The Causes and Origins of Yellow Fever
Yellow Fever is a viral disease that is transmitted to humans by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito. After a short incubation period, symptoms of the disease can include fever, chills, headache, and vomiting black vomit (from dried blood), with the final stages of the disease bringing jaundice due to liver failure (giving the disease its’ name), bleeding from the eyes and mouth, and then death.
The exact origins of Yellow Fever are unknown, though most scientists now believe the disease originated thousands of years ago in Central or East Africa. The virus and its carrier mosquitoes were brought from Africa to the New World in the 17th century through the slave trade. The first recorded Yellow Fever epidemics were in South and Central America, including the island of Barbados in 1647, the Yucatan Peninsula in 1648, and Recife, Brazil in 1685. Yellow Fever eventually made its way to Europe, by way of trade ships from the Caribbean. Gibraltar suffered outbreaks in 1804, 1814 and 1828, and Barcelona, Spain lost thousands of citizens in an epidemic of 1821.
The first Yellow Fever Epidemic in North America occurred in 1668 in New York City, followed by Epidemics in Boston (1691) and Charleston (1699). One of the deadliest epidemics in the northern States was the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, which killed nearly 5,000 people (10% of the population) and caused the American Government and President George Washington to flee the city, which was the nation’s capital at that time. After the 1820s, Yellow Fever outbreaks were limited to the Southern United States, with New Orleans being particularly hard hit by Yellow Jack. During the 1853 New Orleans Epidemic, nearly 8,000 people were killed. However, the worst epidemic was yet to come.
Epidemic: New Orleans to Memphis
The exact origins of the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic are unknown. According to legend, the Yellow Fever began in May, when the steamer ship Emily B. Souder arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River from the Caribbean. On May 23rd, the Souder arrived in New Orleans. One of the Souder’s crew members, John E. Clark, died two days later, likely of the Yellow Fever. Within a month, over 20 citizens had died of the Yellow Fever, though it took another month before the town’s officials to declare a quarantine. By the end of the epidemic, over 4,000 people were dead of Fever in New Orleans.
By July of 1878, Yellow Fever had escaped the quarantine of New Orleans and began to make its way north, along the Mississippi River. The tugboat John Porter left New Orleans, with many of the crew already sick with Fever. By the time the John Porter arrived in Vicksburg on July 25th, the ship had become a virtual ghost ship, with most of the crew already dead. Local citizens buried the crew, but the Fever spread to the town. By August, half of Vicksburg had fled, and of those who stayed, 1,500 died from Yellow Jack.
By early August, the Fever had arrived in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville was hit hard, with over 300 deaths before the end of the Epidemic, including the town’s Mayor, councilmen, and most of the town’s doctors and attorneys. Some Mississippi towns survived the Yellow Fever relatively unscathed. The capital, Jackson, successfully maintained their quarantine and had only 80 deaths, while Natchez, one of the largest towns in the State, survived the entire Epidemic without a single Yellow Fever death.
In the middle of August, the Yellow Fever arrived in the Hill Country of North Mississippi. Fleeing from New Orleans, Vicksburg and other stricken towns, refugees arrived in North Mississippi towns on the railroads. Water Valley, which was home to a large number of railroad workers due to the presence of the Mississippi Central railroad repair shops, suffered over 60 deaths. The worst hit town was Grenada, which had 2,500 citizens at the beginning of the Fever. As citizens began dying from the Yellow Fever, the town leaders refused to enact a quarantine or halt rail traffic, resulting in disaster. By September, the Mayor, Sheriff, and all of the aldermen had died of Fever, and the town erupted into chaos. By the end of the Yellow Fever Epidemic, 350 Grenada citizens were dead, the second highest death-rate in Mississippi during the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic.
Our sheriff and city marshall and deputies are dead or gone. Our mayor is dead . . . our population is reduced to the sick, the doctors, nurses and undertakers- our people generally have fled the city.
Grenada Relief Committee to Governor Stone, August 22nd, 1878
Though the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic spread as far north as St. Louis, Missouri, the city hit the hardest was Memphis, Tennessee. Over the course of the summer, 30,000 citizens fled the Fever and over 5,000 were killed. The devastation of Memphis and its commercial infrastructure was so great that the State of Tennessee revoked Memphis’ city charter.
