- 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
The Catholic Church, whose Irish parishioners made up the majority of the white victims, pitched in unstintingly. Some fifty nuns became nurses, about twenty-five priests struggled to give comfort and last rites, and thirty nuns and thirteen priests died in the process. Approximately half of the Protestant ministers followed their congregants out of the city, but the rest stayed on to help, including all three Episcopal priests and all four Episcopal nuns.
The supervisor of the physicians brought in by the Howards was none other than Dr. Mitchell, who had tried to take precautions in June. His staff of 111 (most of them from out of town) worked themselves to exhaustion, trying to visit up to fifty patients a day. For each week of such days they got sixty dollars, a handsome sum in 1878 to be sure. And some asked for more—at least the despondent Dr. Armstrong did, though he did not get it. The doctors also organized a research program and snatched time from sleep and work to meet and compare notes on treatment, hoping vainly that someone might empirically find a way to arrest the epidemic. One doctor performed 300 autopsies.
Of these Howard doctors, 54—almost half—came down with the fever, and 33 died, including Dr. Armstrong. Altogether, 45 doctors perished in the line of duty.
There were also about 4,000 nurses of both races, male and female, threequarters of them recruited and paid three to four dollars per day by the Howards and 500 of them volunteers from out of town. The nurses, too, suffered heavy mortality.
The police defections were especially serious since the city needed extra protection against looters. And this led to a wholly unexpected consequence. Memphis was as lily-white and racist a town as any in the South (it was, after all, the home of Nathan Bedford Forrest, father of the Ku Klux Klan, and had been the scene of a major race riot in 1866). But the chief needed to replenish his force, and there was no denying that fewer blacks seemed to catch the fever, or at least to die from it. So he chose thirteen blacks “of good character, muscle and pluck. ” When the epidemic was over, they were kept on. As Dennis C. Rousey of Arkansas State University has determined in his study of the epidemic’s impact, Memphis’s allwhite police force thus became about 25 percent integrated. There were still black police officers in 1905, when a Jim Crow administration began to purge the department.
The epidemic actually improved, if only slightly, the overall racial picture in Memphis. There was, at first, some conventional Southern nervousness because the blacks remaining in town so heavily outnumbered the weakened whites. But the social order stood fast. Many black servants, in fact, carefully tended the property of employers who had run away. The Citizens’ Relief Committee added some black members. And the state mobilized three militia companies, of which two were black. These two were sent into the city itself; the white company stayed on the outskirts.
Firemen stayed at their posts, even though at one point only seven of them were well enough for duty. The telegraph office stayed open, but nineteen operators died. The postmaster and nine postal workers succumbed, yet mail continued to flow in and out of the besieged town. A few banks opened their offices daily to handle the donations coming in from other parts of the country—$700,000 in all, much of it from the North, another proof that the war was truly over. And three of the four newspapers in town kept publishing, even though down to one sheet.
There was also an unexpected heroine. Miss Annie Cook ran a wellknown sporting house in town. When the fever struck, she sent her girls off and opened the place as a private hospital, with herself as one of the nurses. And she died. In recognition, the Howard Association, though drawn from the cream of the pious and proper citizens of Memphis, overlooked her sins and buried her in Elmwood Cemetery under a laudatory headstone.