Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

DON NOBLE: Stories about the Heroes of 1878 Memphis

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

DON NOBLE: Stories about the Heroes of 1878 Memphis

Article excerpt

Jeanette Keith is a veteran historian of the South with several books to her credit. She has written "Country People in the New South" as well as a history of Tennessee and a study of the rural South and World War I.

This newest work is a history of Memphis during only a few weeks, from August through October of 1878, during a particularly violent outbreak of yellow fever.

Here are some generalizations one can take from this book:

Be very, very glad we now know how yellow fever is transmitted. Don't go where the fever is, and if it seems to be coming to a town near you, leave at once.

There is still no specific treatment, only palliative care: rest, fighting dehydration with IV fluids and then dialysis for after the kidneys fail.

Yellow fever epidemics struck often in the cities of the lower South in the 19th century, and people often knew it was coming. A ship from Havana might bring the fever to New Orleans. Alerted, Memphis then could quarantine itself, allowing nothing to come upriver into the city. This worked moderately well until the spread of railroads, when the infection traveled faster than ever.

Now, in the 21st century, we have airplanes that can carry infections from continent to continent in a matter of hours. Insufficient leg room is a petty inconvenience in the face of possible Ebola transmission, and the symptoms of yellow fever are much the same as Ebola: high fever, delirium, vomiting up black, coagulated blood. The skin turns bronze, thus the name, then death.

One learns a lot about yellow fever in this book, stuff the Memphians didn't know. The virus is spread by mosquitoes that bred in the thousands in backyard cisterns from which Memphians got their water. Piped city water eventually fixed much of the problem. The mosquitoes were aegypti, not anopheles, the malaria-carrying mosquito. The anopheles breed in stagnant swamps; the aegypti can breed happily in a teacup.

And the aegypti bite in the daytime, not commencing at dark, like the anopheles. Many Memphians carefully stayed in at night, venturing out in the day when they wrongly thought it was safe.

In the summer of 1878, the quarantine was not instituted fast enough. One is reminded of the reluctance to closing the beaches in the movie "Jaws": bad for business. When the epidemic struck, however, half of the city of 50,000 fled, some to distant family, thousands to camps set up outside the city.

Memphis was also a singularly filthy city. The government, writes Keith, was "incompetent" and "bankrupt," and the population resisted taxation for civic improvements and services, so garbage collection was woeful; there were very few sewers, and 6,000 privies.

The streets were unpaved, mostly mud; and each horse or mule dropped 20 pounds of manure on the streets daily.

Many believed the disease bred in this filth and urged improvements. …

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