Coronavirus? Memphis, We’ve Done This Before

Shelter in place, social distancing, self quarantine. Community spread, flatten the curve, herd immunity, essential services. Remember a bygone time when these buzz words were not in our daily lexicon? Wait, that was last month.

Along with much of the world, the Mid-South is crouched in shrinking fear, locked inside our homes, with darting and wary eyeballs surveying the landscape from just above the transoms and through peep holes. And yet as a city and community, we have been through this before, in a far more intense way and with a lethal outcome that we can only imagine in our worse Covid-19 fueled nightmares.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century the citizens of Memphis were subjected to not one, but several episodes of one of the most dangerous and deadly epidemics to ravage a community in the history of our country. The years 1855, 1867, 1873, 1878 and 1879 rained sickness, death and unadulterated miseries on our ancestors in the form of a mysterious yet vicious malady that was nicknamed “Yellow Jack,” “Black Vomit,” “Negro Vomito,” and by its most common name: Yellow Fever.

How much worse than the Coronavirus was it? Well, let’s compare what we know. Reliable statistics are varied by country, region, age and the presence of pre-existing complicating conditions but (as of this writing) we are seeing a baseline death rate of between 0.09 and 3.4 % worldwide. The death rate from yellow fever in Memphis during the most apocalyptic year of 1878? It was 70%. Seventy percent. Let that sink in.

In mid-August of 1878, if you were unlucky enough to not be able to escape Memphis but lucky enough to live through the disease, you witnessed 7 of every 10 people you knew succumb to a horrible and painful fate. You saw the population of your prosperous and economically thriving city dwindle through death and escape – the City Council urged Memphians to depopulate – from between 45 to 50,000 to just under 20,000 in one month through mid-September. 

You observed daily the marshaling of body-filled pine coffins stacked three to four abreast and multiple layers high from Front Street out Union Avenue and extending beyond where The Peabody currently stands. 

Food and other necessities were scarce in Memphis during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic. (Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center)
“A Tent Scene at Camp Joe Williams.” One of seven illustrations on the cover of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on September 21, 1878.
(Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center)

Medical treatments of the day would only make the situation worse.

In 1878, best medical practices as we know them today were nonexistent.  Doctors of the day practiced a crude form of healing consisting mainly of bleeding patients to remove “bad blood” and prescribing a tipple of brandy. (Data does not support the recovery rate using these forms of treatment but I am willing to venture is was not good.) So one, the origin of yellow fever was not known, two, whether it was contagious and any level of contagion was neither documented nor understood, and three there was no treatment for the disease or its symptoms – even aspirin was 20 years away from being invented. It was a recipe for medical horrors inside psychological terrors.

A few years later it was proved by a researcher named Dr. Walter Reed (the Walter Reed) that the disease was spread by the female Aedes Aegypti, more ignominiously known today as the Yellow Fever Mosquito. In 1878 some theorized that the Yellow Jack was insect-related as it was noted that new infections dropped to zero after the first frost. But the prevailing theory of the day was that the fever was caused by “miasma,” which loosely translated to bad atmosphere. The city believed it was related to filthy conditions – open standing garbage, polluted water, outdoor toilets, and so on.

Both theories resulted in abatement attempts. Conventional wisdom held that miasma could be addressed by the shock waves of loud noises, and insect theorists held that smoke would limit the number of bugs in the area. As a result, a thick oily black smoke emanated from barrels of burning tar pitch and choked the Bluff City air, while rows of cannons along riverside fired around the clock thunderous booms as they appeared to lay siege to the eastern shoreline of Arkansas. 

Additionally, with the questions of contagion unanswered, family members dragged the clothes and bedding of recently departed loved ones to the middle of city streets and lit the piles on fire. Mule teams that hauled buckboard wagons stacked high with filled coffins had made the winding trek from downtown Memphis to Elmwood Cemetery and back so often that it was discovered the animals would traverse the round trip with no need for a teamster to drive them. These driverless “Ghost Wagons” were seen plying their ghastly cargo through the smoky streets, past bonfires and within earshot of artillery fusillade.

Such could be the scene should Hell vomit up its very contents before us.   

During this time, the City employed over 100 carpenters as coffin makers and as half as many more grave diggers, but this small army could not keep up with the Grim Reaper’s demand. City services evaporated. Life in Memphis halted on all fronts. Only the attendance of the dying and the processing of the dead continued.

Workman burying the latest victims in Elmwood Cemetery during the worst of the yellow fever epidemics in 1878
(Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center)

Despite the wholesale wretchedness of the Yellow Fever epidemic, Memphians practiced and experienced a unique set of bravery and selflessness. Scores of doctors and nurses associated with the the charity group known as The Howards left the safety of their practices in other cities and charged headlong into the mouth of the Yellow Fever beast that was Memphis. Many contracted the disease and died here. One local and rather infamous madam expelled the “employees” from her bordello and opened it exclusively for the treatment of fever victims – she also perished while attending to the sick. 

Other names such as Mattie Stephenson and Dr. R.H. Tate ought to household names in Memphis due to their acts of kindness, bravery and ultimate martyrdom. A visit to Elmwood Cemetery will highlight all this, and much more. (You can still visit them online here at Elmwood Cemetery)

Then as we are now witnessing, there existed a light of hope and kindness that flickered noticeably through the precipitous pall of suffering. Surely, these times are daunting. But as a city we have taken a severe viral gut punch, endured the truly wicked and did what humanity always does: We Survived.  

Have faith and take heart because one simple fact of humanity always shines through – we as social beings are always at our best when times are at their worst. Good health and Godspeed. <>

John Mathews is a new contributor to StoryBoard Memphis. This piece is adapted from his collection of essays: WHITE GOLD, YELLOW FEVER AND RED HOT BLUES, Uncommon Denominators of America’s Coolest City.

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