Yellow Fever: How Memphis Survived

COVID Was Not The First Pandemic to Hit Memphis


Quarantines and social distancing may feel like modern phenomena, but Memphians of 150 years ago were dealing with its own fair share of public health emergencies – which nearly cost the city its charter!

Though Memphis’ history was plagued by steamboat accidents, epidemics, and even war, nothing broke the city’s spirit. But there was a time in the 1870’s when it seemed as though Memphis was close to its breaking point.

After losing many of its residents to the Civil War, Memphis fell victim to a devastating series of Yellow Fever epidemics. According to TN Encyclopedia, the 1873 Yellow Epidemic claimed 2,000 Memphians, garnering national attention, but conditions in 1878 allowed for a massive explosion in the population of fever-bearing mosquitos.

When newspapers in New Orleans reported several cases of yellow fever that July, Memphians, still reeling from the 1873 epidemic, set up checkpoints at major points of entry into Memphis, in what would ultimately prove an unsuccessful attempt at quarantine. As many as 25,000 Memphians fled the city, and of the residents who stayed, 17,000 caught the fever and 5,150 of those died. The loss of over 30,000 people led financial crisis for the city, and in 1879, the state legislature revoked Memphis’ city charter. The effects of the fever, however, were not all negative. Memphis’ black community stepped up in the city’s crisis and served – for the first time in Memphis history – as patrolmen on the city’s police force.

In the MoSH Yellow Fever exhibit, you’ll find artifacts and ephemera from the period, ranging from surgical instruments and medicine bottles used to treat the sick to a note of mourning and sympathy from the wife of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As you read a facsimile of a handwritten letter from the era, you will begin to understand the hardships of life at that point in history when you notice that, scrawled at the top of the letter, all mail “is fumigated with formaldehyde,” in a last-ditch, desperate attempt to keep the disease from spreading.