Yellow fever, or yellow jack, or even yellow plague is a virus spread by infected mosquitoes. It’s first symptoms are a fever, headache, chills, back pain, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting and those typically last for three or four days. For many, the illness is over, but for about one in fifteen of its victims, there is another, more toxic, phase of the disease that is fatal for at least twenty percent of cases.
Nineteenth century Memphis was built on swampy ground, had open sewers and no sanitary controls. In short, it was the ideal place for an outbreak of yellow fever in the summer of 1878. After a mild winter, a long spring and a very hot summer and by July, news of Yellow Fever in New Orleans had reached Memphis. 1“Yellow-Fever.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, July 27, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/1toUYhb : accessed September 1, 2014. Dr. R. F. Brown, the secretary of the city’s board of health immediately issued a letter to the Mayor, requesting that quarantine be established to prevent the spread of Yellow Fever from steamboats coming up the Mississippi from New Orleans and other points south. The Mayor called the general council to a meeting on July 27 to discuss the proposed quarantine but failed to secure a quorum. By July 29, the board of health met to discuss establishing a quarantine at the station on President’s Island. 2“Public Ledger.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, July 29, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/W5oVUU : accessed September 1, 2014. All steamers coming from New Orleans would be examined before being cleared to land at Memphis and by the following day, it was decided that all New Orleans freight would be off loaded and disinfected on the Island and any persons sick on arrival would be moved to quarantine quarters if the health officer suspected yellow fever. Incoming trains on the Memphis and Charleston and the Mississippi and Tennessee railroads would also be quarantined. With these details decided, the Mayor finally issued the proclamation confirming the quarantine. After several previous epidemics of yellow fever, Memphis was not taking any chances. By 31 July, plans were also underway to disinfect the city, including front yards, cellars, gutters, alleys and streets and a call went out for 100 to 200 men to aid in the effort over the next day. 3“Public Ledger.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, July 31, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/W5pbDv : accessed September 1, 2014. The daily papers abounded with denials of rumors that were circulating of yellow fever cases within Memphis. ‘There is no yellow fever nor is there anything like yellow fever in Memphis,’ said one report. 4“Public Ledger.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, August 2, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/W5qzWt : accessed September 1, 2014.
But despite all the best efforts, on 13 August 1878, there appeared the headline Yellow Fever: The Board of Health Official Announce One Case of this Disease in Memphis – Be Calm. 5“Public Ledger.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, August 13, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/W5syu1 : accessed September 1, 2014.Over the next week, while the newspapers focused on the yellow fever cases in other cities including New Orleans, in Memphis the fever began claiming victims. 6“Public Ledger.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, August 21, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/1lLpUG6 : accessed September 1, 2014. On Thursday, August 15, there were six deaths in Memphis and by Wednesday, August 21, there had been a total of fifty-six deaths. Despite the growing risk of looting, any Memphis residents who were able to, were leaving the city in fear. On Saturday, August 24, the Public Ledger announced that the newspaper would no longer be delivered by carriers and that copies would have to be purchased directly from their offices. 7“Public Ledger.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, August 26, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/1lLr7gu : accessed September 1, 2014. The fever was spreading with 143 cases being confirmed and 44 deaths within the next 48 hours.
The lists of the afflicted and the dead in the paper became longer and less detailed. By the following week, there were 109 new cases and 73 deaths reported within a 24 hour period and an Orphan Asylum had been established in the city for the children of the fever victims. 8“Public Ledger.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, August 29, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/1lLs0ps : accessed September 1, 2014. By mid-September, the post office ordered that no mail be placed in the route boxes and that all parties sending or expecting letters would have to go the office, since all of the mail carriers had left. On 23 September, a notice from Thomas Fisher, the president of the Emmet Bank of Memphis, appeared in the newspaper advising that the bank had closed because the staff had all been brought down with the fever. 9 “Public Ledger.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, September 23, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/1lLujJd : accessed September 5, 2014. Donations from all over the United States and even from Toronto in the Dominion of Canada poured in and were used to provide medical care, but mostly to bury the dead. 10“Contributions by States.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, September 24, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/WzJcSQ : accessed September 5, 2014.
Finally, at the beginning of October, the news from the city of Memphis began to slowly improve, although cases of the fever were increasing in the surrounding countryside, possibly because of the returning refugees who had fled the area at the beginning of the epidemic and were beginning to return: 11“The Fever at Home.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, October 3, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/1rSeP8C : accessed September 7, 2014.
The fever is steadily abating in the city as it is increasing in the suburbs. Only eighty-two new cases were reported yesterday by the Howard association, and but twenty-seven deaths by the board of health. But in addition to these, there were fifteen deaths reported from the country, where the fever rages with renewed malignancy.
Finally, toward the end of October, the frost finally came, putting an end to the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. Local businesses, closed for the duration of the epidemic, slowly began to reopen. The Memphis Police Department of forty-eight men and lost ten of its men to the fever and a further thirty-three were stricken but had survived. 12“The Police Force.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, October 3, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/1rShJtY : accessed September 7, 2014. In all, there were a reported 17,000 cases of yellow fever that year, and over 5,000 deaths, 13“Yellow Fever – the Plague of Memphis.” http://bit.ly/1toTWS8 : accessed September 1, 2014. and the city of Memphis was in financial ruin. 14“The Future of Our City.” Chronicling America: Memphis Daily Appeal, October 31, 1878. http://1.usa.gov/1rSiaEG : accessed September 7, 2014.