Yellow Fever Arrives in Holly Springs
As the Yellow Fever raged throughout Mississippi and as far north as Grenada and Water Valley, the citizens of Holly Springs, Mississippi stood strong against the fear and panic that struck many of the other towns. The citizens and leaders of Holly Springs believed that Yellow Fever was limited to the towns on or near the Mississippi River, and that the disease simply could not spread as far north into the hill country as Holly Springs. With this in mind, Holly Springs quickly decided to become a welcoming beacon for refugees fleeing the Yellow Fever, both from New Orleans and Grenada to the south and Memphis to the north. A special telegram was sent to New Orleans from Holly Springs on August 12th, describing the town as “clean and healthy”, with “no quarantine” and “hospitality offered to refugees from other towns”.
We apprehend nothing like even a brush with Yellow Jack, much less an epidemic.
Telegram from Holly Springs to the New Orleans Times, August 12th, 1878
By the middle of August, Holly Springs had dispatched two of its citizens, Colonel William Holland and William Wooten, to Grenada to report back on the condition of the town to the south. Upon returning to Holly Springs, Holland and Wooten described the horrors they had witnessed, and both men urged the Mayor and Board of Aldermen to enact a quarantine to keep the town safe. The Mayor and Board of Aldermen refused to grant their request, and Holly Springs opened its doors to the first of many refugees.
On August 19th, several refugees from Grenada had arrived in Holly Springs, including a Mr. Samuel Downs and Delia Lake. Though William Holland had voted to keep the refugees from coming to Holly Springs, he gladly gave up his home, which today is known as the Yellow Fever House, for the benefit of the refugees. On Sunday morning, August 25th, both Lake and Downs died of Yellow Fever in this house, and were hastily buried in Hill Crest Cemetery. The Yellow Fever had arrived in Holly Springs.
Sunday morning, August 25th . . . [t]he very air, which seemed so health-giving, was filed with a solemn awe, and dread un-named fear possessed every heart . . . the seeds of the “yellow death” had been sown.
Helen Clark Anderson, August 25th, 1878
As the first of the Yellow Fever refugees died, the people held out hope that no local citizens would catch the Fever. Their hopes would be shattered within days, when former Mayor A. W. Goodrich succumbed to the Fever at the Holly Springs Inn, where he had been staying. Goodrich died on August 31st, and he was the first Holly Springs citizen to die from the Fever, though the locals refused to accept the former Mayor’s diagnosis. Goodrich’s official cause of death was “bilous derangement”, and he was buried just two hours after he died, which was much faster than the usual customs dictated. Mayor Goodrich’s funeral was the last gathering of many of Holly Springs’ most famous and important citizens; within weeks, many of these individuals would be gone.
It doesn’t seem to be anything serious . . . [t]hey all have a chill, more or less violent, followed by a little fever. It is one-tenth sickness and nine-tenths scare.
Sherwood Bonner, September 1st, 1878
Victims and Heroes
Things in Holly Springs became much worse over the first few days of September, with over 30 cases of Yellow Fever. More deaths followed, including more refugees from other towns whose desperate search for safety had led them straight to death. On September 4th, the town leaders finally declared an epidemic and recommended an immediate evacuation. Within three days, the population of Holly Springs was reduced from 3,500 to 1,500, with many of the town’s citizens fleeing on the railroad at the Holly Springs Depot. With the quarantine enacted, those who were left behind were literally cut off from the rest of the world.
The stores are all closed and all the people gone away who can . . . physicians are broken down. Many cases will die today. Holly Springs is cut off from a terror-stricken world without and awaits in mute dismay the horrors within.
William Holland, dispatch from September 5th, 1878
With many of Holly Springs’ town leaders sick with Yellow Fever or fled in the initial evacuation, it fell on a few remaining citizens to step forward and lead the town through the horrors of the next several months. A Yellow Fever Relief Committee was formed, led by William Holland. Other influential citizens who decided to remain in town to help the sick and the dying included Harvey Walter and his sons; the Falconer family, and the Bonners. From St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the priest Father Oberti and the Sisters of Charity, nuns who ran a local Catholic girls school, also stayed behind and opened a relief hospital inside the Marshall County Courthouse. Relief also came from further afield, including from the Howard Association, a benevolent organization that originated in an earlier Yellow Fever Epidemic in Virginia. Doctors and nurses arrived in Holly Springs to courageously fight Yellow Jack and administer care to the sick and the dying.
Help for God’s sake. Send money. Father and brother down with yellow fever. Alone to nurse.
Sherwood Bonner, telegram to William Wadsworth Longfellow, September 4, 1878
By September 9th, 42 people had died of the Yellow Fever in Holly Springs and countless more were languishing in homes or the makeshift hospital at the Courthouse. Some of these early victims included Benjamin Nabers, a former United States Representative; Lemuel Augustus Smith; Dr. Charles Bonner and his son Samuel; Brodie Crump, and Thomas Falconer, the head of the Falconer family. The next day, September 10th, would prove to be the deadliest day of the entire Epidemic: 15 people died that day, including William Holland’s friend and colleague, William Wooten.
