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

Part II. Memphis, 1878

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death.
He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one
dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their
revel.

—EDGAR ALLAN POE, “The Masque of the Red Death”

Chapter 1. Carnival

The bell sounded.

A servant wearing a white jacket, with all the trimmings of formality, stood outside the door, a gilded envelope in his gloved hand. It was the most coveted invitation of the year.

The envelope was exquisite, large and square, with golden calligraphy. Inside, it took the shape of a scroll on powder-blue parchment with a regal crown framing the top where CARNIVAL: MEMPHIS MARDI GRAS was engraved. Fanning out of an Egyptian pyramid, the secret order of the Memphi and Ulks invited you and your household to attend his pageants March 4 and 5, 1878.

Over 10,000 people would answer this invitation to Memphis including, one year, the president of the United States. As many as 40,000 revelers would stand shoulder to shoulder along the downtown streets of Memphis. Harper’swould reserve front-page coverage, sending their best illustrator. The glitter and glamour of the event was known across the country, and it was widely whispered that New Orleans had sent scouts to Memphis to study the parade.

And so began Carnival.

Memphis had been chosen as a bluff city, literally poised on the precipice of the American South and an immense, new frontier. The only thing separating the two was the treacherous Mississippi River, a huge gash in the American landscape. Murky, ochre-colored and unpredictable, the river pushed against levees, dividing the river town from the dense forests and willow thickets of Arkansas. It was the last stop for the likes of David Crockett and Sam Houston making their way to Texas, a place for flatboats to purchase firearms before heading west, and it was the point of entry back into the civilized world of the Old South. But it wasn’t just the topography that gave Memphis a startling sense of contrast; it was the people. All classes of society, all colors of skin, all manner of accents migrated to a fault line carved between the past and the future, the Old South and the new frontier.

As the latticework of American transportation and expansion spread westward in the 1850s, Memphis remained at the cross-roads; steamboats joined the city to a massive trade line between the Gulf of Mexico through the Ohio Valley, and railroads connected it to the burgeoning ports of Charleston and New Orleans. Surrounded by rural states and plantations, Memphis became a hub: the largest inland cotton market, at its peak, handling 360,000 bales of cotton per year. As the bluff city sloped toward the Mississippi River, levees and thoroughfares piled high with crates of tufted white, Memphis looked like a town literally built upon cotton. But cotton was not the only business booming. At the center of a vast web of plantations, railroad lines and port towns, Memphis profited from the slave market as well. The Bolton, Dickens & Co. held what could only be called “yard sales” for slaves, while Hill, Byrd & Sons and Nathan Bedford Forrest opened slave showrooms on Adams Street. Said to have kept his business fair and his slave pens clean, Forrest prospered as one of the South’s largest slave traders, selling up to 1,000 slaves per year. Forrest, a vehement Confederate, took up arms during the Civil War and, in spite of near illiteracy, rose in rank to become one of the greatest military tacticians in American history. His surprise attacks on northern troops in Memphis would later inspire the German blitzkrieg. Long after the Civil War, Forrest’s name would live in infamy for founding the Ku Klux Klan.

Even as northern troops marched through Memphis in the 1860s, they recognized it as a center for trade and transportation, contraband or otherwise. It was spared Sherman’s flames, and a strange coexistence emerged between the occupying army and its Confederate residents. The North looked the other way as illegal southern shipments slipped through northern quarantine. As a result, despite four years of Civil War, Memphis business and shipping never ceased, and a number of those northern troops never left. The Civil War put an end to slavery once and for all, but the slave trade would have a lasting legacy not yet realized.

By 1870, Memphis’s population of 40,000 was almost double that of Nashville and Atlanta, ranking it second only to New Orleans as the largest city in the South. As its population grew, so did its diversity. It was a city built upon clashes, of river against land and people against people.

Despite the relative good fortune in Memphis, the country lagged under national debt in the 1870s. The Panic of 1873 ushered in an economic depression the likes of which had never been seen before, and the South suffered most of all. The war had destroyed the vast farmlands and plantations that carried the financial success of the entire region. Even if Memphis was equipped and ready to ship cotton north, none was arriving from the south. As jobs grew scarce on farms and in small towns, poor families flocked to nearby cities, and the newly termed tramps moved freely along the railroads.

