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

Part II. Memphis, 1878

Chapter 4. A City of Corpses

Dust from the lime blew in the air, bone colored and sifted fine as flour. There was no traffic to stir it up. No horses to kick dirt beneath their hooves. It rose and fell of its own energy, occasionally accompanied by the pitch of a mosquito’s wings.

Only six months after the lavish Mardi Gras celebration, Memphis was a city of corpses. Streets, white with disinfectant, were deserted. Once lined with cotton bales and parade bleachers, Main Street now held piles of coffins, stacked one on top of another, so that walking the thoroughfare felt like entering a tomb. Instead of pageant masks, the occasional pedestrian would hurry by with a sponge tied across his nose to cover the smell. Where 3,000 horsemen had paraded, only death wagons now clattered by in pairs: One wagon of empty coffins, the other of full ones. The smell of cologne and rosewater, sprinkled on the bedclothes of the dying, seeped from doorways disguising the peculiar, pungent odor of illness. The sweet scent of blossoms had been replaced by the saccharine stench of death.

Wilkerson Drugs had closed, as had most other apothecaries, their colorful show globes void of light. Prescriptions could not be filled. McLaughlin’s grocery and Barnaby’s shop were boarded shut. Vegetable carts had long since closed, and the milk wagon had ceased its rounds weeks ago. Banks opened for only one hour a day. Memphis, having been quarantined from the rest of the country, became a colony left to burn. One journalist wrote: “A stranger in Memphis might believe he was in hell.”

City officials wired President Rutherford B. Hayes for help; little was given. Hayes wrote in a personal letter on August 19, “I suspect the Memphis sorrow (yellow fever epidemic) is greatly exaggerated by the panic-stricken people. We do all we can for their relief.” On September 2, Mayor Flippin again telegraphed the president for assistance, but it was the last of such correspondence. Four days later, the mayor was down with the fever.

Even the lime could not cover the smell of death as Constance stepped off the train platform on August 20, 1878. The wind carried the odor for three miles outside of the city. Sister Constance and Sister Thecla returned from a vacation on the Hudson as soon as they heard the news of the fever; the sisters were the only ones traveling into Memphis.

As they made their way through the town, signs of plague were everywhere. Across the street from the marble fountain of Court Square stood a white, clapboard building flanked by two staircases. It was the headquarters for the Memphis Board of Health. In front of it, wagons filled with disinfectant held shovels protruding out of the flatbed like broken limbs. On a trip through the city the shovels would empty the chalky chemical as downy as falling snow; on the return trip, the shovels picked up badly decomposed bodies.

The carriage pulled away from the downtown train station, up Poplar Street past the empty courthouse on Main. It moved slowly through the streets, navigating the huge sinkholes and corroded paving. The smell of the Gayoso Bayou and all its decay was heavy in the air. A hot breeze lifted the treetops and, already, the leaves began to burn at the edges. In spite of temperatures that hovered around 100 degrees, residents had been advised to keep fires burning within their homes to cleanse the air, and windows were boarded shut against the pestilence.

As the sisters entered the infected district, yellow pieces of cardboard marked the doorways of the ill. On many porch fronts, black replaced the yellow cardboard with white chalk scrawled across it—Coffin Needed—and the dimensions for a man, woman or child.

It was a pitiful parting in a time of extravagant mourning. Under normal circumstances, the dying family member would have had the opportunity to say good-bye to all loved ones as they gathered bedside to hear the last words. The family would then have drawn the blinds, covered mirrors in black crepe and stopped all of the clocks. Strands of the deceased’s hair might be cut and woven into shapes like a cross to display in a glass case in the parlor. Even the children and babies would take part in the mourning, wearing a touch of black. The body would be packed in ice if it was summer and laid out in the parlor—a tradition that with time would dwindle, and the term parlor would be replaced by the living room. Finally, the women would stay behind in the home, while pallbearers in black gloves carried the coffin to its place of burial, where it would be draped with fresh flowers. Formal announcementsof death would be mailed. And the widow would forgo any gold or silver jewelry, wearing a dark veil during the following year and black garments for the next two and a half years.

During the epidemic, however, families prepared their own for burial, cleaning the bodies when there was time, placing the corpse in a pine box with a mixture of tar and acid before bolting the lid closed. They would listen. At some point during the day, in the suffocating silence, a team of six horses pulling a wagon would come up the block and announce, “Bring out your dead!”