This is the most sorrowful Sunday our little town has ever known! Not a church bell; not a stroke from the old town clock; not a lisp from the Sunday school classes; not a prayer from the ministers of God. The deaths up to this date have been 38.
William Holland, dispatch from September 7th, 1878
At Featherston Place, in one of the oldest houses in town, young Winfield Scott Featherston Jr. died of the Yellow Fever. Soon, he would be joined by his sister and his mother, leaving his father, General Winfield Featherston Sr., heartbroken. Across town, in a much newer house off the Square, sisters Mary and Annie Stewart refused to leave their home, even after they both became sick with the Fever. Eventually their decaying bodies were removed from the house and buried in the cemetery. Throughout the town, entire families were being wiped out by Yellow Jack.
In the Hugh Craft House, then occupied by the Fort family, two members were already gone, while one daughter remained on death’s bed, being cared for by her younger sister, Lucy. In a cruel twist of fate, the older sister recovered, while Lucy Fort died from Yellow Fever and was buried in the grave that had been dug for her sister.
Soon, even the heroes of the Epidemic began to fade away. On September 11th, Father Oberti died in the Courthouse hospital that he helped found. Within two weeks, three of the Sisters of Charity also succumbed. On September 19th, Harvey Washington Walter, the builder of magnificent Walter Place and founder of the Mississippi Central Railroad, died at his mansion, followed soon after by his three sons.
In Jackson, Mississippi, Secretary of State Kinloch Falconer received news that his father and brother were both sick with Yellow Fever. Courageously, Kinloch decided to leave the relative safety of the capital and return home, breaking the quarantine, in order to be with his father and brother. Before leaving Jackson, Kinloch told Governor Stone to appoint his successor. Kinloch knew he would not be returning. Howard Falconer died on September 20th and Kinloch died on September 23rd.
“We Pray for Friends and Frost”
The last few days of September saw enormous amounts of suffering in Holly Springs. Between September 26th and September 30th, 58 people died of Yellow Fever, with dozens more becoming sick every day. The dead included two of the sons of Harvey Walter; James and Elizabeth Wells, the parents of future Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett; three of the Sisters of Charity, and two Howard Association doctors. A despondent William Holland, the last member of the Relief Committee still alive, reported that “the situation is growing worse. The hospital is full, and it looks like every man must go down . . . five hundred persons now lie stricken. We pray for friends and frost.” Some of the most basic civic functions were now suspended, including the disposal of bodies. There were no longer funerals, or individual burials. Large burial trenches were dug in Hill Crest Cemetery, with victims buried under wooden crosses.
The dead cannot be buried fast enough and rows of coffins line the Court House lawn in ghastly waiting for the ghastlier bodies. The ministers are ill of fever. There are not enough hearses. The bodies go to the cemetery in wagons and are buried by members of the family, if they still survive. All day, all night the dead are buried. The only sound, other than those in the cemetery, to shatter the stillness of the night, is the dismal howling of dogs, making a gruesome requiem for the dead.
William Holland, dispatch from September 26th, 1878
October brought cooler temperatures, but the Fever was unrelenting. By October 1st, over 200 people were dead and buried. Young brothers Glenn and Seldon Fant died just a few days apart, and are buried near each other in Hill Crest Cemetery. At the bottom of Hill Crest Cemetery, near what is almost certainly a Yellow Fever burial trench, stands three monuments to three individuals who all died within a few days of each other at the beginning of October: Isaac Diller, Joseph Hess and Peter Stienman.
The cemetery was full of freshly-dug graves, though only one-third of the known Yellow Fever victims have grave markers still standing in the cemetery. Most of the victims were likely buried in burial trenches, marked only by wooden markers which have long ago vanished. Legends and stories of a “Yellow Fever Mass Grave” have been told in recent decades, though there is no historical basis for the existence of such a mass grave. Recent studies in Hill Crest Cemetery have determined the location of several possible burial trenches, with numerous unmarked graves, which could very well date back to the Yellow Fever Epidemic.
It seems that famine will surely wipe out the plague-ridden town. Food is almost gone, medical supplies are low. Will the world let Holly Springs die of starvation while stricken with Yellow Fever?
William Holland, dispatch from October 4th, 1878
Some of the Yellow Fever deaths had long-lasting effects on local and regional history. Edward Hull Crump Sr. died of Yellow Fever at his plantation outside of town on October 4th. His son, E. H. Crump Jr., was likely destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, after his father’s death from Fever, E. H. Crump Jr. left Holly Springs as a teenager and moved to nearby Memphis, where he began his meteoric rise to the top of the city’s political and social spheres. Soon known as “Boss” Crump, Crump would be elected as Mayor of Memphis twice and would become one of the most influential citizens of the Mid-South in the 20th century.
