Yellow fever epidemic changes course of Memphis history in ‘Fever Season’


“Fever Season”

Jeanette Keith

Bloomsbury Press, $30, 288 pages.

In the late summer of 1878, a killing machine marched up the Mississippi River from New Orleans headed straight for Memphis, Tennessee. The deadliest strain of yellow fever to ever hit the U.S., it would leave more than 18,000 people dead in just a few months. The mosquito that spread it wouldn’t be discovered for nearly 25 years. There was no cure.

Memphis was slow to recognize the threat. Not until fatal cases of “Yellow Jack” jumped from a few to 25, then 100 a day, did more than 30,000 terrified people skip town almost overnight, by every conceivable means of transport, stampeding onto boats, buggies, wagons, carriages and trains. But not everyone could afford to get out.

Before the epidemic ended in October, 17,000 of those remaining would sicken and more than 5,000 would die. Chaos loomed as police fled the city, unburied bodies piled up, doctors died off, looting ensued and the city’s infrastructure threatened to collapse.

If not for a contingent of people who volunteered to stay behind, the city might have self-destructed. Exactly why it didn’t is the basis of Jeanette Keith’s “Fever Season,” the forgotten story of an unlikely group of citizens who felt called upon to aid the sick and govern the remaining population, and some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.

As Keith wryly points out, they weren’t exactly who you might expect. “Neither heroism nor villainy could be predicted by public standing, gender or race. Upstanding citizens abandoned their families, and prostitutes and sporting men stepped up to care for the sick. White elected officials deserted their posts, but black militiamen stood fast as guardians of the city.”

Instead, the cast of characters who rose to the crisis were an unexpected crew united by a single impulse: the inability to turn a deaf ear to those in need. Among them were the editor of the city paper, the Memphis Daily Appeal; a nurse and teacher who had already lost most of her family in Texas to the disease as a child; a wealthy merchant and veteran of the Union Calvary, who “risked his life to help people he had fought against only a few years previously”; the only white Baptist minister to remain in the city; a madam who transformed her bordello into an infirmary; and, in the aftermath of the epidemic, a former slave who became the richest African America in Memphis and would lay the foundations for Memphis’s reputation as the home of the blues.

The consequences they risked for staying become horrifyingly clear in Keith’s graphic descriptions of the fever’s symptoms: jaundice that turned the skin bronze, “black vomit,” severe headaches, bleeding gums and noses, tarry stools, stomach pains and temperatures as high as 105 degrees. With a nearly 70 percent mortality rate, body counts eventually soared as high as 200 a day.

Keith’s vivid, novelistic account of the city during its worst hours draws from letters, newspaper and eye-witness accounts, memoirs, diaries, personal papers, city directories and histories. A thoughtful balance of quotes and narrative depicts life inside the “shot-gun quarantines”: ghastly sickroom tableaux, bodies piled indoors and out, children lingering beside their parents’ corpses, mass graves along the Mississippi. When entire families succumbed in a matter of days, robbers broke into the houses of the dead, looting and pillaging. They often “slept in the owners’ beds, ate their food, drank their liquor” — then soon joined the corpses beside them.

To police this environment took an unprecedented new alliance between Memphis’s remaining population of 14,000 African Americans and 6,000 whites. One of the first things the newly organized Citizens Relief Committee did was to split the city into wards, then assign black representatives to each, a decision that restructured the city’s racial lines. Originally subordinate to white leaders, former slaves who owned property were determined to uphold laws that protected their interests: “Their sense of ownership,” writes Keith, “would prove to be the city’s main bulwark against anarchy.”

In so many ways, Memphis became a better city in spite of itself during the epidemic. Keith describes how, despite lingering post-Civil War hostility, North gave to South without question. As a matter of political expediency, blacks were treated as citizens. Women played valuable roles as nurses at a time when most nurses were men. Sadly, this egalitarian atmosphere didn’t last.

But even as Keith grimly charts the city’s backslide and the Jim Crow laws that returned its black citizens to second-class status, she unveils one of the epidemic’s most welcome consequences: a sea change in the city’s demographic that positioned former slave Robert Church as “the undisputed boss of Beale Street” — a boss whose taste for music would earn Memphis its reputation as the birthplace of the blues.

The epidemic of 1878 was to Memphis as Sherman’s March was to Atlanta: a brief and unspeakably brutal rearrangement of a city’s future. By unearthing these good Samaritans who chose to be a part of building that future, “Fever Season” reminds us of what it takes for human beings — regardless of politics, class, job description or skin color — to preserve dignity and save lives. Even a brief season of such courage should never be forgotten.

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