The infected district started with the river. From there it spread through the lowland just underneath the bluffs and Front Street known as Happy Hollow. At Happy Hollow the Wolf River joined the muddy Mississippi, creating a rich stew of bog land and river brush. Happy Hollow had been the primary dump for downtown citizens who still relied on the bucket-and-cart system for emptying their privies. The mixture of refuse, rainwater and mud created a landfill where poor immigrants could build makeshift homes out of boat scraps and sheet metal perched on stilts above the fetid mud and froth. The accommodations were both rent free and tax free.

For two decades, railcars and steamboats had transported more than goods to Memphis, they delivered immigrants looking for work. Around New Orleans, yellow fever, the “stranger’s disease,” regularly fed off these newly arrived, nonimmune immigrants. In the 1870s, a large influx of immigrants moved into Memphis and settled around the river in Happy Hollow and the Pinch District. To a virus preying upon populations of nonimmunes, they provided ample supply.

From Happy Hollow and the river, the infected district spread across Front Street into the Pinch, then Second and Third streets.

It stretched south into Exchange, Poplar, Washington and Adams streets. Deep within these neighborhoods stood the Memphis Courthouse, Calvary Church, Grace Church, a synagogue, City Hall and an elaborately expensive prison. Of all the dwellings, the prison would report the fewest cases of yellow fever.

As Constance and Thecla made their way through the infected district, they crossed the Gayoso Bayou, and at last, reached Alabama Street where St. Mary’s Cathedral stood, a wooden, Gothic church with a large rose window over the entrance. Petals of purple, blue and gold shone light into the dark wood interior where a tall, arc-like nave gave the feel of a ship turned inside out. The church, now a bishop’s cathedral, had been built in the 1850s as a branch of Calvary Episcopal Church and St. Lazarus-Grace Church. It had been constructed on the very edge of town where Poplar intersected Alabama Street and Orleans with instructions for a steeple that could be seen from Main Street. At a time when other churches charged fees for their pews, St. Mary’s did not, hoping to be open to all people, those in the city and those in the country, the ones who could afford it and those who could not.

The conditions at St. Mary’s were not much better than those of the town. Already home to a girl’s school and church orphanage, the Citizen’s Relief Committee then appealed to the sisters of St. Mary’s to take care of the Canfield Asylum, a home for black children, as well. Hundreds of children orphaned by the epidemic took residence at Canfield, one of the last disease-free havens in the city—far from the Mississippi River unfurling the pestilence from its banks.

“What we’ve decided to do is have you sleep in the country, out of the infected atmosphere,” explained one of the sisters from St. Mary’s. “You can work in town during the day.”

Constance and Thecla refused. “We cannot listen to such a plan; it would never do; we are going to nurse day and night; we must be at our post.”

Both sisters had survived the previous yellow fever epidemic in 1873. No sooner had they arrived in Memphis to open a boarding and day school for girls than the epidemic began. Women trained to be teachers found themselves to be nurses, cooks, care-takers. One sister at St. Mary’s would later write: “That epidemic of 1873 seems now like a faint foreshadowing of the one through which we have just passed. The distressing scenes witnessed in the first were replaced by overwhelming sorrows in the second, while the pain and sadness of the one were intensified into most bitter suffering and anguish in the other.”

When a scourge of this magnitude strikes, the minds of people, against all rational thought, look for a reason. Modern-day epidemic psychologists have described a total collapse of conventional order—fear pervades, the sick go uncared for, people are persecuted and moral controversies arise. Memphians became almost medieval in their divine conclusions. Protestants and Catholics fought over who deserted and who stayed to look after their flocks. It was suggested by some in the North that an all-wise Providence created the plague to bring a divided nation together. Clergy warned that New Orleans and Memphis suffered yellow fever because of their heathen Mardi Gras celebrations. The fever, it was reported, “was fatal to those whose energies had been exhausted by debauchery.” It made it harder to explain the many who perished from selfless sacrifice. “The nuns died,” as one newspaper column read, “in numbers sufficient to give rise to the belief that they were specially marked by the destroyer.”

