By Daniel Hubbard | September 29, 2009
I just finished reading one of those books that can open the eyes to a bit of history that is not so well known. The title of the book, The American Plague, refers to the disease yellow fever. Like many diseases that no longer torment us, we don’t realize the justifiable horror that our ancestors felt. In some cases fear of disease may even explain why a family might begin a migration. Yellow fever was a disease that was feared. Its nickname, the American plague, is in some ways an apt allusion to that more famous plague, the Black Death.
Yellow fever has appeared many times in American history. If yellow fever had not crippled Napoleon’s army in Haiti in 1802, France might have been able to hold onto that island colony. Had French control of Haiti not collapsed, there are few who believe that Napoleon would have offered to sell the vast Louisiana Territory to the U.S. When that deal was finalized the size of the United States doubled and history was clearly changed. This book isn’t concerned with that somewhat famous result of yellow fever. It opens instead on the outskirts of Memphis.
When the announcement was made that a case of yellow fever had been discovered in Memphis in 1878, the people of that city remembered the two thousand dead of the epidemic of 1873 and they fled in terror. In five days a city of 47,000 shed over 25,000 refugees who fled by any means they could. Packed into railroad cars in stifling August heat, the panicked citizens were turned away at gunpoint by people in outlying areas, who dared not come in contact with someone from a place where there was yellow fever. “Shotgun quarantines” they were called. Elsewhere, bridges were literally burned to prevent citizens of Memphis from entering fever free areas.
Within a month of the first case, the population of Memphis had dropped to 19,000 and of those 17,000 had yellow fever. When cool weather arrived and the fever abated at least 5,000 were dead. In the Mississippi Valley that year, over 20,000 people perished and refugees had spread the fever as far away as Ohio. In Memphis all commerce stopped. Food and supplies no longer flowed into the city and no one could leave. The air was filed with the stench of the sick, the dead and the fumigants people hoped would prevent the disease from spreading.
Yellow fever struck terror not just because of the numbers that it killed or the rapidity with which it spread but because of how it killed. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to who fell ill. Contact with the sick didn’t seem necessary to be struck down, so the only way to avoid the disease was to flee. Once infected, the victim developed a piercing headache. Then a chill. Then a temperature that shot up to 103ºF or higher. People were racked with intense pain but, even so, could become seemingly demonic and run through the streets screaming and thrashing. Their blood lost its ability to coagulate as the disease began to destroy the liver. Once bleeding into the stomach resulted in the dreaded “black vomit,” the end was near. The liver and kidneys failed completely and the victim turned yellow and soon died. Some who survived were never the same—their bodies permanently weakened and minds crippled.
Once you start researching family history, it is only a matter of time before you discover that the family you are studying suddenly has only half of it members alive. There will be a list of names in church records, a small stack of death certificates in the county courthouse or a brief but tragic story in a town or county history. With so many diseases held at bay, this is an aspect of the past that we find hard to truly understand. Yet it is an aspect that sooner or later the family historian will need to try to grasp if the full story is to be told.Twitter It!