Pandemics from the Past

News arrived in Jackson of a dangerous and dreaded disease spreading rapidly two hundred miles south in New Orleans. And then, word spread that the pandemic had arrived in Memphis. Jacksonians began to panic. Many still held out hope that the disease would bypass the capital city. But when Vicksburg reported one hundred cases of the deadly sickness, the writing was on the wall.

New Orleans in 1880. Library of Congress

Those who could, fled Jackson. Those with means, half of the city’s 6,000 inhabitants, three quarters of them white, fled to the countryside. The Mayor of Jackson declared a quarantine three days later, and detectives and investigators began roaming the streets looking for quarantine violators. When the first death was reported one week later, the quarantine was tightened. In fact, a double quarantine was established. There was a great fear of “idle blacks” before the scare, and now that fear extended to the disease. Thus, frightened whites began to patrol the country roads to keep the black residents of Jackson from spreading the disease to the countryside. At the same time, the residents of Jackson quarantined themselves to keep rural blacks from bringing the disease into the city.

Finally, after eight weeks of isolation, the quarantine was lifted and life went back to normal. Normal, minus the new reality of all those who lost loved ones. While New Orleans reported 3,929 deaths (out of 13,083 confirmed cases) and Memphis suffered somewhere between 5,000-6,000 deaths, Jackson lost only 69 persons out of the 3,000 who stayed in the city (a 2% death rate and 15% infection rate.) Because there were more poor black persons in the city, the majority of deaths were among the black population.

Display at the Yellow Fever Martyrs Church and Museum in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Library of Congress

And because priests and nuns were the de facto frontline healthcare workers, they, too, were infected and died in disproportionate numbers. Otherwise, the Yellow Fever struck democratically. As Sister Mary Bernard, who stayed behind to nurse the sick, would record: “There was not a household that did not mourn one or two loved ones who had fallen victim to the plague. The first Sunday they had assembled for holy Mass the scene in the Church was pathetic; every pew held more than one black-robed figure and when the ‘Kyrie eleison’ sounded, a pitiful wail of grief mingled with the words.”

Still, Jackson survived the quarantine and the isolation and the deaths.

Read more about Jackson’s 1878 (and 1872) Yellow Fever epidemics in Hidden History of Jackson.

Or, how a yellow fever outbreak in 1905 threatened to derail the construction of a Gulf Coast wonder in Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound.

Or, Bishop William Henry Elder, Mississippi’s bishop during the 1872 and ’78 Yellow Fever epidemics—who contracted the disease himself and read his own obituary in the paper before recovering and leading his dioceses for another quarter century—in Mississippi Bishop William Henry Elder and the Civil War.

Or, sixteen year old Clara Solomon and her plan to save the Confederacy by utilizing mosquitoes against occupying Federal troops in Hidden History of New Orleans.

Or, read about the man who helped win World War II—New Orleans’ unsung hero, Denton Crocker, and his battle with mosquitoes and malaria in 1940s New Orleans—in Hidden History of New Orleans.