The story of the devastation caused by the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1878, which blighted the city for a generation.
Benefiting from an era when newspapers flourished and everyone wrote letters, Keith (History/Bloomsburg Univ.; Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War, 2003, etc.) mines these rich sources to produce an extremely detailed, predictably macabre account. A regular feature of Southern life, yellow fever epidemics began in spring (when mosquitoes became active) and vanished with the first frost. Until scientists discovered the cause in 1900, doctors blamed poisonous emanations from rotting trash, filth and sewage, all of which Memphis possessed in abundance. Taxing hardworking citizens to provide free government services (e.g., sewers, garbage collection, clean water) provoked as much outrage then as today, and Memphis’ city government remaining stubbornly opposed. Everyone worried when yellow fever reached New Orleans in early summer and proceeded slowly northward. Despite ineffectual quarantine efforts, the first Memphis case appeared in August. Within weeks, 30,000 of the city’s 50,000 citizens fled, most of the rest fell ill, and 5,000 died. Disaster historians work best describing the background and the consequences but struggle to make the events themselves stand out, and Keith is no exception. The middle 150 pages feature the usual relentless parade of gruesome suffering, noble sacrifice and bad behavior (volunteers poured in; most died; Catholic priests remained and died; most Protestant clergy fled). Local heroes organized relief, and the nation responded generously.
Keith does not exaggerate its historical significance but delivers an admirable account of a Southern city doing its best to deal with a frightening, incomprehensible epidemic.