Thursday, July 13, 2023

The 19th Century Plague that Devastated Memphis

By Kimberly Grist

The History Behind the Story

When we think of Pandemics, the world's struggle with COVID-19 quickly comes to mind. Perhaps not as well known, or an often forgotten fact, is that during the 19th Century, other pandemics occurred, including smallpox, typhus, scarlet fever, cholera, and yellow fever.

Yellow Fever is an acute viral disease and a legitimate and terrifying threat that caused panic in communities. The first stage is often compared to the common flu, including fever, headache, and muscle aches. Victims become jaundiced in the second "toxic" phase, earning the name "yellow fever." Death generally followed due to internal hemorrhaging, usually within five to ten days.

Nashville Tennessean Magazine, Jan. 22, 1956, Newspapers on Microfilm Collection.

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.,_Tennessee

During the 1800s, the city of Memphis was a swampy area and held the reputation as one of the filthiest and most foul-smelling cities on earth. Open sewers, thousands of privies that emptied into the Mississippi River, decaying wooden walkways, and no organized service to dispose of garbage for thousands of residents combined creating a terrible aroma and the perfect breeding ground for Yellow Fever.

(Photo by Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo; original from Harper’s Weekly, 1879, depicting boats bringing food into the city -1878 Memphis)

The Worst Outbreak

The worst outbreak began in July of 1878 when Yellow Fever was brought north from New Orleans to Memphis when a man escaped a quarantined steamboat and visited a restaurant.

After caring for her daughter and a friend, restaurant owner, Kate Bionda became the first Memphis resident to die of yellow fever. On August 13th, she left behind three children, Willie, Joseph, and Josephine. Afterward, the infection spread rapidly. Her story inspired me to consider what would have happened to orphaned children at this time.


In August of the same year, news of deaths in New Orleans and the nearby town of Hickman led to the mass exodus. Most of the residents who were able left within a week, and approximately twenty-five thousand people fled to other cities and spread the disease as far away as Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky.

Quarantine Restrictions

Quarantine facilities were set up, and passenger ships were blocked from the harbor. Schools were converted to hospitals, and refugee camps were erected.

(Memphis under quarantine rule- scenes in the plague-stricken city photos courtesy of Tennessee Virtual Archives)

While we now know that the disease is spread from human to human through mosquitos, at the time, those who were left to take care of the sick believed that the disease was spread by bad air. In the heat of the summer, though the temperatures were close to one hundred, residents boarded the windows and kept fires burning. When people died, their clothing and beds were dragged into the streets and burned.

This illustration depicts a yellow fever victim in a Jefferson Street home in Memphis. It's from a series of images entitled "The Great Yellow Fever Scourge — Incidents Of Its Horrors In The Most Fatal District Of The Southern States." Bettmann Archive

Heroes of the Epidemic

“Catholic Sisters of Charity.” The Catholic Sisters of Charity was one of several private charity groups that provided food to the victims of the yellow fever epidemic, especially women and children. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives via the Digital Library of Tennessee and the Digital Public Library of America.

Annie Cook, a Memphis Madam, stayed in the city, turning her brothel into a hospital and caring for the sick. After succumbing to the disease, she was later nicknamed "Mary Magdalene of Memphis.

Of those residents who stayed, 17,000 caught the fever, and 5,150 died. An average of two hundred people died every day through September; amongst them, thirty-three physicians also perished.

Memphis Martyrs

Memphis Martyrs Historical Marker (

Inscription: "In August 1878, fear of death caused a panic during which 30,000 of 50,000 Memphians fled this bluff city. By October, the epidemic of yellow fever killed 4,204 of 6,000 Caucasians and 946 of 14,000 Negros who stayed. With some outside help, citizens of all races and walks of life, recognizing their common plight in this devastated, bankrupt community, tended 17,600 sick and buried the dead. As a result, many of them lost their lives, becoming martyrs in their service to mankind."

A Dominican in Memphis: Father Joseph A. Kelly, O.P. (1827-1885) | Pat McNamara (

Father Joseph Kelly of St. Peter's Parish was another selfless caregiver and worked among the victims of the epidemics of 1873, evacuating orphans. 

Memphis Declared Bankruptcy

The epidemic also affected trade. Railroad lines 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 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.

Welcome Frost

The epidemic finally ended in October when a hard frost finally broke the breeding cycle of the mosquitoes breeding cycle.

After researching the pandemic of 1878, I was surprised that I had very little recollection from my history lessons about this 19th Century epidemic. The selfless acts of these heroes stirred my heart and imagination and the inspiration behind a fictitious orphanage, the Counting Stars Children's Home. located in a rural setting outside of Memphis.

Best Friends Bound by Tragedy

Travel back in time as six brave young women bound by their experience surviving a Yellow Fever epidemic leave the hills of Tennessee and travel West as mail-order brides. Fans of Western historical romance set in the late 19th Century will root for each potential bride as she starts her adventure, seeking refuge and a chance for a new life.


  1. Very interesting information, Kimberly! We're so blessed to have modern medicine today.

  2. Thank you for your post today. It's amazing that an entire city declared bankruptcy. I can see why, though.

  3. We are so blessed. I was so intrigued by the stories of people who stayed behind to take care of the sick -such compassion and bravery was inspiring.