For nearly two centuries, yellow fever was one of the most feared diseases in the new world. Although it sometimes struck the northern part of the United States, it was most common in the tropical and subtropical regions of the southern states. Mississippi suffered through a number of yellow fever epidemics in the 19th century, but the worst was the outbreak in 1878.
The virus that causes yellow fever is carried by a species of mosquito known as Aedes aegypti, but at the time of the 1878 epidemic the cause of the disease was unknown. This species of mosquito is only found near humans, for it prefers to live and breed in shaded containers with solid sides to which it can cement its eggs. In the 19th century, house cisterns were one of the prime locations for Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to breed.
The winter of 1877-1878 was very mild in the Mississippi Valley and spring came warm and early. As a result, the mosquitoes were able to breed earlier than usual, meaning that in the summer of 1878 there were more mosquitoes than usual, setting the stage for the yellow fever epidemic.
The mosquitoes carrying the yellow fever virus did not spread across Mississippi by themselves, but depended on human transportation to move from place to place. Ocean-going ships and river steamboats were the primary means of carrying Aedes aegypti to new places, as water barrels on ships made a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Until the 19th century, yellow fever outbreaks were generally confined to port towns, but the construction of railroad lines throughout the Mississippi Valley made it possible for the mosquito to travel far into the interior. Adult mosquitoes in an infected area could be closed up in the cars of a train and transported many miles inland to begin breeding new colonies. In his book on the 1878 yellow fever epidemic author Khaled Bloom pointed out, “The explosive outbreaks of yellow fever at dozens of railroad towns in Mississippi and Tennessee in 1878 forcefully demonstrated that trains had been scarcely less efficient than boats as conveyors and distributors of A. aegypti.”
When a mosquito carrying the yellow fever virus bit a person, they usually had no idea they were infected until they started showing symptoms. In the first phase of the disease, victims would have fever, muscle pain, headache, shivers, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. About 15 percent of victims would enter a second phase of the disease, characterized by fever and jaundice, causing the skin to appear yellow. Abdominal pain accompanied by vomiting could occur, as well as bleeding from the mouth, nose, eyes, and stomach. Once this occurred, blood could appear in the vomit, hence one of the nicknames of the disease – “the black vomit.” Half of the victims in the second stage of the disease died, the other half eventually made a full recovery.
Yellow fever first appeared in New Orleans in May 1878 and Mississippians feared it would spread upriver to their state. Ellen Drake of Port Gibson wrote her husband in July “Don’t think of coming home if it should be bad for you might get it on the cars.” (Drake-Satterfield Papers, July 27, 1878, MDAH.)
Mississippi River towns from Memphis to Natchez set up quarantines to try and prevent the spread of yellow fever, and many interior towns in Mississippi did so as well. The measures failed to stop the spread of the disease, and in early August the first yellow fever victim was found in Vicksburg.
Yellow fever spread through Vicksburg like wildfire and quickly reached epidemic proportions. From 800 cases on September 1, the number of sick had soared to 3,000 by September 8. The city was literally being decimated: by the time the epidemic ended, over 1,000 residents of Vicksburg were dead of yellow fever.
While the epidemic was still raging, one resident of Vicksburg wrote, “We have the greatest difficulty to obtain labor even to dig graves…God knows when the suffering will stop. Lights are burning in nearly every inhabited house over the dead and dying.” (The Mississippi Valley’s Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, pg. 116.) Others compared the suffering from the epidemic to the suffering of the city during the siege of Vicksburg. A newspaper in the city noted: “A gallant ex-Confederate and successful practitioner of medicine in the city remarked to us yesterday that the present condition of Vicksburg was worse than war. A sad truth.” (Vicksburg Daily Herald, August 23, 1878)
While Vicksburg was reeling from the epidemic, other towns in Mississippi were also being hard hit by yellow fever. On August 12 the fever appeared in Grenada, and before the last case was reported in December, approximately 1,050 people in the town contracted the disease, and 350 people died.