Soon, Memphis swelled with the underclasses. A freedman’s camp established during northern occupation propelled the black population in Memphis from 3,000 to over 15,000, nearly 40 percent of the city’s total makeup. Blacks constituted only one faction of a largely disparate and unhappy population. Irish and German immigrants struggled to free themselves from the mire of postwar poverty and racial politics. Yanks continued to live in the South to facilitate reconstruction. And the upper echelons, white aristocrats of a bygone era, were depressed by a river town less southern and far more western, full of filth, violence and rough river folk. City legislators spent money extravagantly and foolishly. Indifference from the upper classes broadened the divide, and the by-product of such disregard was filth. In all, it created an atmosphere of dissatisfaction in every sphere of Memphis life, and the resulting discontent became an anchor heaving against the city’s progress. By the 1870s, Memphis was still very much a city balanced on the edge of the Mississippi River and its future, both a coarse river town and an extension of the dying South.

General Colton Greene had an idea. With an isosceles nose and a walrus moustache, Greene had a profile like Joseph Stalin. He was a lifelong bachelor, president of the State Savings Bank, owner of an insurance company, future founder of the Tennessee Club, a man who liked to make things happen. He had traveled the world and even held a permit for admittance to private rooms of the Vatican. Greene arrived in Memphis, emerging from the war a hero with a little-known past and a hazy air of nobility. He had been on the frontlines of every battle and wounded three different times; Colton Greene liked to face a challenge head-on.

Greene enlisted the help of Memphis’s most influential business and political leaders. This was, after all, the decade in which anything could happen. Thomas Edison had established his Electric Light Company. Johns Hopkins University, the first European-style medical institute, had opened. Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. George Eastman was developing the first Kodak camera. Great men were doing great things.

Greene and others like him believed Memphis, for all its flaws, had a very bright future. Already four train lines rumbled through the city, and like the birthmark for any progressive place, the skyline ballooned with smoke from steam-powered mills. Cotton presses bellowed all hours of the day and night. Over fifteen hundred buildings were under construction, and mule cars screeched along metal tracks. The new Peabody Hotel, where whole plantations had been won or lost over a hand of cards, boasted a chef all the way from swanky Saratoga Springs in the Northeast. The grand duke of Russia had made a recent visit to the city on the bluffs. Even the former president of the Confederacy had chosen to make Memphis his home. And people strolling down Main Street literally walked among the crates of cotton, strands of the white gold catching on their clothes and hanging like a talisman. All Memphis needed was a push in the right direction to take its place among cities like St. Louis and Chicago.

There was another reason to attract some positive, national attention to Memphis: disease. Over the last decade, Memphis had earned a reputation as a medical town, in part because the north had used it as a hospital center during the war, but mostly because epidemics had recently rained upon the city. Two yellow fever epidemics, cholera and malaria had given Memphis a reputation as a sickly city and a filthy one. It was unheard of for a city with a population as large as the one in Memphis to have no waterworks—the city still relied entirely on the river and rain cisterns to collect water, and there was no way to remove sewage. While the bluffs afforded a high, beautiful vista of the river, they also sloped back into the heart of the city. Rain streamed down the backside of the bluffs into the town, and further still, into the Gayoso Bayou, which wrapped from the Wolf River in a series of stagnant pools through the entire city, north to south. With every downpour, downtown privies backed up and drained the sewage into the bayou. There was no money or organized method of removing refuse from the bustling city center, so people carted their own garbage to the Gayoso and dumped it. Horse manure and dead animals floated through the pale green scum. Corrupt politics kept city funds depleted, and anything as bland as sanitation or water management was the last thing on the minds of civic leaders. As one historian put it, “The trouble with Memphis was that it simply refused to take the time to make the sometimes painful distinction between prosperity and progress.”

To the nation at large, Memphis began to appear as a city of deplorable sanitary conditions and disease. There had to be a way to show the nation that Memphis was not just a stricken city of riverboat gambling and death carts. In 1872, General Colton Greene decided that what the depressed river town needed was an elaborate party. Greene was not the one who originally came up with the idea of Mardi Gras. David P. “Pappy” Hadden holds that distinction, but true to his nature, Greene became the one on the frontlines, and he is credited with the magnificent parades in the following decade.

Greene entreated upon the railroads to lower fares and the local merchants to discount supplies, and then he chose the date: Fat Tuesday, on the eve of Lent. Early March would enable the local cotton farmers and their families the chance to attend before planting season began. As with most other aspects of everyday Victorian life, time, seasons and even society would be directed by farming. Mardi Gras would be the grand finale to the Memphis social season, which began each winter when the harvest was over and the first frost fell, quelling the outbreak of disease.

