’

“[Elvis] cried continuously,” Spreckels continued. “We were in the front hall at Graceland, and he stood there hugging me for a half-hour. He was crying and crying and crying. It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.” According to the Daily Express, Elvis and Vernon were so desperate to keep Gladys’ memory alive that they even refused to dispose of a piece of broken window she had touched after falling into it.

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‘Sunshine of Our Home’

Gladys was buried in Memphis’ Forest Hill Cemetery in 1958 – her headstone adorned with a Christian cross. Six years later, though, the King chose to replace this with one of his own design, which dubbed his mother “Sunshine of Our Home.” Nineteen years later Elvis tragically passed away at the age of 42, and he was buried beside his mother in the public cemetery.

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The grave marker goes into storage

Disgustingly, an attempt to steal Elvis’ body was then made by grave robbers. Vernon therefore made the decision to move both his wife and son to Graceland, where they were buried in the Meditation Garden. Gladys’ grave marker went into storage at this point, where it would remain for a very long time.

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The grave marker returns 41 years later

Finally, in 2018 Gladys’ original headstone was brought out of storage and displayed again. For the previous 41 years, it had been in a warehouse with 1.5 million other items associated with the King of Rock n’ Roll. Normally, this would have been heavily publicized. But Graceland’s vice president of archives and exhibits Angie Marchese chose not to advertise it.

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A way to honor Gladys’ memory

“We decided we didn’t want to make a lot of fanfare about it,” Marchese told the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper in 2018. “It was just done to honor Elvis’ mom and to fulfil what we think would have been his wish.” Indeed, the grave marker was brought back to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Gladys’ death.

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A remarkable fact

Why did bringing the headstone back cause such a hubbub in the media, then? Well, that’s because it finally confirmed something about Elvis’ religious roots after years of rumors. This grave marker – which was devised by Elvis personally – features both a cross and a Star of David as part of its design. Yes, the King had Jewish roots!

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Gladys’ Jewish heritage

Over the years, stories of Elvis’ Jewish heritage had circled around, but nothing could ever be confirmed. Though the public unveiling of Gladys’ grave marker – complete with a sign that read “Gladys’ Jewish heritage” – put an end to any speculation once and for all. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website, Marchese said, “There was a lot of mystery surrounding it. The star is on it, so it answered a lot of questions that were out there.”

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Nancy Burdine

Elvis’ Jewish roots come from his great-great-great grandmother on his mother’s side, Marchese explained. You see, Nancy Burdine was born in 1826 in Mississippi, and she came from a Jewish family who immigrated from Lithuania around the time of the American Revolution. This would mean the religion passed from Nancy’s daughter Martha Tackett Mansell to Martha’s daughter Octavia Mansell Smith, and finally to Octavia’s daughter Gladys in accordance with traditional Jewish law.

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A mixed heritage

While not well known, Elvis’ Jewish heritage was never exactly hidden, either. In fact, in the 1985 biography Gladys and Elvis, writer Elaine Dundy claimed one of Elvis’ cousins told her about Nancy Burdine. The author found that Elvis actually had quite a varied heritage, with French-Norman, Cherokee Indian and Scots-Irish being in the mix, too.

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‘The enigma that was Elvis’

Overall, the unusual mix in his family tree made Elvis unique. Dundy wrote, “… When you overlay all this with his circumstances, social conditioning and religious upbringing – specifically his Southern poor white, First Assembly of God upbringing, you have the enigma that was Elvis.” And if you add to this the fact that Elvis publicly courted multiple religions, it’s easy to see why fans became confused.

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The Star of David and chai necklaces

For instance, there are many photographs in which Elvis can be seen wearing a Star of David necklace. The rocker also had a diamond-studded necklace with the Hebrew word chai, which translates as “life.” The rocker reportedly purchased it a year before he died, and it takes pride of place in a Graceland cabinet right next to the car keys for his iconic pink Cadillac.

