The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History - Molly Caldwell Crosby (2006)

Part II. Memphis, 1878

Chapter 8. Reparations

In Memphis, a mild winter approached. Already, people began to speculate that the devastating 1878 epidemic would be followed by another one in 1879. The pattern is consistent with an El Niño cycle, and the loaded mosquitoes from one epidemic would lay virulent eggs that would survive to the next summer, when once again, a yellow fever epidemic would strike.

Another public meeting was called for New Year’s Eve, 1878. This time, a handful of prominent Memphians gathered to decide the fate of the dying city. For over a decade Memphis had been bled by corrupt politicians and overwhelming epidemics; it was now $5 million in debt. With a national reputation as one of the most diseased and devastated cities in the country, businesses would surely leave and new ones would not come. Worse, they argued, the flight of so many of Memphis’s wealthy whites had left the city with poor blacks and dwindling immigrant populations who could not pay taxes. In the past year the Greenlaw Opera House had been witness to the lavish Mardi Gras party, then a citywide memorial to yellow fever victims, and now, the vote for giving up the city’s charter resonated within its walls.

The smell of wet wool and fire smoke laced the dank air of the auditorium. Hoarse voices argued, “Whenever government, from any cause, becomes unable to provide for the peace, safety and general welfare of its inhabitants, it should be abolished and another instituted in its place.” Cold hands raised, votes were cast and on the last day of 1878, the Memphis charter was revoked. Memphis became a taxing district of the state; it would remain so until 1893.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1878 altered the fabric of the city forever. By the turn of the century, the original population of Memphis was almost entirely replaced by one much more provincial, Protestant fundamentalism and white supremacy flourished, and cultural diversity all but disappeared. A number of the white Memphians who fled, including the large number of German immigrants and artisans, never returned to Memphis. Immigrant populations ceased to move to Memphis, or to the South in general, in the great numbers they once had. Blacks made up 50 percent of the Memphis population, and the white population consisted mainly of the poor from rural areas of Tennessee and Mississippi. An education census taken in 1918, forty years after the epidemic, showed that less than 2 percent of the white families living in Memphis had been born there. Memphis historian Gerald M. Capers would later write, “It can be suggested with some justification that Atlanta owes its present position as the ‘New York of the South’ more to the work of the Aedes aegypti in Memphis a half century ago than to any other cause.”

In 1879, Hayes’s Board of Health hired a New York engineer named George Waring to travel to Memphis and investigate the possibility of a sewer system to clean up the diseased city. Colonel Waring had been to Memphis during the Civil War and was even defeated by Nathan Bedford Forrest in a cavalry campaign near Tupelo, Mississippi. Impressed by a city completely devastated, but still determined, Waring decided he could help: “I had formulated a theoretical system, which had never been put into execution—which probably never would have been put into execution, but for the great needs and the great poverty of Memphis.” His idea was relatively simple, involving earthenware pipes sixteen inches beneath the ground, which would carry foul sewage only and exclude all rainwater. The straightforward plan to use separate pipes for sewage and fresh water would become known as the “Waring System.” Eighteen miles of sewers, including two main sewer lines along the east and west sides of the Gayoso Bayou, were laid over a period of fifteen weeks. The system proved so successful that cities all over the country soon adopted the design. As Waring himself boasted, “It has attracted attention, and has found some imitators in other countries, and the name of Memphis is known, because of its sewers.”

The sewer system was created to clean up the foul, disease-ridden city, but it had another benefit that would not be appreciated for years to come. In eliminating cisterns and providing an efficient means for drainage, Memphis destroyed a large number of breeding places for the striped house mosquito.

Twenty years later, the success of the Memphis sewer system and Waring’s work as street commissioner of New York would attract the attention of President William McKinley. George Waring was sent to Havana, Cuba, in 1898, on a sanitary survey for two weeks. With American troops occupying the island during the Spanish-American War, McKinley wanted the pestilent city clean and disease free. If the Waring system could clean up a city like Memphis, surely it could do the same for Havana. When Waring returned to New York after his survey that October, he felt certain he was up to the task. But within days of returning home, Waring became ill and a physician was summoned.

“I must get up, doctor,” Waring complained. “The president is waiting for this report.”

“Colonel,” the doctor said quietly, “you’ve got yellow fever.” George Waring died twenty-four hours later.

The 1878 epidemic remains a mystery today, as do most other major yellow fever epidemics. What causes the fever to change from an endemic form with a few isolated cases to a full-blown urban epidemic? In 1878, the question might be answered by an extraordinary set of circumstances: The virus may have arrived directly from Africa, which could account for the high number of cases among locals in Brazil and Cuba, as well as blacks in the American South; and an El Niño cycle that year allowed for twice as many mosquitoes in play. In the decade following 1878, the underground slave trade would finally cease in Brazil and Cuba. Sanitation would radically change in cities like New Orleans and Memphis, doing away with the breeding grounds for the mosquito. Fewer immigrants would venture south. Though New Orleans would suffer another epidemic in 1905, it would never travel farther north. And so, 1878 remains the last great epidemic of the American plague on North American soil.

Amid the devastation in the South and the long road toward rebuilding it, Americans barely noticed another significant event of 1878: Cuba finally lost her fight for independence from Spain at the close of the Ten Years’ War. American politicians turned their attention to the tropical island, a major shipping port and supplier of sugar.

In 1898, just twenty years after the crushing yellow fever epidemic, America would find herself in Cuba to fight an old enemy, but it wasn’t Spain; it was yellow fever.