Greene’s handful of leaders called themselves the Mystic Memphi, and their secret society served as the main body of wealth and power for the city. Their names were never revealed, and in fact, their existence never even admitted until decades later. Greene convened clandestine gatherings in a real estate office overlooking Court Square and Second Street. The night a meeting was to take place the newspaper simply published the letters UEUQ, taken from the gates of ancient Memphis, Egypt; only those who knew the meaning need answer the call. Over the next several years, the Memphi, and their younger, rowdier counterparts known as the Ulks, would organize the most lavish Mardi Gras celebrations ever seen.

It was unusually warm as the final preparations for the 1878 Mardi Gras were under way. Clusters of white sprang from the branches of the peach and pear trees, crocuses and daffodils had blossomed in January and long ago dropped their petals. And the Mississippi River gave off the scent of silted water warm with sunshine.

The curious heat wave only enlivened the festivities; planks of fresh pine were piled along Main Street as skeletal bleachers took shape among the buildings. Crates of champagne arrived, and fine wines hidden during Yankee occupation surfaced. Costumes from Paris were unpacked, and Confederate gray not seen since the end of the war was pressed. Lowenstein and Brothers advertised silks, evening brocades and satins, not to mention the accompanying opera fans, cloaks and kid gloves. This year’s Mardi Gras would even boast the new, brilliant effect of artificial light at night. Memphis prepared for what would surely be the grandest of all Mardi Gras celebrations. In 1878, $40,000—by today’s standards, well over $1 million—would be spent through private funding on the extravagant parade celebrating the King and Queen of Memphis society.

Not everyone in Memphis would take part in Carnival—after all, the city may have had 115 saloonkeepers, 18 houses of prostitution and roughly 3,000 dope addicts, but it also had close to two dozen churches. The temperance supporters opposed the drinking that accompanied the festivities. Considered a heathen celebration, Mardi Gras was blasted from the pulpits with dire predictions of wrath and doom. Colonel Charles Parsons preached no such warnings, however. One week before the parade was to begin, Charles Carroll Parsons stood in full uniform before the Chickasaw Guards, a civilian military corps, as their chaplain. In fact, the Chickasaw Guards would be among the local corps to march in the parade.

Parsons was a lean man with a soldier’s build. He had carved cheekbones, fair hair, a handlebar moustache and a tender smile. His eyes were deep-set and gave the appearance of sincerity, but there was also something intense in his expression. He was once described as having a look near fanaticism in his face, a passion for what he believed to be his calling and duty. Not a single surviving letter or description describes him as anything other than gentle and great; and in spite of being a Yankee, Charles Parsons was one of the most beloved rectors in Memphis.

During the war, Parsons had been a northern officer and a hero. At the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky, he continued operating a gun, single-handedly, after all of the officers and men in his company had fallen. When the Confederate artillery approached, Charles Parsons held his sword at parade rest and awaited fire. The Confederate colonel, impressed by his courage, ordered his men to hold their fire and allowed Parsons to walk off the battlefield. “That man,” the colonel exclaimed, “is too brave to be killed.”

After the war, Parsons taught at West Point and served with General George Custer in the western campaigns. Custer, a friend and admirer, tried to persuade Parsons to remain in the military, but Parsons felt a different calling. He soon took his orders as an Episcopal priest from Tennessee Bishop Charles T. Quintard, another veteran of the Battle of Perryville, but one who fought on the other side. Parsons came to Memphis to grieve the loss of his first wife, who died in childbirth, and start anew as rector for Grace Church, where this Union officer now preached to a congregation that included Jefferson Davis and his family.

On that late day in February 1878, in a city filled with the sound of hammers and the scent of lumber, Parsons preached not about heathen celebrations or temperance, but about the character of men: “There will come to each of you a time, I trust far away, when the scourge of affliction may fall heavily upon you . . . wealth, or power, or skill, or even fond affection in the utmost stretch of tenderness, can supply no companion to the soul in its journey through the valley of death.” He spoke with the confidence of a soldier who had survived the Civil War, the death of a wife and the loss of a son to scarlet fever; for all intents and purposes, he had been to that valley and returned. Parsons did not know at that moment what lay ahead, that the greatest American urban disaster to date awaited them, that when the fever would finally take him, he would have to read his own last rites.

The room was still as Parsons spoke of measuring a man’s spirit and strength against the darkest moments, and then he ended his sermon “. . . I was about to say, God send us such a man. I think it is better that I pray—God make us to be such.”