Grenada quickly became a ghost town as residents fled to avoid the disease. Almost all businesses closed, and trains ran through the town at full speed with the windows closed and passengers and crew almost holding their breath to avoid inhaling a germ.
Wyatt M. Redding, the telegraph operator at Grenada, sent out reports on the progress of the disease in Grenada. On August 18 he reported that the town’s population of 2,200 people had been reduced to only 200, and only 30 or 40 of them were healthy. On August 28, he reported the mortality rate averaged nearly one death an hour or 22 deaths in 24 hours. Three days later, Redding himself became a victim and died of yellow fever.
Conditions in Grenada were so bad that the editor of the New York Herald had to offer pay of 1,000 a day before one of his reporters would agree to go to Grenada and cover the epidemic. After seven days near the town, the reporter wired back to New York that he would not remain in Grenada for 10,000 a day.
Other cities in Mississippi were also struck by yellow fever; Holly Springs, Meridian, and Jackson all had victims, and numerous small towns throughout the state were hit by the disease. The village of Dry Grove in Hinds County was nearly wiped out by the fever as 28 of the first 29 people in the town stricken with the disease died. By October 30, 46 people in Dry Grove had succumbed to yellow fever. Susan Dabney Smedes lived at Dry Grove, and she wrote of the epidemic, “It was found necessary during those days of horror to keep up our spirits, by avoiding as far as possible all references to the pestilence and its ravages. At the table, especially, such allusions were forbidden. The list of deaths occurring the night before was not to be spoken of at breakfast. Afterward, the names of friends who had just died passed quietly and without comment from mouth to mouth. There was no giving way to emotions.” (Yellow Fever of 1878 Subject File, MDAH.)
Entire families were wiped out by the disease; in rural Warren County there is a cemetery monument to the Featherstun family engraved with the inscription, “In memory of my entire family…” Listed on the monument are seven members of the Featherstun family who died of yellow fever in less than a month’s time.
Because the method of disease transmission was unknown, the dead were quickly buried and anything they had been in contact with destroyed. On September 28, John L. Power in Jackson wrote his wife, “Willie McCallum died about 12 last night and was buried at one o’clock – just as soon as he could be put in the coffin. His grave had been dug in anticipation of his death…As soon as he was buried all the bedding was taken out in the street and burned.” (John L. Power Diary and Letters, Z 0708.000, MDAH.)
People in infected towns did everything they could think of to try and halt the spread of the disease. Dr. H.A. Gant wrote that to protect themselves the citizens of Water Valley tried the following: “All roads were strictly guarded and every man protected his home from refugees. All business in Water Valley was interrupted, stores closed and the town of three thousand inhabitants became a deserted village. Streets and unsanitary places were freely sprinkled with lime, and carbolic acid was strongly in evidence. All along Main Street bonfires were built of pine knot and tar to drive away miasma or infection or whatever it might be. (“The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.”)
Yellow fever played no favorites and struck both rich and poor alike; among the victims was Jefferson Davis’s last living son, Jefferson Davis Jr., who died of yellow fever at Memphis on October 16, 1878. Davis wrote of his son’s death, “The last of my four sons has left me. I am crushed under such heavy and repeated blows. I presume not God to scorn, but the many and humble prayers offered before my boys were taken from me, are hushed in despair.” (“Mississippi and the Yellow Fever Epidemics of 1878-1879,” pg. 211.)
Because of the epidemic, Mississippi was faced with economic ruin but, fortunately, relief aid came in from all over the nation as cities and towns sent money to buy much-needed supplies for yellow fever victims in the state. When John L. Power in Jackson appealed to his fellow masons for aid, they responded from all over the United States, sending 75,472.56. One Vicksburg newspaper editor believed that the charity provided by Northern states would do much to bridge the “bloody chasm” of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
There were many heroes during the epidemic, men and women who risked their lives to go to the affected areas in Mississippi and help the sick. One of these heroes was Hiram Benner, a Lieutenant in the United States Army. He volunteered to command a steamboat at St. Louis filled with supplies and medicines for yellow fever victims and take it to Vicksburg. After stopping at Vicksburg, Benner continued down the river dropping off supplies wherever they were needed. On his way back up the river, Benner took ill with yellow fever and died at Vicksburg on October 17 at the age of 34. Benner had also served in the Union army during the Civil War and had spent time at Andersonville prisoner of war camp.
