Yellow FeverYellow FeverYellow Fever

              ... the Plague of Memphis


During the 1800's  Memphis was a very swampy area and was well known as the filthiest and most foul smelling city on earth.  Open sewers contributed to the unpleasant odor and they provided breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  Because it wasn't known at the time that mosquitoes spread disease, nothing was done to improve the situation for almost 40 years.  In addition the sewer smell was enhanced by another smell due to Memphis paving the streets with "Nicholson Pavement" - which was wooden blocks impregnated with creosote.  These blocks had begun to decay and send forth a poisonous smell.  Plus the soil all around was reeking with the excrements of ten thousand families.  And the city had no organized service to carry garbage away.  It was one filthy city with a terrible smell - and the perfect breeding ground for YELLOW FEVER.   


Yellow Fever originally hit the United States in 1668-69 in the New York-Philadelphia area.  It didn't make its way south until 1828, when it first appeared in New Orleans.  Within days, it moved up-river and found the perfect breeding ground - swampy and filthy Memphis.  During it's first epidemic in 1828, there were 650 cases and 150 deaths.  Consider that the population was under 1,000 at that time and you get an idea of how deadly this disease was. 


         Memphis had six major Yellow Fever epidemics

1828 First Yellow Fever epidemic 650 Cases 150 Deaths
1855 Second Yellow Fever epidemic 1250 Cases 220 Deaths
1867 Third Yellow Fever epidemic 2500 Cases 550 Deaths
1873 Fourth Yellow Fever epidemic 5000 Cases 2000 Deaths
1878 Fifth Yellow Fever epidemic 17000 Cases 5000 + Deaths
1879 Sixth Yellow Fever epidemic 2000 Cases 600 Deaths

 Click on small photos to enlarge them. 

Yellow Fever had originally come from West Africa and may have been brought to the United States on Slave Ships.  The disease requires warm weather to survive and thrives in wet and hot summers where mosquitoes can breed prodigiously.  There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to who fell ill.  Once infected the victim developed a piercing headache, then a chill, and then a temperature.  The pain could be so intense that victims sometimes became demonic and ran through the streets screaming and thrashing.  Internal bleeding would develop which produced the trademark black vomit, composed of blood and stomach acids.  The liver and kidneys failed and the victim turned yellow and soon died, usually within 2 weeks.  Some who survived had bodies and minds permanently crippled.

     Nuns care for the ill

Nuns care for the ill

The dead and the dying...

Pick up the dead...

Memphis had been exposed to Yellow Fever in 1828, 1855, and 1867 and each time it was  brought north by steamer from New Orleans.  In 1867 it was quite severe although it was confined to the section of the city where it had developed.  But nothing prepared the city for the devastation the fever brought in the 1870s.  In August of 1873 it came again.  Two boats had arrived from New Orleans, each with a sick man on board.  These men were put off at a low, marshy area known as "Happy Hollow" not far from the Navy Yard.  One died before he could be taken to the hospital and the other shortly after reaching it.  The attending physicians suspected Yellow Fever, but kept it to themselves.  Suddenly several deaths on Promenade Street were announced and it was now official.  The authorities tried to cleanse and disinfect the city, but it was too late.  The deaths grew daily.  Tens of thousands of people fled.  The streets were deserted except for the funeral trains.  Catholic and Protestant clergymen and physicians ran untold risks, and men and women freely gave their lives in the service of others.  2500 people died between August and November.   As usual, the first frost ended the plague, but they didn't know why.

 Doctor Calls

Nun Calls


Welcome Frost...

Internment Camp

< And the onslaught of Yellow Fever didn't prevent Memphis from holding its 1873 annual carnival with the gorgeous pageants.  At the time, the 2500 deaths constituted the most Yellow Fever victims in an inland city - ever.

The Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878

Yellow Fever returned to Memphis with a vengeance in 1878.  There had been a mild winter, a long spring, and a torrid summer.  By July New Orleans had reported an epidemic of the fever.  Memphis immediately threw up checkpoints at major points of entry into the city.  25,000 Memphians fled the city, and of those left, 17,000 caught the fever and 5,150 of those died. 


 25,000 Evacuate

In 1878 William Warren, a deckhand, entered Memphis from President's Island.  Two days later he was dead.  Several days later, New Orleans verified that Yellow Fever was present, and Warren had come from that city.  Those who could afford to leave the city immediately left.  In July the city had a population of 47,000.  Over 25,000 evacuated.  Quarantine facilities were set up in Germantown and the main facility on President's Island.  Passenger ships were blocked from the harbor.  Schools were converted to hospitals.  Refugee Camps were set up.  Of the 19,000 people who remained in Memphis, 17,000 contracted Yellow Fever.  Of the 41 police officers, only 7 were fit for duty.  One by one, they fell, dying at their posts.  Food and fuel became scarce.  Americans from other parts of the country came through with money and provisions which arrived on steamboats and long trains filled with supplies. 