Overlooking the “crest” of Hill Crest Cemetery is the small stone marker of Edwin Willis (sometimes shown as “Willis Edwards” on the mortuary lists), who died on October 19th. Some victims don’t even have that much: three small stones mark the final resting places of Jacob Malsi (died October 6th), his daughter Lizzie Malsi (died October 3rd) and daughter Louisa Malsi, who died just before the beginning of the Yellow Fever, on August 2nd, after being struck by lighting during a freak storm.
Towards the end of October, the deaths began to drop off. October 27th, 1878 was the first day without any Yellow Fever deaths since the Epidemic began in late August. Unfortunately, one of the final deaths was also one of the most sorrowful.
Faithful William Holland, the first Holly Springs citizen to encounter Yellow Fever on his trip to Grenada in mid-August, had somehow been the sole survivor of the Yellow Fever Relief Committee, and had continued to stand tall as a beacon of light to his fellow citizens for months. On October 17th, Holland sent the following dispatch: “Today there are six new cases and one death. Your correspondent happens to be one of the new cases, after having struggled with ‘Yellow Jack’ from the beginning of the epidemic.” William Holland’s fate was as inevitable as it was horrific. His death was mourned by many.
W. J. L. Holland, late Chairman of the Relief Committee, departed this life at 2:30 A.M. aged 36 years.
Funeral Notice, October 25, 1878
A Heritage of Sorrow
On November 1st, one last press dispatch was sent out: “Four new cases, no deaths. A heavy frost last night, and the prospect of another to-night. The hospital was closed to-day. Many business houses are open.” Like every Yellow Fever epidemic in the past, the first frost brought an end to the Fever. The people of the time believed the cold weather itself drove the plague away, though in fact the frost killed the mosquito larvae and drained the Fever of available carriers.
Officially, the last Yellow Fever victim died on October 30th. On November 2nd, the Board of Health officially declared the epidemic to be at an end. As refugees returned to town, however, they soon realized many victims still suffered from the disease. In fact, there would be another 10 deaths during the month of November, including the McWilliams twins, Thomas Hebdon Jr., James Donahue and J. E. Tobin. The final Yellow Fever victim, Mollie McDermott, died at the Holly Springs Depot, after a lingering illness on November 24th, 1878. The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 was now over, but how would the town ever begin to recover?
The costs of the Yellow Fever Epidemic, both for the town’s residents and economy, was staggering. Officially, there were 304 deaths from Yellow Fever, though the number may be much higher. Helen Craft Anderson, who lived through the Epidemic, suggested that there were as many as 350 new graves dug in Hill Crest Cemetery. Of the 1,500 citizens who didn’t or couldn’t flee at the beginning of the Epidemic, nearly all of them (1,440) contracted the Yellow Fever, with a quarter of the sufferers losing their lives. A conservative estimate of the economic costs of the Fever to Holly Springs is $500,000 (nearly 13 million in 2017 dollars), with nearly every single business in town closing or going through bankruptcy. The sole exception seems to be the Athey Pharmacy, which stayed open throughout the entire epidemic to provide medical supplies and medicine to the town’s doctors and nurses.
For eight weeks fourteen hundred souls struggled with the ‘yellow death’, and three hundred and fifty graves tell who was the victor in the unequal strife. A heritage of sorrow fell upon Holly Springs, from which it has never recovered. A great gap in its citizenship tells that the places of those splendid young men who went to their death were never filled.
Helen Craft Anderson, 1909
The Mississippi River Valley Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 ended in late November 1878. Holly Springs was just one of dozens of villages, towns and cities which were devastated by the Yellow Fever. From New Orleans in the south to St. Louis in the north, it is estimated that there were over 120,000 cases of Yellow Fever, with over 13,000 deaths, making the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic the fourth deadliest epidemic in American history, after the AIDS pandemic of the late 20th century, the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and the 1957 Asian Flu epidemic.
During the Epidemic, even the most educated scientists and doctors could only guess what caused Yellow Fever and how it was spread. The prevailing theory was that the Fever could be contracted from coming into contact with the clothing or belongings of victims, which is why panicked citizens would frequently burn these items in large bonfires, in the mistaken belief that this would prevent the spread of the disease. In 1881, just three years after the end of the Epidemic, Cuban scientist Carlos Finlay was the first person to hypothesize that mosquitoes were the true carriers of Yellow Fever, rather than infected victims. Finlay also suggested controlling the mosquito population as a means to control the spread of Yellow Fever.
