The Delta Loses Its Hot Tamale King: Shine Thornton, 1925-2013

Tamale King Shine Thornton
Lawrence “Shine” Thornton, 2012 Delta Hot Tamale Festival King and proprietor of Maria’s Famous Hot Tamales in Greenville, MS, passed away on October 20. He was 89. Photo courtesy of the Delta Hot Tamale Festival.

Last Friday, I traveled to Greenville, Mississippi, to attend the 2nd Annual Delta Hot Tamale Festival. I was looking forward to seeing many of my tamale-making friends whom I interviewed for our Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail. Part of the reason I was there was to serve as a judge for the tamale contest. On Saturday morning, I sat in a bank lobby in downtown Greenville awaiting instructions. Anne Martin, festival co-chair, welcomed all of us and then shared the morning’s news: Shine Thornton, who was crowned Hot Tamale King at last year’s festival, was assaulted at his home the night before and was airlifted to the Jackson Medical Center. We all caught our breath, held our hearts, and said a prayer for our dear friend Shine.

Lawrence “Shine” Thornton was born in Shaw, Mississippi, in 1925. He worked for Delta Electric Company in Greenville for thirty-seven years and kept a liquor store business on the side to support his family. In 1984, Shine lost his job at Delta Electric and focused on the liquor store to earn his living. That same year, Shine entered the hot tamale business. With a jerry-rigged recipe he got from a friend, Shine figured out the rest through trial and error. When he had a product he could stand by, he named his business after his Sicilian wife Mary, calling his new venture Maria’s Famous Hot Tamales. Over the years, Shine became well known for his quality product, never cutting corners on time or ingredients. Even after his beloved Mary passed away, Shine continued to make his meticulously crafted beef tamales out of the custom kitchen behind their house, welcoming any and all who stopped in to buy a dozen or sit and listen to the new tune he’d just learned on his fiddle. 

Shine passed away on October 20. He was 87 years old.

It’s never easy to share news of a friend’s passing. It’s especially difficult when, like Shine, they die at another’s hand. But we take solace in knowing that Shine’s story–his voice–will live on through his oral history interview.

Our thoughts are with Shine’s family, his countless friends, and the community of Greenville.

A memorial service is planned for Thursday, October 24, at 11:30 a.m. at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

Through Main Street Greenville, Shine’s community has set up a reward fund to help capture the person(s) responsible for the violent crime that led to his death. Checks should be made out to the Shine Thornton Reward Fund and mailed to:

The Shine Thornton Reward Fund
c/o Planters Bank
P.O. Box 639
Greenville, MS 38702

Shine on, sweet Shine. Shine on.

UPDATE 10/26/13: Arrests have been made in Shine’s case.