           Quarantine Station

The only people who went out were the collectors of the dead.  With horse and wagon, they shouted "Bring out your dead!"  And then they loaded and took all to the cemetery for a hasty burial.  They believed that corpses spread the disease so they tried to get them in the ground as quickly as possible.  They also thought the disease was spread by bad air.  So with temperatures close to  100, they boarded up their windows and kept fires burning to ward off the outside air.  When people died, their clothing and beds were dragged into the streets and burned.    Names of the dead were written in ink in leather-bound ledgers.   There was an average of 200 deaths per day and corpses were everywhere.  Half of those who died were the Irish.  Sixteen Catholic priests and 30 sisters died in their heroic battle to tend the sick. 

Pick up the dead ...

Quick burials

Pick up the dead

Camp Williams

Memphis Police 1878

St. Mary's School becomes Hospital

Distribution of Food

Board of Health on River

Camp on the Bluffs

Disinfectant Wagons

Examine travelers credentials    


Half a million dollars which had been contributed by other states was expended in the burial of the Memphis dead and for the needed medical attention during the reign of the plague.  By the time this major epidemic ended, Memphis had lost a total of over 30,000 people to Yellow Fever and the city was financially broke and desperate.   In 1879, the state legislature revoked Memphis' city charter. 

Collecting Contributions

Collecting Contributions


And once again, the onslaught of Yellow Fever didn't prevent Memphis from holding its 1878 annual carnival with the gorgeous pageants.  At the time, the 5000 deaths constituted the most Yellow Fever victims in an inland city - ever.

There was a positive effect of the 1878 epidemic:  It was the first time in Memphis history that the black community served as patrolmen on the police force.  Long thought to be immune to the disease, blacks contracted the fever in large numbers in 1878 - but only 7% died.  Although not proved, it's now felt that repeated exposure to Yellow Fever over many generations in West Africa provided many blacks with a higher resistance to the disease.  The African Americans who remained in Memphis during the epidemics worked tirelessly with the sick and dying as nurses, cart drivers, coffin makers, and grave diggers.  They continued to hold positions in Memphis police, fire, and other departments long after blacks were barred from such employment elsewhere.   However, by the end of the century, Memphis joined other southern cities in denying city employment to the people who had helped carry them through the devastating epidemic. 

Memphis Police 1890

Some Heroes and Martrys of the Yellow Fever Epidemics

J. M. Keating stayed in Memphis during the worst outbreak in 1878.  He was publisher of The Memphis Appeal and wrote a first person experience of the disease.

Mattie Stephenson came from Illinois to Memphis as a nurse during the epidemic of 1873.  The "Heroine of Memphis" died shortly after she began ministering to the sick and dying.


J. M. Keating

Mattie Stephenson


Sister Constance of St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral stayed in Memphis during one outbreak, going from house to house to care for the sick.  Sometimes she found abandoned children amid the rotting corpses of their parents.  She contracted the disease and died a few days later.  Click here for excerpt from her diary.

Sisters Thecla, Ruth, Frances - St. Mary's Episcopal nuns who stayed in the city to care for the ill.  The are all memorialized on the high altar at St. Mary's Cathedral.


Sister Constance

1879 Book   


Charles Carroll Parsons
a priest from St. Mary's Episcopal Church who died caring for Yellow Fever victims.

Louis Landford Schuyler was a priest from St. Mary's Episcopal Church who died caring for Yellow Fever victims.

  Charles Carroll Parsons Louis Schuyler

The Howard Association was originally created in New Orleans specifically for the Yellow Fever epidemics to arrange for volunteer professional nurses and doctors to care for the poor who had contracted the disease, and to help pick up the bodies.

Butler P. Anderson, president of the Howard Association in 1878 was one of the first to die after contracting the fever in Grenada, Mississippi where he had gone to nurse the sick.  His wife also died shortly after returning from his  burial.


Howard Association

Butler Anderson  

Dr.John Erskin was a member of the Howard Association.  He was one of the 110 doctors who tended the sick and dying in 1878.  And he was one of the 33 doctors who died from the disease.

Rabbi Max Samfield was a member of the Howard Association.  He remained in the city throughout the 1873 and 1878 epidemics and administered to the sick and buried the dead of all races and religions. 

  John Erskin Max Samfield

Dr R. H. Tate - recruited by the Howard Association, the first African American to practice in Memphis.  While helping with the 1878 epidemic he contracted the disease and died within three weeks.

nnie Cook
was a Memphis Madam who stayed in the city during the Yellow Fever epidemic, turned her brothel into a hospital and took care of the sick.  She became known as "Mary Magdalene of Memphis" after she succumbed to the disease. 


