Friday, August 26, 2016

The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Tennessee

By Heather Adkins

Nashville Tennessean Magazine, Jan. 22, 1956, Newspapers on Microfilm Collection.

In the 1870s, a series of yellow fever epidemics ravaged the Mississippi Delta from New Orleans up through West Tennessee. Nowhere was the devastation more apparent than in Memphis. In 1873, the disease claimed the lives of 2,000 Memphians. When it returned to the city in 1878, it killed more than 5,000.

“A Quarantine Wanted at Memphis,” July 26, 1878, Daily American, page 4.

After cases of yellow fever in New Orleans were reported in July of 1878, the board of health in Memphis called for a quarantine of steamboat travelers. Health officials believed that the spread of the disease, carried by river travelers up waterways, could be contained before it reached the city. Beginning around July 27, all northbound boats were stopped at President’s Island, 12 miles south of Memphis.

“Jumping the Quarantine,” circa 1870s, Manuscript Collection.

Journal entry of a Memphis resident quarantined in Arkansas, Oct. 7, 1878, Henry Sieck journal, Trinity Lutheran Church records.

Despite the steamboat quarantine, yellow fever crept into Memphis. The first death in mid-August caused widespread panic. About 25,000 residents fled the city. As a result, local authorities took several precautions to prevent further spread of the disease. They quarantined the city and positioned an armed safety patrol outside of Memphis, not only to prevent travelers from coming into the area, but also to keep in, and at times arrest, people afflicted with yellow fever. A citizens' relief committee organized refugee camps, and nurses and doctors within Memphis were assigned to infected districts, reportedly seeing as many as 100 to 150 patients daily. The city also restricted importation and exportation of goods to lower the risk of the disease spreading. By October, the need for supplies became so dire that the federal war department ordered the steamer J.M. Chambers to carry necessary provisions, medicine and clothing from St. Louis to Memphis.

“Under the Yellow Flag,” Oct. 6, 1878, Daily American, page 3 as reported in the St. Louis Republican.

Memphis clergy played a key role during the 1878 epidemic. The Sisterhood of St. Mary became well known for its aid efforts. St. Mary’s ran a church orphanage and a girls school, and during the fever outbreaks the sisters also provided care at the Canfield Asylum, a home for African-American children. The sisters rotated between supplying food and medicine to homebound patients, bringing children to the Canfield Asylum, and caring for the orphans of St. Mary’s. From September to October, several priests and nuns died of the fever. Among those who died were Sister Constance, Sister Thecla, Sister Ruth, Sister Frances, Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons and Rev. Louis S. Schuyler. These six individuals became known as “Constance and Her Companions,” or the “Martyrs of Memphis.”

“Catholic Sisters of Charity,” circa 1870s, Manuscript Collection.

Sister Hughetta of St. Mary’s writes that Mrs. Shipwith and her baby were killed by the fever. She explains that Mr. Cline was not allowed in the sick room until absolutely necessary, for fear he too would contract the disease. Nov. 20, 1878, Manuscript Collection.

Between August and November of that year, the population of Memphis plummeted. Before the outbreak, the city’s residents numbered 47,000. In addition to the 25,000 who fled upon news of outbreak in August, it is estimated that by September only 19,000 remained and 17,000 of them had the fever. The congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church is one of many examples of how the epidemic affected pocket communities. At the time of the outbreak, Trinity was thought to have had several hundred members in its congregation. That number dropped to 125 members, with church records showing two entries listing the names of about 100 members who died from the fever.

Rev. Henry Sieck, who presided over Trinity at that time, was quarantined in Arkansas, where he had traveled as a guest speaker at another church. His journal provides a detailed firsthand account describing the mass fear of contracting the disease, quarantine procedures for travelers, “yellow fever refugees” meetings, and his reactions as news of his dying congregation made its way to him.

This record includes many individual deaths due to fever from Aug. 1878 to Jan. 1879, and a large section of 38 deaths before Dec. 1878. The title of that section, written in German, loosely translates to “Died in this municipality from 14 Aug. – Dec. 1878 of yellow fever.” Statistics Book 2, 1878, Trinity Church Records.

September 26, 1878 entry of the Henry Sieck journal, Trinity Lutheran Church records.

The disease dwindled during a big freeze in October. The city sent out a message calling its residents back, though fever cases still appeared as late as February 1879. In 1879, Memphis property tax revenues collapsed and the city could not make payments on its debts. As a result, the Tennessee General Assembly revoked the city charter, classifying Memphis as a taxing district until 1893. Despite its losses, Memphis recovered with a new era in sanitation reform and improvements.

This letter from Dr. G.B. Thornton, President of the Office of the Board of Health in Shelby County, to Dr. J.D. Plunket, State Board of Health of Tennessee, details the efforts of disinfecting and sanitary work underway in Memphis to eradicate yellow fever. July 22, 1879, Tennessee Department of Public Health Records.

Perhaps the most significant impact the yellow fever made on Memphis was demographic changes. Most of the upper and middle classes vanished, having either left the city ahead of quarantine or died during the epidemic. The disappearance of these classes deprived the city of its leadership and class structure, and created a unique situation for poorer white and African-American communities. These communities played the largest role in re-establishing Memphis as a city.

For further reading, see “The Saffron Scourge”:

For more primary sources, see Education Outreach:

And view our online exhibit, "Epidemic Scourges in Tennessee" at:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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