Sunday, February 13, 2022

"Git Back, Mister" - Keeping your distance in the 19th Century

by Kimberly Grist

Diseases and epidemics of the 19th Century included smallpox, typhus, scarlet fever, cholera, and yellow fever. Yellow fever accounted for the largest number of 19th-century epidemic outbreaks. Yellow fever earned many nicknames, including Yellow Jack, the Yellow Plume of Death, and Bronze John, based on its symptoms.

Yellow Fever is an acute viral disease and a legitimate and terrifying threat that caused panic in communities. Transmitted by female mosquitos, it was spread to the United States by ships from the Caribbean. Before 1822, yellow fever broke out as far north as Boston. After 1822, the disease was restricted to the south. Port cities were the primary targets. However, it occasionally spread up the Mississippi River. From 1800 until 1879, the U.S. experienced an epidemic every year except for two.

Welcome, Frost - Harper's Weekly November 1873. A scene in Jackson Square, Memphis, Tennessee. Everyone knew that the first frost signaled the end of the Yellow Fever season, but they didn't know why.

Yellow Fever Pandemic in 1878

In 1878, approximately 20,000 people died in the deadliest Yellow Fever outbreak that occurred along the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico to Tennesee. Tens of thousands of residents fled the cities of Vicksburg, New Orleans, and Memphis, further spreading the disease and would travel with the refugees as far away as Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky.

The epidemic also affected trade. Railroad lines were halted, and steamboats were halted to reduce travel along the Mississippi River. An estimated 15,000 workers were laid off in New Orleans, 8,000 in Memphis, and thousands more in small towns.

The Daily American, July 26, 1878

The City of Memphis

Memphis endured several bouts with Yellow Fever in the 1870s. At the time, people did not understand how the disease developed or was transmitted. In 1878, Memphis had an unusually large amount of rain, which led to an increase in the mosquito population. In August of the same year, news of deaths in New Orleans and the nearby town of Hickman led to the mass exodus. Within four days, an estimated 25,000 residents evacuated, leading to the disease's further spread and halting trade and commerce. The economic cost to the city was later calculated to be upward of fifteen million dollars. Due to the overwhelming economic burden, Memphis declared bankruptcy, its government was abandoned, and lost its City Charter in 1879.

An Unlikely Angel


Those who remained in Memphis relied on religious organizations and volunteers to nurse the sick. When the yellow fever epidemic struck Memphis in 1873, Annie Cook, the owner of an upscale local brothel, dismissed her girls and converted her elegant house to a hospital, and nursed the sick. In 1878 during the more devastating epidemic, she repeated her charitable act. Newspapers commented on her generosity and reputation for nursing expertise, and she even gained an accommodation by the "Christian Women of Louisville." Tragically, on September 5, 1878, Anne contracted the disease and died on September 11th. On September 17, 1878, The Memphis Daily Appeal referred to her passing in this way, "Out of sin, the woman in all the tenderness and fullness of her womanhood, merged transfigured and purified, to become the healer."

The Howard Association, a local relief organization, later showed its regard by moving her grave to the association's plot in Elmwood Cemetery.

Linking the Disease to Mosquitos

Walter Reed was a U.S. Army physician who, in 1901, led the team that confirmed the 1881 theory of Dr. Carlos Finlay that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquito, rather than direct contact.

The last major outbreak in the United States occurred in New Orleans in 1905.

After researching the pandemic of 1878, I was surprised that I had very little recollection from my history lessons about this 19th Century pandemic. As a result, my imagination turned to the plight of orphans during this time. I was inspired to begin writing about the lives of women and children affected, and Heaven Inspired Matrimonial Matches was born.

Telegraph operator, Willow Graham, has benefited from a unique lifestyle growing up on her grandfather’s ranch. With her twenty-first birthday approaching, her family pressures her to return to the city and take up the lavish lifestyle her uncle has planned for her. But another option piques her curiosity –a matchmaking agency’s recommendation that she begin correspondence with a handsome farmer.

Willow's Worth is available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited and at 99 cents for a Limited Time.


  1. Thanks for posting today. "There is nothing new under the sun."

  2. Great pos! I especially liked An Unlikely Angel. I also noticed her death was Sept. 11. An infamous date.