The Catholic order the Sisters of Mercy in Vicksburg took over the running of the city hospital during the epidemic. One of the nuns wrote that the hospital “…they had about 300 sick. Most of those who were not brought there too late recovered, and many a soul who would otherwise have died without the Sacraments were prepared and fortified in that last struggle.” (Sisters of Mercy, pg 40.)
In Holly Springs, nuns from the Sisters of Charity who ran the local Roman Catholic school tended the sick at a makeshift hospital. Mrs. W.A. Anderson described what happened to them: “Like angels of mercy, they hovered over the loathsome spot day and night, caring not who the patient might be if only his life could be spared. One by one these sisters fell ill until six of them, with the faithful priest, Father Oberti, lay dead.” (“A Chapter in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Volume 10, pg. 231.)
While private funds were pouring into Mississippi to aid yellow fever victims, the state itself did very little to bring relief to its citizens. Many people felt that a special session of the legislature should be called to appropriate funds to aid victims, but Governor John M. Stone stated he had no power to use state funds without authorization and never called for a special session. Stone even turned down a request by the state board of health in December 1878 to call a special session of the legislature to amend the health laws to guard more effectively against epidemics, saying that he felt the yellow fever epidemic had already run its course.
Fortunately, private contributions poured into Mississippi From contributors all over the United States. The people of Petersburg, Virginia sent $1,000 to Mississippi governor John M. Stone to aid the yellow fever victims. The money was transmitted to Stone by William E. Cameron, the mayor of Petersburg, and in his letter to the governor he wrote: “We will never forget the noble Mississippians who battled here for their firesides; and could not efface the debt even if their pecuniary ability were equal to their generous inclination.” (Vicksburg Daily Herald, September 13, 1878)
There were even donations sent to Mississippi by those that had been enemies just a few years before. William H. Hodgkins, President of The Association of the Thirty-Sixth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, sent the following letter to the mayor of Vicksburg:
Dear Sir – The Association of the Thirty-Sixth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, one of the three Massachusetts regiments serving in the army of General Grant in Mississippi in the year 1863, assembled in annual Re-union at Worcester, yesterday.
A History of the regiment is in course of preparation, and it has been our custom to have portions of it read at our annual meetings. The chapter of this history prepared for the Re-union yesterday, embraced the operations of the regiment in the vicinity of Vicksburg during the eventful summer of 1863. As we recalled the stern days of conflict when we were powerless to relieve the inevitable distress of war and famine, we pictured your terrible sufferings in the present dire calamity of pestilence and death; and, as an evidence of the deep sympathy we entertain for you in these dreadful days, I am directed to transmit the enclosed draft for fifty dollars, which is the spontaneous and hearty contribution of the surviving comrades of the regiment for the relief of the suffering citizens of Vicksburg. We desire it to be applied in such manner as your judgement may approve. (Vicksburg Daily Herald, September 13, 1878)
Cold weather eventually brought and end to the epidemic, and the last cases were recorded in Mississippi in December 1878. In the end the disease had affected at least 46 towns and killed approximately 3,000 people in the state. Nationwide the 1878 epidemic hit 132 towns, infecting 74,000 people and killing 15,932 of them.
The 1878 yellow fever epidemic did lead to some changes in Mississippi; in the 1880s county health officers were instituted and medical licensing was placed under the control of the state board of health. Although yellow fever would return to Mississippi periodically throughout the remainder of the 19th Century, none of the outbreaks approached the severity of the 1878 epidemic. United States army doctors finally discovered the cause of yellow fever in 1900, and the last epidemic in the country was at New Orleans in 1905.Published in