Was Elvis Presley Jewish?
Las Vegas resident Carrie Zeidman was fascinated by the rumour that Elvis Presley's great great grandmother was Jewish. Was Elvis Jewish? She decided to investigate...
Elvis Presley's family tree has been fairly well documented, but for many years now there has been a rumour going around that Elvis was actually Jewish. The rumour stems from the theory that his great grandmother Martha Sue Tackett was the daughter of one Nancy J. Burdine, a Jewish woman. Since Judaism is matrilineal, and the line from Nancy to Elvis was all women, Elvis would therefore be Jewish.
Being Jewish myself, I heard this rumour from friends, I’ve seen it online, even the fact-checking website Snopes suggests that it’s true. Since I live for a good genealogical mystery, I decided to investigate Elvis Presley's family tree and see what I could find.
First a bit about my background. I’ve been researching my own extensive family for about 20 years now. I’ve been a volunteer researcher for several historical societies for about 10 years, and a few years ago I started my own business, Twigs Genealogy Research, doing genealogical research for clients, building trees, and validating or debunking family stories.
When my mother retired from teaching, she took up genealogy as a hobby. She eventually got my sister and me involved, and we’ve been working as a team ever since.
Why do people think Elvis was Jewish?
What evidence is there to fuel the rumour of Elvis being Jewish? It seems to come down to just a few things: his choice in jewellery, his mother Gladys Love Presley’s original headstone, and the suggestion that he was descended from Nancy J. Burdine, a Jewish woman.
More like this
There are many photos to show that Elvis wore several pendants, including Jewish symbols such as a chai and a Star of David, sometimes at the same time. The photograph above shows him wearing his diamond and sapphire chai pendant (the Hebrew symbol for 'life').
His mother Gladys Love Presley died in 1958 and was buried at nearby Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis. A monument featuring a large cross and angels was placed over her gravesite, and in December of 1964, a small headstone, designed by Elvis, was added to her grave. This headstone featured a cross in the upper right corner and a Star of David on the upper left. Both monuments can be seen in the Meditation Garden at Graceland.
On the 16th of August 1977, Elvis died and was buried next to his mother at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. Two weeks after Elvis’ burial there was an attempt to steal Elvis’ body from his grave. In response, both Elvis’ and Gladys’ bodies were moved and re-interred in the meditation garden at Graceland. At this time Gladys’ small original headstone was replaced by a larger one, and the small one was put into storage at Graceland where it stayed until 2018. On the 60th anniversary of her death, the small headstone bearing both the cross and the Star of David was again placed near Gladys’ grave in the meditation garden at Graceland.
How I researched Elvis Presley's family tree
I utilized the extensive tools and records available at Ancestry.com and started my search for Elvis’ roots by building a family tree for him. Starting with Elvis’ date of birth and using what information I could find on him; I was able to build the tree out to the point where the rumour about Nancy Burdine starts.
Whether Elvis is Jewish comes down to one critical fact… who was Elvis’ great great grandmother? Was it Nancy J. Burdine or great great grandfather Abner Tackett’s first wife, Celia Ann Butler? Which one was the actual mother of Elvis’ great grandmother Martha Sue Tackett?
To answer this question, I needed to focus on the relationship between Elvis’ great great grandparents, Abner Tackett and Celia Butler.
Abner Tackett was born in 1803 in Knox County, Kentucky. The second of 13 children born to John Lancaster Tackett and Ellender Hampton. Celia Ann Butler was born 1809 in South Carolina. Not much more is known about her roots. Abner and Celia married in 1827 in Fayette, Alabama.
Using Federal Census Records, we can follow the family. The earliest census that lists the family members by name is the 1850. At this point Abner and Celia have been married for 23 years. According to the 1850 Federal Census for Franklin Alabama, taken in December of 1850, Abner and Celia are living as husband and wife and have 8 children ranging in age from 2 to 22 years old. Martha has not yet been born.
Ten years later the 1860 Federal Census has Abner living alone with the children in Fayette, Alabama, and Celia is no longer living with them. Martha and younger brother Jerome are now part of the family having been born since the last census. The last child born to Abner and Celia is Jerome in 1856, so presumably Celia is a part of the family until at least 1856, well past the time of Martha’s birth. But could Abner have had an affair with Nancy Burdine that resulted in the birth of Martha? Let’s follow this thread further.
By the 1870 Federal Census Abner is living in Lee County, Mississippi with Sarah Willett, who, according to the Mississippi U.S. Compiled Marriage Index 1776-1935, becomes his second wife in July of 1873. Living with them are the two of the younger Tackett children, Sidney and Jerome and three other children. Of the three other children, one is a 13-year-old boy, who could either be a previous child of Sarah or possibly her much younger sibling, and the other two are younger children, presumably children of Abner and Sarah. Martha married Albert White Mansell in January of 1870 and is living next door to the rest of the family at the time of the 1870 census.
The 1880 Federal Census has Abner and Sarah still living in Lee County, Mississippi. At this point they’ve added four more children to the family, and Abner and Sarah have been married for seven years.
Between the 1870 and 1880 census records, Celia died in February of 1873 and Abner and Sarah got married in July of 1873. This leads me to believe that Abner and Celia never divorced, and that even though Abner and Sarah lived together and had children, they didn’t marry until after Celia died in 1873.
