I don’t know what reminded me recently of my grandmother Thomas, but I had a vivid recollection of being in her closet and smelling the fading aroma of old-lady perfume. Midnight in Paris, I think. I was looking for something that I can’t recall now. There was a single bulb hanging from the ceiling to poke light into the clutter so, when I found a likely box, I sat right down on the floor to examine its contents.
Among the bits and pieces of trivia that people tend to save, I found a very old letter which I sure wish I’d saved. It was addressed to my great-grandmother. To the best of my memory, the sender was a friend who had moved from Memphis to Texas.
As I skimmed through the obligatory greetings – “how’s the family,” etc. – I reached the bottom of the page and read, then re-read the line that seemed to drop the temperature in the closet by a dozen degrees.
“I understand that you have some of the fever up there in Memphis. I hope you’ll all be safe.” Little could the sender imagine that yellow fever would decimate Memphis.
My great-grandparents, Michael and Mary Elizabeth Manley, had immigrated from Ireland to settle in Memphis in the mid-1800s – just in time for the yellow fever epidemic. We later learned that they lost at least one of their young children to that indiscriminate killer.
Taking its name from the accompanying jaundicing of the skin, yellow fever ravaged its victims with fevers, chills, hemorrhaging, severe pain and the trademark black vomit composed of blood and stomach acids.
Part of the fear surrounding the killer disease was the mystery of its origin. Although summers spilled over with illness and death, the disease seemed to abate in October and disappear throughout the winter. People were told to close their windows at night to keep out the disease. They wouldn’t understand for many years that it was disease-bearing mosquitoes they were keeping out.Although Memphis had been exposed to yellow fever in 1828, 1855, and 1867, nothing prepared it for the devastation perpetrated by the fever during the 1870s. An 1873 epidemic claimed 2,000 lives -- a number which, at the time, constituted the most yellow fever victims in an inland city.
In 1878 a mild winter, long spring and a torrid summer produced ideal breeding conditions for the carrier mosquito and foreshadowed the devastating outbreak. A July occurrence of the fever in New Orleans caused Memphis officials to establish checkpoints at major entryways to the city.Quarantine efforts were too little and too late, and the mosquitoes weren’t reading the signs anyway. Yellow fever cases were probably developing on the fringes of Memphis as early as late July and just weeks later, the first death in Memphis was reported.
With the horrors of the 1873 epidemic fresh on their minds, roughly 25,000 residents fled the city within two weeks. Reports were that Memphis’ Irish and German communities were particularly hard-hit by the outbreak. These immigrants, with little resources and nowhere to go, would most likely not have been able to join the exodus and were left only to pray for their family’s survival.
The fever raged in Memphis until mid-October infecting more than 17,000 and killing 5,150. More than 90 percent of whites in the city contracted yellow fever, and roughly 70 percent of them died. The black population, which some had thought to be immune, fared better. Although they contracted the disease in large numbers, only seven percent of those infected died. A possible answer was that their West African ancestors had blessed them with some immunity.
Long after cold weather brought relief from the fever, Memphis struggled with the cruel impacts of the epidemic. Yellow fever had exacerbated the already dismal financial situation in the city to the point that the legislature revoked the Memphis city charter in 1879. The population had been reduced by nearly 75 percent due to desertion and death. The charter was not reinstated until 1893.