The Great South - Down the Mississippi

Yellow Fever

The yellow fever came to Memphis in 1855 and again in 1867, each time having been brought by steamer from below. In 1867 it was quite severe in its ravages, but was confined to the section of the city where it first appeared. In August of 1873, it came again, and nothing stayed its course. Two boats arrived during the month of August, the “George C. Wolf” from Shreveport, and the tow-boat “Bee” from New Orleans, each with a sick man on board. These men were put off at the upper levee, where there is a coal fleet, and in front of what is known as “Happy Hollow,” not far from the remains of the government navy yard which Memphis once boasted. It is a low, marshy place, which the genius of Dickens would have delighted to picture, filled with shanties and flatboats, with old hulks drifted up during high water and then adopted by wretched longshoremen as their habitations. One of the two men died before he could be taken to the hospital the other shortly after reaching it, and the physicians hinted that they thought the disease the yellow fever. For three weeks it was kept in “Happy hollow,” then it moved northward through the navy yard; and suddenly several deaths on Promenade street, one of the principal avenues, were announced

The authorities then went at their work, but it was too late, except to cleanse and disinfect the city. The deaths grew daily more numerous; funerals blocked the way; the stampede began. Tens of thousands of people fled; other thousands, not daring to sleep in the plague—smitten town, left Memphis nightly, to return in the day. From September until November hardly ten thousand people slept in town over night. The streets were almost deserted save by the funeral trains. Heroism of the noblest kind was freely shown. Catholic and Protestant clergymen and physicians ran untold risks, and men and women freely laid down their lives in the service of others. Twenty-five hundred persons died in the period between August and November. The thriving city had become a charnel house. But one day there came a frost, and though too severely smitten to be wild in their rejoicings, the people knew that the plague itself was doomed. They assembled and adopted an effective sanitary code, appointed a fine board of health, and cleansed the town. Memphis to-day is in far less danger than Vicksburg or New Orleans or half a dozen other Southern cities, of a repetition of the dreadful scenes of last year. Half a million dollars contributed by other states was expended in the burial of the dead and for the needed medical attendance during the reign of the plague.

This terrible visitation did not prevent Memphis from holding her annual carnival, and repeating, in the streets so lately filled with funerals, the gorgeous pageants of the mysterious Memphis,—such as the Egyptians gazed on two thousand years before Christ was born ,—the pretty theaters being filled with the glitter of costumes and the echoes of delicious music. The carnival is now so firmly rooted in the affections of the citizens of Memphis that nothing can unsettle it.

The Carnival at Memphis

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Last updated 10/08/2009.