- Historic Sites
A disease that no one understood laid waste a major American city. Five thousand died in two months, and Memphis was never the same again.
October/november 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 6
One of the most visible failings of Memphian government was in sanitation. Garbage and the excrement from 6,000 open privies drained into the Bayou Gayoso, a meandering streamlet in the northern part of town. The few sidewalks were made of decayed wooden blocks that could never be thoroughly cleaned. The streets were sloughs of mud and manure, roamed by hungry hogs and goats—“huge depots of filth, cavernous Augean stables,” wrote one outraged local journalist. Front and back yards were piled with refuse, including the offal of dead animals. Memphis stank. One visitor noted, “I’ve been to Cairo, and there’s dirt for you … I’ve been to Cologne where it’s pure smell—but they all back down before Memphis.”
Not surprisingly, Memphis suffered outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, and smallpox while growing up before the Civil War. Then, in 1867, it got more cholera along with the yellow fever. And by the summer of 1873 cholera and smallpox and yellow fever had returned—5,000 cases of the yellow jack, 2,000 of them fatal. Those citizens who could afford to decamp did, and they returned in the fall to carry on as usual, though with a certain uneasiness. There was a dwindling of projects for the future, a rise in unpaid taxes, a leveling off in population growth. Some Memphians had, says one historian, a sense that they “lived in a temporary world.”
But not even the most fearful could anticipate the scope of the next attack of the vomito negro .
In about three weeks Mitchell was proved right. On July 27, confirmed incidents of yellow fever in New Orleans were reported. The council promptly reversed itself and set up facilities to examine all travelers arriving by boat and rail. Like someone alone at midnight hearing approaching footfalls on the stairway, Memphis waited while the disease came nearer. On August 9 word came of yellow fever in Grenada, Mississippi, only a hundred miles to the south. But boosterism whistled brightly. “Keep cool!” said the Memphis Daily Appeal four days later. “Avoid patent medicines and bad whiskey! Go about your business as usual; be cheerful, and laugh as much as possible.”
On August 13 a Mrs. Kate Bionda gasped her last breath in a room over the small Memphis riverfront shop where she sold snacks to hungry boatmen. Her doctor, however reluctant he may have been to do so, had to report an indisputable fact: she was dead of yellow fever. The plague had arrived. Two days later twenty-two new cases were reported. The day after that, thirty-three.
The panic was on.
“On any road leading out of Memphis,” one survivor recalled, “could be seen a procession of wagons, piled high with beds, trunks, and small furniture, carrying, also, the women and children.” The male refugees walked alongside, either despondent or excitedly shouting to each other. Boats and trains were jammed. People forced open windows and doors and fought their way aboard. “The ordinary courtesies of life were ignored,” recalled John M. Keating, editor of the Daily Appeal and one of several who would write books about that appalling summer and autumn. “There was only one thought uppermost … an inexpressible terror.”
Inside of ten days, some 25,000 people poured out of the city—anyone who had kinfolk or could afford to rent accommodations in places as far off as St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati. Passage was neither easy nor unobstructed. Nearby towns set up quarantines, backed by gun-toting enforcement committees. Many who fled were turned back or forced to camp in the woods. A few unlucky steamboat passengers spent the whole epidemic trapped on board, refused permission to land anywhere.