- 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
Of course there were villains too. Among the nurses (two out of three of them men) there were some unscrupulous souls, and small wonder—there was no nursing profession as such, and the job was basically to sit by the bedside. The doctors wanted it that way. “The more ignorant, if obedient … the better, “said one. So there were frequent reports of drunkenness, theft, and even rape by nurses, and a few may have been true. Keating believed many of the stories and was driven to spasms of wrath: “Petty thieving prevailed as an epidemic … principally confined to food and clothing, and wood or coal. … A few who came to nurse died, leaving full trunks of silverware, bijouterie, brica-brac, and clothes, to prove how industriously they could ply two trades and make one cover up and supply the deficiencies of the other. A few of them also made themselves notorious for lewdness and drunkenness. … They shocked decency and outraged humanity, they were no better than the beasts of the field. Male and female they herded together in vileness. … One of these, a woman … while stupefied from wine and brandy allowed a poor woman to leave her bed, naked as when born, and wander out into the country one inclement night, calling as she went for the husband who had preceded her to the grave. … In the house of an ex-judge … four such nurses died, and in the trunks of one … was found the family plate and wearing apparel of the judge’s wife. … In the whole range of human depravity there are few parallels to these cases.”
In late October the end finally came, and devastated families began rebuilding their lives. But there were profound aftershocks.
A more terse-spoken doctor rendered an informal post-mortem thus: “It took four [nurses] to kill her.” One had stolen the patient’s clothes, one had got drunk and neglected her, one had taken sick and died, and the fourth had also got drunk and fell over the bed.
There were cowards who decamped and left sick spouses and children to die alone, and profiteers who rented space to refugees at gold-rush prices. And there was the undertaker Jack Walsh, who allegedly tumbled many bodies into unmarked mass graves. Perhaps he could not be blamed. He buried some 2,500 in one six-week period, and even with 130 employees hammering together coffins and shoveling relentlessly, he must have been fearfully pressed.
For good and bad alike, the end finally arrived after more than sixty days of ghastliness. The first frost came on the night of October 18; the cold wiped out the insect transmission mechanism, and by the twenty-ninth the number of new cases had fallen virtually to zero. The Board of Health declared the epidemic over, and on November 2 the militia companies paraded down Main Street behind the local cornet band. More formal gratitude was rendered at a Thanksgiving Day mass meeting. The great epidemic was left for historians to record and the clergy to interpret. Devastated families were reunited, and they tried to rebuild their lives around empty chairs and cradles.
First, the old city government disappeared, universally damned for having allowed Memphis to become a debt-ridden pesthole. The conservatives—helped by the decimation of the Irish—quickly secured repeal of the charter. In January of 1879 the Tennessee legislature abolished home rule for Memphis and created the taxing district of Shelby County. The state collected municipal taxes and ran the city through two boards of commissioners. One controlled the police and fire departments, and two of its three members were named by the governor. The other board of commissioners was responsible for public works. Three of its five members were chosen by the voters, but that did not matter: the board could neither borrow nor spend without the explicit permission of the state, and it had to submit regular, careful accounts to the courts and the governor, Suddenly, almost twenty years ahead of the rest of America, Memphis had—at least for a time—something close to progressive, nonpartisan, “commission government.” In the summer of 1879 the Daily Appeal exulted, a little prematurely, that the sun had set on “the corrupt ward politican, the eager contractor, the incompetent official, alderman and councilman.”
Among the first acts of the modernized government was empowering the Board of Health to undertake a major cleanup. Statistics show just how major. The wood-block sidewalks were replaced with 95 miles of hard pavement. Over 7,000 water closets, emptying into 152 miles of sewer, replaced the malodorous outdoor privies. Cisterns in which Aëdes aegypti eggs had hatched gave way to a waterworks that pumped 30,000,000 gallons of water daily from artesian wells 400 feet deep. A garbage-collection service was established, and the refuse was incinerated. The Bayou Gayoso was covered over. And strictly enforced regulations provided for meat and milk inspection and sanitation inspections of plumbing facilities.