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‘I don’t want to get left out of heaven on a technicality’

In 2021 Marchese told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website that Elvis had an amusing reason for wearing the Star of David and chai necklaces at the same time as a Christian cross necklace. She laughed, “He would often make a joke, ‘I don’t want to get left out of heaven on a technicality.’” Marchese added, “He wanted to keep all his bases covered.”

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The search for answers

It isn’t known exactly when Elvis became aware of his Jewish roots, as he was raised in the Christian faith. But Marchese believes that as he got older and faced some health problems, the star became keen to investigate other religious beliefs. She said, “[Elvis] was always searching for answers as to why he was chosen to be who he was.”

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‘I never expected to be anybody important’

Faith was something that reportedly fascinated and perplexed Elvis in equal measure. In a 1957 interview with Photoplay magazine, he said, “I never expected to be anybody important. Maybe I’m not now, but whatever I am, whatever I will become will be what God has chosen for me.” But, as early as 1958, First Assembly of God Rev. James Hamill said Elvis told him he was struggling.

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‘The most miserable young man you’ve ever seen’

Hamill claimed Elvis came to him after an Easter sermon and said, “Pastor, I’m the most miserable young man you’ve ever seen. I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need to spend. I’ve got millions of fans. I’ve got friends. But I’m doing what you taught me not to do, and I’m not doing the things you taught me to do.”

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The King expands his thinking

In the 1960s Elvis expanded his thinking on religion with the help of his hairdresser Larry Geller, who was fascinated with enlightenment. And he passed that interest on to the King, according to the Real Life Stories website. Geller gave Elvis books on religions like Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism, as well as Theosophy, meditation, new-age thinking and numerology. The King apparently tore through it all!

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‘Why me?’

In 2019 Geller was interviewed by the Elvis Information Network website, and he opened up about introducing the rocker to these ideas. The author revealed, “Elvis asked, ‘Why me? Why me? Why was I plucked from all the millions and millions of lives to be Elvis?’” He claimed that the rocker said, “I’m a believer. I believe in God. I believe in the afterlife. But I want to know why?”

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‘The greatest thinkers in history’

Geller continued, “I started to bring him books. [I brought] books on every major religion in the world – books going back to time immemorial. Books about eastern cultures, books about western cultures. And Elvis began to read books by the greatest thinkers in history, great philosophers, writings from the whole spectrum of human knowledge.”

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An avid reader

“And over the years we amassed a fantastic library,” continued Geller. “Some of it is still at Graceland. A lot of it has been taken. Some of it was stolen. I had a lot of it because I built his library.” The author added, “Wherever he went, he had 200 books with him. Elvis read every day of his life. He was a voracious reader.”

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Elvis never tried to hide his Jewish heritage

Elvis explored his Jewish roots along with other religions. Interestingly, Marchese denied any suggestion that he tried to hide his Jewishness from the public. She stated, “It was not something he was shying away from. He would be photographed in these [necklaces] and he would make donations to Jewish community centers throughout his entire life.”

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He donated to many Jewish causes

There is even a plaque commemorating a large donation to the Memphis Jewish Community Center on display in Graceland. The King reportedly donated at least $1,000 to around 50 Jewish charities in the Memphis area every single year. It’s also believed he provided funding for a number of Jewish education courses.

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Elvis grew up around the Jewish faith

Fascinatingly, Elvis did grow up around Judaism, even if his mother didn’t practice the faith. Memphis citizen Harold Fruchter appeared on an episode of the Tablet magazine podcast and revealed that, as a teenager, his family had been chums with Elvis’. Harold’s father was the Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, and his mother was good friends with Gladys.

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The ‘Shabbos goy’

Harold claimed that Elvis – their downstairs neighbor – would sometimes act as the family’s “Shabbos goy” on the Sabbath. This is someone from outside the faith who would help a family by performing household tasks they weren’t allowed to do on that day. Harold admitted, however, that if his father had known of Elvis’ Jewish heritage, he would never have asked him to have that role.

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