Constance served as sister superior at St. Mary’s. Caroline Louise Darling, as she was named at birth, was accomplished for the time period: educated, talented, well mannered, a good leader to the band of women at St. Mary’s. She was described as “a woman of exquisite grace, tenderness, and loveliness of character, very highly educated, and one who might have adorned the most brilliant social circle.” Constance looked young for her thirty-two years with a round face and blue eyes beneath the heavy black habit, an iron cross around her neck.

When Constance arrived at St. Mary’s that August day, she went immediately to meet with the dean, Reverend George C. Harris. The greatest task facing them was caring for the dozens of children orphaned daily, but their help was also needed in the streets. The virulence of this particular yellow fever epidemic was without question, but neglect of the ill proved to be almost as deadly. Nurses were scarce. Many patients, who might have recovered, died simply from starvation and dehydration.

Dean Harris outlined their immediate needs: to feed the hungry, to provide for the barest necessities of the sick, to minister to the dying, to bury the dead and to take care of the orphaned children.

Each day, the sisters alternated caring for the orphans at St. Mary’s, delivering children to the Canfield Asylum and taking soup and medicine on house calls. They met in the mornings with Dean Harris to receive their orders, then set out into the infected district with linen squares soaked in disinfectant hidden beneath their clothes. Every evening they met for Communion and Vespers, and at Harris’s request, they relaxed without talk of the fever.

Constance must have set out her first day with a sense of purpose and strength. Stepping into the heat and stench of Poplar Street, it would not take long to realize the overwhelming magnitude of this scourge. The sun, dust and black smoke of fever fires coiled around her in a dizzying haze. Where to begin? Which neighborhoods, which streets, which houses? There were too many to count. Victims fell dead in the parks, under fences or alone in their homes, only to be discovered when the August heat picked up the scent. “Some,” the paper published, “were found in a state little better than a lot of bones in a puddle of green water.” Children were found sick in the same bed as their deceased parents. One mother was found dead beside a starving infant still trying to breastfeed.

A man met Constance in the street with a telegram. It was surprising to receive such an official note. Only days before, the newspaper had published a notice from the telegraph company requesting people to pick up their own messages; all of the messengers had left the service of the agency.

The messenger handed Constance the telegram. Father and mother are lying dead in the house, brother is dying, send me some help, no money, signed Sallie U.

“Will you go to that poor girl?” he asked.

A number of nurses, doctors, ministers or nuns later wrote of the fear that accompanied them the first time they entered an infected home. They had nursed hundreds from the halls of sick wards, but it was something else all together to climb the steps of a porch and open a door with a yellow card swinging from a nail. The first thing to strike was the smell. It floated into the streets, a scent like rotting hay. The smell grew stronger and overpowering once the front door opened, where it mingled with soiled sheets, sweat and vomit. Inside, one never knew what to expect. Moans, cries, delirious screams, or worse, no sound at all. There was darkness, as windows were boarded shut, and there was the stagnant heat of imprisoned air. Then, as their eyes focused, they saw the bodies. At first it was hard to tell which ones were living and which were not. If deceased, one could never know how long they had been that way or in what condition they would be.

Constance arrived at a small but neat home. Serpentine watermelon vines grew wildly around the homes in the neighborhood, and abandoned cats and dogs howled for lost owners. A pretty young girl in mourning led her into the house. Dust floated, effulgent, in the shafts of afternoon light, and the air was heavy as steam. One corpse lay on the sofa, another one on the bed, their skin yellow and tongues black. A tall young man, nearly naked, was also in the bed, delirious, rocking back and forth. His eyes sank deep into his cheekbones ringed by bruised half moons. Outside the window, Constance heard a crowd gathering, presumably to loot the house once all were dead. Constance ran into the yard and shouted at them to leave, warned them of the plague. They scattered like insects in the sunlight.

The healthy were not permitted to touch the dead for fear of spreading the disease further, so Constance sent for an undertaker. But, it could take as long as two days to have the bodies removed. Mr. Walsh, the county undertaker, refused to pay extra wages to the colored men loading and unloading the bodies. Finally, he was arrested. From then on, the men were promised five dollars for an adult corpse, three dollars for a child. In the meantime, the Citizen’s Relief Committee arranged burial patrols to locate bodies by report, smell or even the low flight of buzzards. At the hospitals, patients died so quickly that thirty new corpses might be piled in the dead house before the undertaker returned from the cemetery.

