Diggs Nolen – Memphis Underworld Boss 

by J.V. Lowry

In a town where there was no Mafia, and E.H. Crump made sure of that, there was Henry Diggs Nolen. In the eyes of most Memphians, he was the mastermind of all nonviolent crimes in Memphis, Tennessee. He was in trouble more than any citizen. If you go back and read the Commercial Appeal from 1918 through 1928, his name will appear at least once a month and sometime more than once a month. He received more publicity than any other criminal in the history of Memphis.

His timeline:

September 1918 arrested by MPD on federal Charges but was released by the federal attorneys.

January 1920: Arrested for violating the State narcotic law, made bail.

January 17, 1920: Accused of selling Jamaican Ginger alcohol out of his drug store

July 19, 1920: He was dealing with a federal Tax lien on his drug store from the sale of narcotics. He sold a lot of narcotics during his time in Memphis.

July 22, 1920: when Chandler Anderson was suspected of robbing the Collierville Bank of $40,000 in March 1920, Diggs posted the $2,500.00 bond to release him.

October 1920: Driving while intoxicated, forged auto registration; paid the $50.00 fine.

October 1920:  Charged with election Fraud and carrying a pistol.

November 19, 1920:  Indited for driving while intoxicated.

August 17, 1921: Sheriff Oliver Hazard Perry shut him down for selling “dope” out of his two drug stores.

June 1922: Jailed for a large supply of narcotics found in his father’s house at 52 N. Tucker Street.

76 1/8 oz bottles of cocaine, sold for $3.00 with prescription                                  

73 1/8 oz bottles of diacetyl morphine $3.00with prescription                           

75 1/8 oz bottles morphine sold for $2.50 with prescription             

Bootlegged each sold for$100.00 apiece.                                               

$10,000.00 street value

In November 1922, he moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to open a drug store. All of the Civic Clubs banded together to have him removed for the good of the community.

December 16, 1922: Diggs was arrested again for violating the state narcotics laws.

(He was in prison during this period from 1924 to 1926).

June 24, 1924: 5 pm When Diggs was sitting in the Shelby County jail, he masterminded a scheme whereby using a can opener, a pewter fork, and a knife, he successfully tunneled his way out of the County Jail followed by forty other criminals, both black and white held there.

March 1925: He conned a Tennessee State penitentiary guard to release him while going to the doctor’s office. The guard was fired.

June 7, 1925: He was arrested for illegally selling booze out of his drug store.

 June of 1926: Due to being pardoned by Governor Browning, the local Lions Club, several luncheon groups, and  Mayor Rowlett Paine petitioned the Governor to keep him in jail as a “ Menace to the Community.”

From his first bad check in Omaha, Nebraska, his life was about staying in trouble. Every known criminal working the south knew him; when they were arrested in Memphis, he often paid their bail money. Some of the notorious bank robbers and even murderers were bailed out of jail by him. It was a frequent practice when mafia members, murderers, and bad guys from Chicago, St. Louis, and Birmingham, needed a place to hide out and lay low; they would come to Memphis. Usually, they stayed at or near his Main and Talbot location close to his drug store. In fact, he, along with his dad and brother Ernest, owned and operated two drug stores. One was at 331 Poplar Avenue, and the other was at Main and Talbot. Diggs spent time in Leavenworth, Atlanta, and several state prisons for his many crimes.

He was well known by every law enforcement officer in the state, and many liked him. I also suspect he was a contributor to the Crump Machine Political system in power at the time due to the legal breaks he seemed to get often. A locally well-known attorney and member of the Crump Machine was Digg’s lawyer on many cases.

Whenever Inspector Mike Kehoe, Sgt. Vannucci or Chiozza questioned him; he would tell each one of them something different.

He lived at 393 N Garland Street for most of his time in Memphis. During his career, he was known for escaping from several jails and even slipping away from the warden of the Atlanta Federal prison while with him at the movies.

Diggs had a charming way about his persona. Based on my research, I suspect that he could have “sold bathing suits to Eskimos.”

July 15, 1926:  During Diggs’  activities, a related newspaper article states, “Gambling Dives, Bootlegging joints, are all working unmolested in the County where the underworld thrives under Sheriff Knight.”

January 5, 1928:  Diggs was back in County jail for disorderly conduct.

January 25, 1928: Diggs was arrested with the notorious Tommy Layman, who had a lengthy criminal record, including highway robbery, for which he spent five years in jail. Add parole violation in 1923, and Layman was a local criminal well known to the police. On this day, he and Diggs got into a fight at Washington and Lauderdale while drinking and was arrested by Lt. Granville Heckle, Sgts. W. Raney and Lee Quinathy Jr.

March 10, 1928: Diggs was arrested again with two known hoodlums, John Hull of Chicago and H.B. Myers of St Louis, who had come to Memphis to get away from the Law in their cities.

June 3, 1928: While drunk, he assaulted his landlady, Mrs. Joe Manley, at 356 Washington Avenue and was arrested by Sgt. Julio Vannucci  

June 1928:  He was arrested with his brother Ernest as they got into a “difference of opinion.” Lieutenant Lee Quaintly Sr arrested them.

On September 3, 1928: Henry Diggs Nolen died from a fall in the street.

On September 4, 1928: Commercial Appeal Reporter Charles Phillips said, “H Diggs Nolen romped through the world of crime with all the gaiety of a schoolboy on holiday and none of the viciousness of a criminal.” 

On September 11, 1928, in a Letter to the Editor, “he had a life filled with the romance of breaking the law, but he possessed many good traits and was well educated.”

Source: Commercial Appeal: September 16, 1918, January 17 and 19, 1920 March 15, 1920, July 19, 1920, July 22, 1920, August 28, 1920, October 2, 1920, October 17,1920 November 19, 1920, November 2, 1920, August 18, 1921, June 17, 1922, June 24, 1924, June 23, 1926, July 18, 1926, January25, 1928, March 10, 1928, June 3, 1928, September 3, 4 1928, September 11, 1928.

edited by Trish Gully



6 thoughts on “Diggs Nolen – Memphis Underworld Boss 

  1. Joe – This is awesome. I’m glad I got the chance to read it. I can tell that you put a lot of time into this. Very interesting.

    1. Hey Ken, thanks for the question. Nolen fell crossing the street, hitting his head on the curb. He was rushed to St Joseph’s Hospital where he succumbed to his injury. Incidentally, his father was also being treated for an illness at St Joseph and was in a room just across the hall from the younger Nolen.

  2. Please keep these kinds of historical Memphis chronicles coming… Henry Loeb was the catalyst for the sanitation strikes because of his poor treatment of workers… while you was looking at the Gary Cooper movie “G Men “ it showed Machine Gun Kelly shouting G Men don’t shoot while being arrested.. I heard EH Crump had control over the political gain in the town… keep it coming

  3. My daddy was his nephew; his daddy was Ernest Nolen. Daddy said there was a special edition of the newspaper after Diggs died. He remembers newspaper boys going through the streets yelling Diggs Nolen’s dead. He said that Diggs hired WC Handy and his band to ride around on a flat bed pick up to entertain folks. Daddy also said Diggs fell and hit his head on a lamp post while drunk and it killed him.

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