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Death Was Our Unity: Memphis, Tennessee and the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878


“Most cases, of whatever nature, were ushered in by a chill, followed by a fever, with a pulse and temperature to which the succeeding phenomena would correspond. The attack was so violent in some cases that death occurred within thirty-six hours.”

Dr. Happoldt. Memphis, Tennessee 1878 (Source, p. 46)

1. A Forgotten Treasure

A chance discovery by crack-library-director-zen-research-master Terrence Neal Brown has unearthed yet another tome of forgotten woe and heartache: a volume concerning the Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 that devastated the city of Memphis, Tennessee. Why bring this crumbling relic to my attention? Well, because my interest in all things catastrophic has been well known by my history students. Though I prefer a good discussion about the Bubonic Plague and its effect on religious life in medieval Europe, a good case of yellow fever in Memphis will do in a pinch.

Modern community and religious leaders bemoan the lack of unity in their metropolitan area but nothing brings out humanity’s best and worst like an unexplainable catastrophe. This book graphically details how civic and religious leaders, Memphians all, banded together to comfort the dying inhabitants of their formerly fair city.

The science of 1878 could not understand the cause of yellow fever. It will be several decades before the role of the mosquito Aedes Aegypti is known and understood. Observations could describe the actions of yellow fever but as to its cause…all the guesses were dead wrong.

2. Memphis: the City of the Dead

A spurious tradition claims that the name of the Egyptian city “Memphis” means “city of the dead.” While this may not be true linguistically it was a true statement about the American city of Memphis, Tennessee in 1878. Yellow fever had plagued Memphis before and was a scourge throughout the Southern United States. The sweltering month of August 1878 ushered a return of a disease that struck fear in all homes and neighborhoods. The fear was so great that quarantines were enforced by local authorities with shotguns. As the Angel of Death descended on the populace like the oppressive, hot, southern, humidity, the following death chants were recorded:

An appalling gloom hung over the doomed city. At night, it was silent as the grave, by day, it seemed as desolate as the desert. There were hours, especially at night, when the solemn oppressions of universal death bore upon the human mind, as if the day of judgment was about to dawn.

In one case a family of four was found dead in the same room, the bodies partially decomposed.

The voice of prayer was lifted up only at the bed of pain or death…

Another woman heroically nursed and buried her husband and three children, and then lay down–a walking case–and, as she said, gladly welcomed death.

It [yellow fever] was no respecter of persons, good and bad went down together.

Memphis, Tennessee 1878 (Source, p. 110-111)

3. The Longest Day

The 14th of September was the day of heaviest mortality. The cry for help went out by telegraph and the trains came from all over the country laden with medical supplies, food, clean clothing, and coffins for the dead and dying. New York City alone collected and sent $43,800.00.

While the doctors and nurses may not have known how to cure the yellow fever scourge, they did know how to give their all caring for their patients. One source calculated that forty-five physicians died in Memphis while treating the sick during the epidemic.

Caretakers at Elmwood Cemetery recorded that people would show up with a dead body over their shoulder and a shovel in hand and quickly bury their beloved in any untouched patch of cemetery ground.

4. Unity Among Religions

Ten Roman Catholic priests died. Numerous pastors died or lost family members to the fever such as the Rev. Dr. Sylvanus Landrum who was a Baptist pastor and a member of the Relief Committee. Dr. Landrum and his wife buried two sons and yet kept on ministering in the midst of the suffering.

The efforts of the Hebrew Hospital Association were considered heroic unto death. They went from house to house asking but one question, “Is aid needed?” (p. 170)

When the Jewish New Year was celebrated during the height of the epidemic, out of a Jewish population of 3,000 before the plague, 18 were present at the solemn services.

Memphis, Tennessee 1878 (Source, pp. 118-126)

5. The Death Toll

From the 14th of August until the 4th of November 70 percent of the population of 19,600 were sickened by the fever and 5,150 of that number died.

Memphis, Tennessee 1878 (Source, pp. 139-140)


Dr. Paul Otey, a physician who had served as a doctor in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, had returned to Memphis after the war to begin a medical practice there. He died of yellow fever on September 28th, 1878 after treating many patients, presumably both black and white.

Memphis, Tennessee 1878 (Source, p. 170)

6. The Resumption of Divine Services

Sunday, October 28, 1878


The first worship services in 10 weeks are held at the Central Baptist Church. Dr. Sylvanus Landrum preached from the text of Numbers 16:48 “And he (Aaron) stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stayed.” Though Landrum survived the yellow fever epidemic he would shuffle off this mortal coil eight years later. In 1886, the good pastor was buried in the same Elmwood cemetery among the massed graves of his fellow church members and his fellow Memphians who had died of the great yellow fever epidemic.

Memphis, Tennessee 1878 (Source, pp. 439-440)

7. Afterword

Interesting fact: a little over two decades after the yellow fever plague, the survivors of the Central Baptist Church congregation would plant a mission church named “Bellevue Baptist Church” which is still in existence today.

Interesting gossip: Elmwood Cemetery is still in use today. Some say that, when digging a new grave, they still occasionally unearth the bones of a yellow fever victim hurriedly buried oh so long ago.


J. M. Keating. A History of the Yellow Fever: The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 in Memphis, Tenn.: Embracing a Complete List of the Dead, the Names of the Doctors and Nurses Employed, Names of all Who Contributed Money or Means, and the Names and History of the Howards, Together with Other Data, and Lists of the Dead Elsewhere. Memphis, TN: Printed for the Howard Association, 1879.

Want to know more about Elmwood Cemetery?

Want to know how yellow fever was cured? Click the link and read Molly Caldwell Crosby’s excellent book, The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever. The Epidemic that Shaped our History.

One comment on “Death Was Our Unity: Memphis, Tennessee and the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878

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