For weeks, the Memphis Appeal devoted columns to the upcoming parades, their themes, routes and security. The entire police force would be on duty downtown, and concealed weapons would be prohibited. Public drunkenness would not be tolerated, nor would revelers costumed in such a manner that would “shock the decency of the occasion.” But the paper also focused on some important national news. The silver bill before Congress authorizing the minting of the silver dollar had graced the front pages. There were the usual mentions of steamboat disasters, train wrecks and the wearing away of Niagara Falls. On Fat Tuesday itself, the paper even made room to report on the Geographical Society’s year in research, which included headlines about “Mr. Edison’s wonderful phonograph” and “Mr. Stanley’s exploration of the Congo.”

On Monday, March 4, 1878, Carnival began. Hundreds of people arrived by steamboat and railroad on Sunday, and on Monday, thousands more. As the steamboats rounded the bend, past the mouth of the Wolf River, the bluffs grew closer. Flat-bottom boats bobbed at the water’s edge where bands played music on deck. The smokestacks of steamboats crowded the shore like metal tree trunks sprouting smoky limbs. The Memphis skyline was impressive, highlighted by a long row of white, Greek-revival and Italianate structures: There was the exquisite water-pumping station with soaring windows and water fountains; the magnificent Customs House, still under construction, and designed by the architect of the U.S. Treasury; and along Cotton Row, the Gayoso Hotel with its massive columns, still closed for postwar renovations.As though the bluffs had been tipped in frost, the skyline appeared in cream-colored columns, archways and glass. And in the distance, the steeples of St. Mary’s, Grace Church and Calvary towered above. There had been a cloudy start to the day, but now there was sunshine and a turquoise sky as beautiful as a summer day; when the sun set across the river that night, the white skyline was lit by the copper light.

Over 10,000 tourists flooded the streets of downtown. Champagne flowed from the fountain in Court Square and a pyramid of candy, twenty-five feet wide and thirty-five feet high welcomed visitors. Many from the countryside came to the shops, where keepers had dropped prices in anticipation of the crowds. Along Main Street, Lowenstein and Brothers clothing store sprawled across three buildings. Kremer, Herzog and Co., a millinery, sold straw hats, netting, flowers and ribbons. Elsewhere downtown could be found lace mitts, gilt hair ornaments, grosgrain ribbon, lisle-thread hose and fresh French flowers. Tobacco shops carried fine cigars, and liquor stores put out their best whiskey. Lloyd’s offered sodas, pure cream and caramels.

Some pedestrians rode the electric streetcars; others visited the Memphis Exposition Building, which had opened in 1873. Its architecture reminiscent of an Indian temple, the Exposition Building flew flags from six towers and another forty flags fluttered along its roofline. Many tourists strolled past Jefferson Davis’s home on Court Street, while others walked the streets of Adams and Jefferson to admire the most elegant neighborhood in the city. Here, $100,000 was spent building one home. A neighboring house held modern conveniences like airshafts inside its eighteen-inch walls to circulate cool air. Homes in this neighborhood represented contemporary architecture at its best. What would later be known as the Fontaine House, a French Victorian, boasted tin eaves, terra-cotta lintels, and a five-story tower. Its neoclassical neighbor was adorned with Doric columns, and if people strolling the street were to look into the windows, they would see a gaslit Waterford chandelier. Finally, there was a Greek revival with its fluted columns and lotus-leaf carvings. It belonged to the Confederate general Gideon Johnson Pillow.

As the morning progressed, people made their way back downtown, where the excitement was palpable. At noon on Monday, March 4, cannon blasts announced the arrival of Rex and his queen. Observers remarked that as the king appeared in the distance, “the Mississippi trembled underneath her banks.”

Dressed in regal purple, Rex approached Mayor John R. Flippin on the grandstand and when the crowd quieted enough, his voice could be heard: “I do now in the name of the Great Momus, High and Mighty Monarch of Misrule, demand the keys to this, my royal master’s loyal city of Memphis.” The golden key to the city was handed over, the bands struck up and the parade moved forward into the city.

Nightfall began the procession of the Ulks, followed by a magnificent ball. Their theme was the Romances of Childhood, complete with floats of “Hey, Diddle, Diddle,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Old King Cole” and “Rip van Winkle,” among others. As the parade marched by Adams and Second, the First Baptist Church held a lecture on the temperance movement. When the floats passed, the ministers stood outside signing up new volunteers for their “Red Ribbon brigade.” All of this mattered little to the Ulks and their throngs who made their way to the Greenlaw Opera House on the corner of Union.

