The Mississippi Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878
One of the most feared diseases to strike the United States and for which the cause was a complete mystery at the time was yellow fever. Of course, we know now that the fever was transmitted by mosquitoes and the spread and the rapidity with which it travelled was a consequence of improved communications, particularly between the Caribbean areas where the disease was endemic and the eastern United States where it wasn’t.
Infected mosquitoes would travel over on ships and feast on the flesh of people who had no immunity to the disease. The symptoms were terrible – it got its name from the jaundiced colouration of the skin of a victim – vomit that was black and was the sign that your end was nigh, bleeding gums and noses, stomach pains, tarry stools, severe headaches and a temperature that hit 105. Because the cause of the disease was unknown, the symptoms so extreme and your chances of survival so poor, the very mention of a yellow fever caused panic and hysteria.
In 1878 the conditions for a major yellow fever outbreak were optimal – the unusual climatic conditions were ideal for an explosion in the number of mosquitoes and the aftermath of the war of independence in Cuba (from Spain) meant a larger influx of refugee from areas prone to the fever than usual. To minimise the disease’s potential impact our old friend the quarantine was introduced to control shipping coming into New Orleans.
But, of course, a quarantine is only as effective as the diligence of those who enforce it. When the steamship Emily B Stouder pulled into the quarantine station on May 23rd there were no reported cases of the fever in the States. The quarantine doctor noticed that the purser, Clark, was ill but put it down to neuralgia and a hangover. Inevitably, Clark had yellow fever, was dead by the 25th and that was all that was needed for the fever to gain a foothold on the mainland.
News that the fever had hit New Orleans caused panic and around a fifth of the population up sticks and left, inevitably taking the fever with them. Many of those who were left succumbed to the disease and the doctors, whose futile attempts to cure them with bloodlettings, carbolic acid and doses of quinine, were worse than useless. An epidemic was declared on August 10th when there had been 431 reported cases and 118 deaths.
The railway system facilitated the spread of the disease and maps of outbreaks and their timing show its inexorable journey along the main railway and transportation routes of the Mississippi region. The first recorded death in Memphis was that of Kate Bionda on August 13th. Kate was a restaurant owner and contracted the disease when an infected man visited her gaff.
As with New Orleans news that the fever had reached Memphis caused panic and around 25,000 of the 47,000 fled the city, travelling to rural areas or places away from the river. Train tickets were at a premium – the superintendent of the Louisville and Nashville railroad reported that between August 12th and 16th tickets were selling for the modern-day equivalent of $750,000! Inevitably, many of the fleeing residents took the disease with them, outbreaks being reported as far away as Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Some towns would accommodate the refugees whilst others set up gangs of armed men to enforce their local quarantine arrangements.
It was only the arrival of the autumnal frosts which killed off the mosquitoes that ended the epidemic by which time around 20,000 had died.