R. H. Tate

      Annie Cook

Dr. William Armstrong made house calls around the clock to care for the ill during the 1873 Yellow Fever epidemic and again during the 1878 epidemic until he contracted the virus and died.

Father Joseph Kelly
of St. Peter's Parish became known as "Father of the Orphans" and "selfless caregiver among victims of Yellow Fever epidemics".  During the 1873-1878 epidemics, he evacuated all the orphans.


Dr. Will Armstrong

Fr. Joseph Kelly

Yellow Fever Burials During the outbreaks of Yellow Fever there were over 5,000 fatalities in the city. Some 2500 of the Memphis victims are buried in four public lots at Elmwood; among them are doctors, ministers, nuns, and even prostitutes who died tending to the sick. The four mass burial areas are referred to as "No Man's Land". There is a plaque identifying the area.

No Man's Land Madam Sutton Mattie Stephenson St. Mary's Nuns Parsons Schuyler

Eugene Magevny

Jeff Davis, Jr

Mrs. Butler Anderson

McKiven and the Poor

Howard Association Memorial       

Memphis Cleans Up...

A major positive side effect came about after the 1879 epidemic, as Memphis leaders embarked on ambitious sanitation reform.  Strict sanitation laws were finally passed outlawing open privies.  Regular trash collection was instituted, in addition to clearing away all the garbage that had accumulated since the 1878 epidemic due to lack of funds to remove it.  The decaying wooden paving blocks were torn up and gravel mixed with limestone roads were laid.  The centerpiece of the sanitary reforms was a revolutionary sewer system designed by George Waring of New York.  He used an unprecedented design which separated the sanitary sewer system from the storm sewers.  It was the design that made Memphis the envy of others and was to revolutionize the design of sewer systems across the nation.  Ironically George Waring died in 1898, after returning from Cuba where he was modernizing their sewer system.  The cause of death:  Yellow Fever. 

George Waring

Memphis Sewer System Memphis Manhole Covers Manhole Covers Memphis Sewer

Almost a decade after the 1878 epidemic, an artesian aquifer was discovered under Memphis, which would provide the city with an abundant supply of clean and safe water.  This became one of the best water sources in the country.   

All these reforms and changes  immediately benefited the business district and the wealthier neighborhoods of the city.  It would be years before these innovations would reach the neighborhoods of the poor.  The city simply had no funds. 


Artesian Pump Station

The rebirth of Memphis was described by Professor Gerald M. Capers of Tulane University:  "There have been two cities on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff:  the old river town existing prior to 1878, and the new city that has grown up since 1880".    Some 22 years before Dr. Walter Reed identified the mosquito as the carrier of yellow fever, Memphis had been transformed to a new  and vibrant city.


"Yellow Fever is transmitted by the bite of an infected Mosquito..."

Dr. Carlos Findlay, Cuban doctor, first proposed in 1880 that mosquitoes might carry the Yellow Fever virus.  This, of course was met with much skepticism.  Walter Reed, U.S. Army pathologist and bacteriologist would later lead the experiments that proved Yellow Fever is transmitted by the bite of an infected  mosquito.  The Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. is named in his honor.  During most of the 19th century it was widely believed that Yellow Fever was spread by articles of bedding and clothing of the victims.  In 1900 a small camp was established and controlled experiments were performed on volunteers.  Reed proved that an attack of Yellow Fever was caused by the bite of an infected mosquito and that a house became infected only by the presence of these infected mosquitoes and not by clothing and/or bedding.

Carolos Findlay       Walter Reed



Yellow Fever

Sulphur Fumigator



City Beautiful Campaign's

< Memphis created the "Clean Up, Paint Up, Fix Up" campaign in 1941.  The program went National. 

Memphis has been a  five-time winner of the Nation's Cleanest City award, from 1948 - 1952,  and again in 1983.   It was the "cleanest Tennessee  city" from 1940 to 1946. 

         Clean up !  Paint up !  Fix up !


        City Beautiful Marker

 Martyr's Park

Located on a bluff near the Memphis bridge, Martyr's Park opened in 1972.  It's dedicated to those who did not flee from the yellow fever epidemic in 1878, who stayed to help those who were infected, and to bury the dead.  Almost 80 percent of those who stayed caught the fever and one-quarter of them perished. The centerpiece of the park is the sculpture by Harris Sorrelle.

     Sorrelle Sculpture



Today, Yellow Fever has not been eradicated but it has been greatly reduced by routine childhood vaccinations in endemic countries.  Cases in the U. S. are now very rare. 

A Harvard scientist,
Max Thieler developed the most effective vaccine against Yellow fever.  It immunized U. S. soldiers during World War I and became the world standard.  This achievement won him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1951.


Max Thieler



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