The Romanesque Greenlaw had seen better days. The four-story opera house had been built with greatness in mind: a ballroom that could accommodate three hundred couples; an opera house with eight-foot-wide doors operated by pulleys and counterweights; an auditorium with fifty-foot ceilings. Its builders had visions of the country’s finest musicians, theater and modern lectures. But by 1878, it had become a nickel-and-dime hall whose main lectures were those of the temperance movement. Instead of violin concertos, patrons heard a man play his cornet imitations and listened to a sermon on the temperance cause. That year, Mardi Gras breathed a little life and sophistication back into the Greenlaw.

The Greenlaw had been decorated like a childhood fairyland with evergreens, hundreds of imported flowers and caged canaries. A revolving pyramid, three tiers high, repeated the themes of the parade floats. The newspaper reported that “fans fluttered and diamonds flashed.” In fact, the only drawback to the evening seemed to be the number of ladies carrying stylish feather fans, which as they quivered, set off tufts of fleecy clouds all over the room. To the intoxicated revelers, it must have seemed like part of the magic.

The biggest attraction, the parade of the Memphi, was yet to come. By Tuesday morning, March 5, costumed people began lining the streets at 10:00 a.m. The costumes were beautiful as often as they were grotesque, and ladies carried horsewhips for their own protection. Again, it was a clear, sunny day, and by twilight, police on horseback marched through the city pushing back the crowds and reminding storekeepers to extinguish the lights inside. In a dark city filled with anticipation, the light show began. Rockets and fireworks exploded over the bluffs, spelling MEMPHI in the night sky. At the water’s edge, flat-bottom boats floated like vessels shuddering with candlelight. Street corners were lit by beacons of blues, reds, greens and golds from burning calcium lights.

Bleachers lined the muddy thoroughfares of Main Street where Wilkerson’s apothecary, Harpman and Brother Cigars, and McLaughlin’s grocery stood. On every rooftop men dangled their legs over parapet walls and cornices. Women and men crowded in the windows above Barnaby Furnishings and McClelland Drugs, waving streamers. And hundreds of gas lamps, like globes glowing against the March sky, illuminated the streets.

Long before the parade came into view, the trumpets could be heard. The smell of kerosene-laced smoke drifted from torches. The scent of manure was heavy in the air as 3,000 horsemen made their way through downtown, the horse hooves thumping against hard, packed mud. Fireworks ignited the nighttime sky, adding to the dizzying haze and tinderbox smell.

As the first float came into view the cheers of the crowds turned to a roar. The floats were horse-drawn wagons carrying wooden stages, several stories high, draped in vibrant bunting, tapestries and ribbons. Coils of smoke rose from dampened torches to appear as though the floats hovered on clouds. Memphis prided itself on educating its people through the Mardi Gras celebration and float designs. This year, the Mardi Gras theme was the Myths of the Aryan People, which was a relatively modern idea grafting legends and lore of Asia with Europe. “From identity and language, we know that what now constitutes many and mighty nations there all descended from one common stock,” the Memphis Appeal wrote as way of explanation. Fifty years later, Adolf Hitler would usurp the term Aryan for his own definition of pure, Nordic descendants.

That night, Blue Danube and Golden Slippers could be heard through open windows as orchestras throughout the city played. Every building or residence with a ballroom hosted a party, but the grand masked ball took place at the theater on Jefferson Avenue.

It was to attend Rex’s ball that one needed the coveted, gilded invitation, hand delivered by servants. The men attended in lavish costumes or Confederate uniforms, while the women wore gowns of silver brocade and rich velvets; ornate fans of ostrich feathers, organza and rice paper fluttered in their hands. The invitation marked not only entry to the ball but also access to the innermost circles of Memphis society. Here, owners of those Victorian mansions on Adams gathered, where the Overtons, Toofs, Trezevants, Snowdens and many other oft-mentioned names would celebrate the fortune of their city.

Of course there were problems; the town was $4 million in debt. There was not enough money to remove garbage and refuse from the streets. There were cotton crops to be planted and gambling debts to be paid. But for these two days, both ends of the economic spectrum donned masks and overlooked their discontent. Blacks and whites, immigrants and southern elite, businessmen and boatmen could only see the brilliant parade before them, the electrifying colors, the baskets of champagne, the intoxicating sense of well-being.

Throughout the city, the pageantry continued into the gray hours of morning when the stars faded in the approaching violet light. Far off in the distance, well beyond the waters of the Mississippi River, across the steel-colored Atlantic, a ship had set sail. On board, hundreds of mosquito eggs lay ready to hatch.