A mysterious part of the story is what happened to Celia? I could find no record of her after the 1850 census in Franklin, Alabama and her death in February of 1873, also in Franklin. Why did Abner have the children with him in 1860? It was unusual for the father, and not the mother, to get custody of the children when a couple split up. Did Celia leave the family? Was she hospitalised somewhere? I tried but couldn’t find the answer to that question.
What I also didn’t find was any record that shows a Nancy J. Burdine in the life of Abner, Celia, or any of the children. I found many Nancy J. Burdine records, but none that had any sourced connection to the Tackett family. On Ancestry.com there were just shy of two thousand Presley family trees showing Abner Tackett and Nancy J. Burdine as the parents of Martha, but almost every one of them had zero sources to prove any connection. The very few that had sources, had just one, and that source was another tree with no source. There were no records, no documents, nothing. If Nancy J. Burdine was the mother of Martha, you would think that someone would have found something to prove it by now.
I did find a couple of interesting coincidences that may have perpetuated the story. I found an Abner Tackett born in 1862 (59 years after our Abner Tackett) married to a Nancy Jane Bryant and living in Kentucky. I found another Martha Tackett married to a Samuel Mancell (Elvis’ great grandmother Martha married Albert “White” Mansell). And I found many Nancy J. Burdines married to lots of men, but never to an Abner Tackett.
But what about the chai and star of David necklaces? Or the star on Gladys’ headstone?
While the Star of David is well known as a Jewish symbol, it has had other meanings in other religions. For example, the six-pointed star is one of the oldest Christian symbols for God. It’s known as the “creator’s star” and has been said to represent the six days God took to create the earth. It is also said to represent the Trinity. And in some Christian religions, it represents the six attributes of God. The star has been used in the architecture and can be seen in the stain glass windows of many churches and cathedrals around Europe.
The star is also a universal symbol for other organisations and religions besides Jews and Christians. For example, in Buddhism it can be seen in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it has been used to decorate Masonic temples and graves, it was used by the Knights Templar, and it is a symbol of the male/female relationship in Hinduism. The six-pointed star is even used by followers of the occult as a talisman, representing the four elements of fire, water, earth, and air.
We have photos of Elvis wearing the necklaces, and the headstone is on display at Graceland. However, lacking any documentation of a Jewish ancestor in Elvis’ past, I have to conclude that maybe he just liked the imagery. He had a lot of Jewish connections in his life, so he would easily have been exposed to the symbols. There was an orthodox Jewish family that lived upstairs from the Presley family that they were very close to. Elvis actually worked as a “Shabbos goy” for the family, which is a non-Jew that assists an orthodox family with simple tasks such as turning lights on and off or lighting the stove, tasks that observant Jews are forbidden to do on the Sabbath. A job he could not have done, and would not be allowed to do, if he was himself Jewish.
Elvis surrounded himself with Jews in his personal and professional life. His best friend, George “GK” Klein, was Jewish. His “spiritual advisor” Larry Geller was Jewish and was said to have introduced Elvis to the Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, and the chai symbol. Even Larry Geller confirmed that Elvis did not believe he was Jewish in his biography entitled Leaves of Elvis' Garden:
"After a moment of silence, Elvis regained his composure and looked up from the Bible he was holding in his lap. 'What's wrong is... I'm not Jewish like you. Lawrence, the Jews are the chosen people. How can I be a channel and an inspiration, how can I attain the highest level and be of help to others if I'm not one of the chosen?'"
Elvis surrounded himself with many Jewish agents, songwriters, and hangers-on throughout his life. He was quoted as saying that he “didn’t want to miss out on heaven on a technicality,” so maybe he was just covering his bases.
So, was Elvis Jewish or not?
This family story, like a lot of family stories, doesn’t stand up to the research and is just that… a story. Given Elvis’ fame, this particular story has been repeated over and over, books and articles written, movies and videos created, all claiming Elvis had Jewish roots. But not one fact that I could find showed any proof to back up that claim.
From his many donations to Jewish causes, it's clear that Elvis had a soft spot for Jews and Judaism. However, there is no doubt that he considered himself to be a Christian. He attended church and was an involved member of the congregation. He also performed many Christian gospel songs such as Amazing Grace, Blessed Jesus Hold My Hand, An Evening Prayer, He is My Everything, He Knows Just What I Need, He Touched Me, I Asked the Lord, the beautiful spiritual How Great Thou Art, and many others.
So was Elvis Jewish? After a thorough search of the people on his family tree, I found no documentation to connect him to this mysterious Nancy J. Burdine, who doesn’t even seem to have existed, so I have to conclude that he was not Jewish. Martha Tackett’s mother, Elvis’ great-great grandmother, was almost certainly Celia Butler Tackett. No Jewish great-great grandmother, no Jewish Elvis. The evidence shows that Elvis was a devoted Christian, however he was obviously respectful of other religions. Which is one of the reasons why his music remains universally popular to this day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carrie Zeidman is a genealogical researcher living in Las Vegas, NV. She is a tenth generation California native and has over 20 years of research experience. She volunteers her research skills for several historical societies and traces family connections for many clients. She is also the author of a book entitled Ghosts - Images of War that uses photos, artwork, and prose to trace her family through the American wars starting with the Revolutionary War. She dedicated the book to the soldiers who gave their lives to keep America free.