The grounds of Elmwood Cemetery were bloated with shallow graves, some only sixteen inches beneath the surface. Deep, muddy scars cut into the grounds where coffins had been laid side by side in long rows in the earth. And on more than one occasion, a knock was heard before the lid was screwed tight or the coffin lowered into the ground, and a patient, thought to be dead, would call out from inside.

Elmwood was two and a half miles outside of the city between a railway line and North Walker Avenue. A streetcar ran from the city to the cemetery every ten minutes where visitors with admission tickets could visit family plots. Weeping willows, seashell roads and flowers made the cemetery a peaceful place of recreation. Families purchased plots at Elmwood—an adult, white, first-class plot cost about fifteen dollars, while an adult, black, second-class plot cost around twelve dollars. Headstones could cost anywhere from two and a half to seventy dollars. Cemeteries had long ago moved away from church graveyards to larger land holdings outside of cities to prevent the spread of disease. Still, Elmwood strictly enforced its rule about internments—a body could only be moved during the months of December through March, considered the non-epidemic months, unless the body had been dead five years.

A young girl named Grace lived with her father, the superintendent, in a cottage at Elmwood. She tolled the bell each time a body was buried and kept the names in a large, red leather logbook. During the month of September, there was page after page of yellow fever victims. It was said that the bell at Elmwood tolled constantly that month.

Constance left the small house sick from the stench. The air, suffused with moisture, closed the odor of death around the town and its people. She went in search of more nurses and beef tea for the ill. As she did so, she noticed a spectacular sun, a blood orange setting over the Mississippi. How strange, she thought, that one could still find anything beautiful at all.

By dusk, plumes of black smoke climbed the night air as contaminated mattresses, blankets, furniture and clothing burned in the fever fires. Fire engines hosed the streets in attempts to wash them. A mixture—three pounds copperas, one pint of carbolic acid, one bucket of water—ran through the alleyways and cesspools for cleansing. When rain began to fall, blasts of gunpowder quaked throughout the city to clear the air of disease. The chief of police had ordered a curfew for the citizens and the midnight church bells silenced. In the stillness, tree limbs cast ominous shadows like awnings over the streets, and in the deepest hours of night, the city seemed to drone with the sound of dirges.

At daybreak, smoldering piles of charred bedding were silhouettes against the lawns and tidy houses of the dead. People climbed into their beds at night wondering if their own belongings would be burning on the lawn the next day. At one home, the sisters found two bodies still unburied, rotting. This time, Constance found a policeman to secure the undertaker. At another house, a mother lay dying, leaving four children and a baby starving. Constance drove through town looking for milk to feed the infant. Eventually, the horse lost all of its shoes. There was not one blacksmith left in the city.

Constance wrote to her mother superior. The post office was still in operation, though letters postmarked from Memphis arrived with five or six holes punched through them. A nail-studded paddle pierced the paper to “fumigate” it with a solution of sulfur. Constance’s letter implored the mother superior for more help and described the day-to-day siege yellow fever took on the city: “One grows perfectly hardened to these things—carts, with eight or nine corpses in rough boxes, are ordinary sights. I saw a nurse stop one today and ask for a certain man’s residence—the negro driver just pointed over his shoulder with his whip at the heap of coffins behind him and answered, ‘I’ve got him here in his coffin.’ ”

It was one of the few letters she wrote; Constance worked constantly. On some days she kept a diary, but on others, she worked straight through several nights in a row. One of her sisters pleaded with her to rest and eat something.

“Sister, I am hungry all the time, no matter how much I eat: I am so very well. Do not worry for me.” She sat down to a small plate of food, brushing at the flies and sweat bees hovering in the humidity. The smell of the river was heavy in the air, a mingling of putrid sweetness and lowland fertility.

She told the nun how she had found a husband and child just taken ill, with the mother dying. The nun listened as Constance told the story and watched the manner of her hands as she spoke. “I persuaded her husband to leave the sofa in her room and to go to bed in the next room,” Constance said. “While the nurse attended to him, I put the little girl to bed in her crib; she is such a cunning little thing. As I tucked her in, she put one little arm under the pillow and through the bars of the crib and said in the sweetest little voice: ‘You can’t get that arm under.’ ” The sister would remember that conversation; it was their last.

A few days later, the ward visitor at St. Mary’s pulled Constance aside, his face blanched, to tell her he would not be back the following day. “For I am down,” he said. When he reached out his hand, his skin burned her to the touch.