In 1900, Dr. Walter Reed and his team successfully confirmed the mosquito theory and proved that mosquitoes are the only carrier of the Yellow Fever. Finlay and Reed’s findings allowed the United States government to eradicate Yellow Fever from Cuba and the Panama Canal. The last Yellow Fever Epidemic in the United States was in New Orleans, in 1905. The newly-discovered information on the cause and spread of Yellow Fever allowed the officials in New Orleans to conduct a successful anti-mosquito campaign , and the death toll- over 400- was far less than previous Epidemics in New Orleans. In 1936, Dr. Max Theiler created the first Yellow Fever vaccine, and today Yellow Fever has been all but eradicated in North America.
Greater Love Hath No Man Than This
With the Yellow Fever gone and the last of the refugees returning to town, Holly Springs began to move towards an uncertain future. Businesses were bankrupt, families were destroyed and many of the town’s leading citizens, including the Mayor and all of the Board of Aldermen, were now gone. A stark reminder of the utter desolation caused by the Yellow Fever is a single, blank page, located in the town’s record books, signifying the end of regular Board of Aldermen meetings. From August 24th to November 12th, this blank page represents all of the official acts of the Holly Springs government during these dark months.
I returned November 5, two months to a day from when I left. The town was crowded with strangers; doctors, nurses and helpers who had come during the epidemic . . . I was decidedly in the dumps, especially that first day, meeting so few people that I knew and missing so many that I would never see again.
John Mickle, 1931
As families buried their dead and the local government was reorganized, the town’s attentions turned to the commemoration and remembrance of the Yellow Fever victims and heroes. The first monument to be erected was the tin monument dedicated to Father Oberti and the Sisters of Charity, who gave their lives to administer aid and comfort to the sick and dying at the Marshall County Courthouse. Erected in Hill Crest Cemetery in 1879, the beautiful monument still stands, inscribed with several Bible verses including the poignant message from the Book of John: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
A year later, the Mississippi Press Association erected the Press Monument, also in Hill Crest Cemetery, at the foot of the grave of William Holland. The monument is dedicated to all of the members of the Mississippi Press Association who gave their lives reporting from the heart of the Yellow Fever, including William Holland, Howard Falconer, and others. In Christ Episcopal Church, during the 1890s, several memorial stained glass windows were created, dedicated to various Episcopal parishioners who died in the Epidemic, including the Falconers and the Bonners.
Today, those dark months in late summer 1878 are remembered in Holly Springs in various ways: the monuments and markers in Hill Crest Cemetery; at the “Yellow Fever House”, where the Fever began in Holly Springs; in the descendants of the Yellow Fever victims and survivors who still reside in Holly Springs today, and now at the Yellow Fever Martyrs Church and Museum, dedicated to Father Oberti, the Sisters of Charity and the rest of the victims and heroes of the Yellow Fever. The Museum is housed in the old St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where Oberti and the Sisters called home. Continue browsing this site to discover the story of the Church and Museum, and visit us in Holly Springs to re-live those tragic days of 1878.
Thirty years the lights and shadows have fallen over these fertile fields and softly swelling hills, then changed into a Death Valley. Most of those who wept so bitterly in those dark days have joined their loved ones where there are no more tears. A new generation has arise to guide the affairs of this fair Southern land. A few remain who witnessed all this desolation, whose youth was clouded with gloom from that experience of sorrow and anxiety . . . even the words, 1878, will bring a shiver of horror until life’s latest day.
Helen Craft Anderson, 1909
Anderson, Helen Craft. “A Chapter in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society Volume 10 (1909), 223-237.
Hamilton, William Baskerville. Holly Springs, Mississippi to the Year 1878 (Holly Springs: Marshall County Historical Society, 1984).
McAlexander, Hubert H. A Southern Tapestry: Marshall County, Mississippi, 1835-2000 (Virginia Beach: The Donning Company, 2000).
Miller, Mary Carol. Images of America: Marshall County: From the Collection of Chesley Thorne Smith (Dover: Arcadia Publishing, 1998).
Nuwer, Deanne Stephens. Plague Among the Magnolias: the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Mississippi (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2009).
Private Memoranda. A Chapter in the History of The Epidemic of 1878 (Holly Springs, 1879).
Pruitt, Olga Reed. It Happened Here: True Stories of Holly Springs (Holly Springs: Bailey Printing Co., Inc., 1950 (reprinted 1998).
Winter, Robert M. and John Mickle. Amid Some Excellent Company: Through the Life and Words of John M. Mickle (Holly Springs: Spring Hollow Publishers, 2003).