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


Of course there are elms at Elmwood, though they were planted after the fact to complement the name. Their massive, gnarled trunks rise high above the earth, and their roots spread deep beneath the ground, branching out amid the bones. There are also oaks. And there are magnolias with hard-shell leaves curling along the limbs, raining the dead ones like petals. It is quiet in the way that only those vast, old cemeteries can be. The only sound is the wind gathering leaves and the train that runs along tracks that edge the property.

The term burial brings to mind something hidden and covered, but the word cemetery comes from Greek and means “sleeping chamber.” It’s a softer approach to death, and cemeteries historically came to be places of serene recreation. Trees, flowers and streams became the natural monuments to match the stone ones. Family members once bought tickets and rode streetcars to visit the resting places of loved ones. When cemeteries moved away from city churchyards, they sprouted in the surrounding countryside, and the idea of returning to the earth what once belonged to her became all the more fitting. Over time these towns of the dead came to reveal a city’s history, its stories etched in stone.

More than 125 years have passed, and still, wreaths of fresh flowers stand in Elmwood, browned and crisped by the September sun, on the tombstones of Charles Parsons, Louis Schuyler and the Martyrs of Memphis. It is a reminder—they have not been forgotten.

Old roads with names like Toof, Porter and Wellford wind through the grounds of Elmwood, where a soldier from the American Revolution and Civil War generals are buried. Tombstones, new and old, pockmark the grass like a garden of granite and marble. Some are grand, tall, ornate. Stone angels and monuments of all shapes and sizes stand in the geometry of sunlight and shade. Others are smaller, no more than two feet long, where small children have been buried.

In the middle of the cemetery is a grassy plane, strangely vacant. There are no granite tombs or crumbling concrete, just a sun-washed, treeless patch of green known as “No Man’s Land.” Here, 1,500 unidentified bodies are buried. At one time, their skin burned with yellow fever; now they lie in a cool, dark place where long ago their arms and legs, hands and feet, were intertwined for eternity.

Dr. William Armstrong is buried along Park Avenue in the ground beside his wife, who died on the same date as her husband, September 20, forty-six years later. Their children lay around them. A few feet away is the monument for Gideon Johnson Pillow, the general under whom Armstrong served as a surgeon during the Civil War.

Up the grassy incline from Armstrong is a flat pyramid of stone. On the four sides of the pyramid it reads Constance, Thecla, Frances and Ruth. The dates follow one another in quick succession— September 9, September 12, September 17, October 4. The point of the pyramid is the year 1878, and their bodies are buried in the shape of the cross, their tombstone standing at center.

Across the road from “No Man’s Land,” a tall cross atop a monument reaches heavenward. The cross has been mottled by time, streaked by years of rain. Two names and dates are carved into the stone, but the inscription that reads priests and died of yellow fever has grown shallow with age. Here, Charles Carroll Parsons and Louis Schuyler are buried together. One lived in Memphis for years surrounded by family and parishioners; the other lived in Memphis only ten days.

On November 1, 2005, the superintendent, Sunny Handback, retired from Elmwood. He had worked there since he was sixteen years old. He had scattered dirt across countless graves, occasionally meeting an old man or woman visiting the cemetery who would tell stories about yellow fever and the year 1878, when wagons full of bodies arrived, and citizens just walked into the cemetery, a corpse thrown over their shoulders and a shovel in their hands, to bury bodies anywhere they could find space. Even in recent years, groundskeepers have dug into a plot only to find the bones of an unmarked yellow fever victim buried there.

In 1878, another man held the same position as Handback. He worked as the superintendent of Elmwood during the yellow fever epidemic, and he lived on the grounds with his daughter, Grace, the “Graveyard Girl.” In the cemetery’s red leather logbook, the handwritten names begin in August. At first, the cause of death is listed as yellow fever, but by September of 1878, ditto marks are used, page after page. In many cases, a whole family—husband, wife and all of their children—are listed in a long row. It was Grace’s hand that wrote the names, dates and cause of death, and it was Grace who rang the bell each time a body was buried. The bell tolled continuously until Grace too was stricken by yellow fever.

A burgeoning river city once stood at one of the widest points of the Mississippi River. Andrew Jackson, James Winchester and John Overton named it Memphis after the ancient, wealthy city along the Nile. Memphis, Tennessee, was a city rich in land and promise, where trains linked it to the East and West and paddleboats tied it to the North and South. It was visited by presidents and royalty, and it held the most extravagant Mardi Gras parades ever seen. White marble buildings stood on the bluff above cotton-laden steamers, and a population of white and black, northern and southern, immigrant and native saw their future. It seemed bright and certain. That city no longer exists.

The heavy German and Irish immigrant populations are gone for the most part, and the city’s character has instead been shaped by the rural influence of freed slaves and farmers. Where mansions once stood along Beale Street, there is now a rough-edged, gospel-laced music known as blues. Barbecue, the food that originated in the fire pits outside slave quarters, is a culinary favorite. Many old buildings surrounding Court Square and downtown are today hollowed out with broken glass or restored as condominiums. The Gayoso Bayou now runs beneath the paved city streets.

And yet someone from 1878 would be surprised to find that many of the same contrasts remain: There is still racial strife, which reached its peak with the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. There is still a great divide between the wealthy and poor. There are undercurrents of political corruption. There is a strong religious influence, primarily Protestant. Paddleboats still bob at the edge of the Mississippi River, and Cotton Row stands along Front Street. The Pinch District is thriving, and the Peabody Hotel is still in operation. Court Square has been restored. The city is still a major hub with boats, trains and now, planes. And the defining characteristic of the city is still a steadfast, stubborn will to survive—one that started with the devastation of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.

Memphis was one town, one place, where yellow fever took its greatest toll, nearly destroying the city and forever changing its future, but there were hundreds more over two centuries that suffered from the American plague. Shades of those epidemics changed populations, commerce, cities, politics, wars and ultimately history. Federal laws were born in its wake. It spawned racism and prejudice, but it also inspired sacrifice and martyrdom. It created a national hero in Walter Reed and a Nobel Prize winner in Max Theiler. It touched the lives of politicians like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. It influenced literature through the likes of Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain. And it took the lives of countless doctors, nurses, priests, nuns and ordinary civilians—most of their names have been forgotten. The American plague has been forgotten.

But in Memphis it still lives, quietly, in the bones beneath the branches of elms and in a lissome, lyre-marked mosquito that waits for the virus to find it once again.