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From “Casablanca on the Mississippi” to “City of the Dead”

From Casablanca to the City of Death(To the left is Court Square in downtown Memphis, “the epicenter of the Memphis relief effort” during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – This city was a “Casablanca on the Mississippi” during the Civil War, occupied by federal troops and full of intrigue with a thriving black market. By 1878, the rough river town boasted 50,000 residents in an area two-and-a-half miles long and one mile wide, a dense population of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Italy, Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, white cotton traders, scalawags and carpetbaggers, and former slaves up from the plantations farther south.

It was a city of sharp contrasts—bars and brothels from its waterfront to its eastern edge, “a dangerous, dirty place” with pigs roaming the streets, but also churches, opera, French cuisine at the finer restaurants, and the ever-present Peabody Hotel.

Then came the yellow fever epidemic of the summer and early fall of 1878. More than half the population fled. Of the 20,000 who remained, 17,000 got sick and 5,000 died. It was a plague of biblical dimensions, and it exposed an even deeper dissonance in the city–the bravery and selflessness of those who stayed to fight, and the corrupt and cowardly leaders who fled after long refusing to fund the basic city services that might have lessened the suffering.

Memphis in 1878 became the city of the dead—people hiding behind shuttered windows and locked doors, the clickety-clack of wagons carrying the corpses to waiting gravediggers. Even the “rats, cats (and) dogs” were gone.

This is the story that unfolds in Jeanette Keith’s new book Fever Season: The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved the City. A historian who teaches at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pa., Keith offers an amazing tale that hits close to home, not only to Mississippians and Louisianians who remember all too well a different kind of disaster, Hurricane Katrina, but also to the nation’s East Coast, still reeling from the effects of Superstorm Sandy.

It’s a human tale of untold suffering and amazing courage that also makes you question whether we’ve really progressed that much in our understanding of public and private life, the role of government, and the limits of charity.

“Yellow Jack”, as it was known, is a horrific disease. The victim’s temperature tops 105, delirium sets in, the skin “turns bronze”, and the destruction of the body’s organs produces the telltale “black vomit” and the stink of impending death. It is caused by infected mosquitoes—mosquitoes that originally came from Africa on slave ships–but people didn’t know this in 1878. They wouldn’t know until Major Walter Reed and others made that determination in Havana, Cuba, decades later.


The 1878 epidemic wreaked havoc in neighboring Mississippi, too. Some 3,000 died. Towns were decimated, some losing half their population. Despite a skinflint Mississippi government “that favored the rich” and largely left the poor and sick to charities and relatives, a state Board of Health was created the year before that helped fight the fever, according to historians James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis.

In Memphis people looking for causes pointed to the city’s filth and squalor. Cotton traders in Memphis grew rich, but as a municipality the city “was a failure,” Keith writes. Only the well-to-do had any kind of water or sewage system. Garbage went uncollected, streets turned to mud after heavy rains, and crime ran rampant while political leaders enjoyed mint juleps with cotton traders at the Peabody.

Of course, people blamed the poor, particularly the Irish workers who populated the teeming warren of shanties along the river levees.

Race complicated things. Memphis largely escaped the ravages of the Civil War, spending much of it occupied by Union troops. White bitterness after the “Lost Cause”, however, led to one of the nation’s worst race riots in 1866. Newly enfranchised black voters aligned with the city’s Irish and Italian immigrants in the mid-1870s and put a half-dozen blacks on the city council and an Irishman in the mayor’s office. Reconstruction ended in 1877, however, and white rule soon reasserted itself—with a vengeance.

As horrible as it was, the 1878 epidemic provided an opportunity for a major Southern city to point the way to a truly “New South” where people of all stripes could work together. Among the heroes who stayed in Memphis to fight the scourge were Catholic priests and nuns, Episcopalian nuns, the brothel madam Annie Cook, doctors, nurses, journalists, and a host of former slaves who as soldiers, police officers, relief workers and nurses used their newfound freedom to help others.

They were celebrated for a while, then attitudes on race and even class hardened. Banquets held after the plague would exclude not only blacks but also working-class Irish and women. “The very fact that white Memphians (and white Memphis) would not have survived without the aid of blacks was something that whites had to deny and hide,” Keith says.

Memphis was a changed city after 1878, even losing its charter for a while. From a city of European immigrants it became a city of poor Southern black and white immigrants. Modern Memphis is a city of 650,000, famed for the music that those poor Southerners made its legacy, plagued by poverty and crime still, and one, like the South as a whole, working even today on those old issues of race and class that seem never to go away completely.

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