Fever Season signing
Author Jeanette Keith, a professor of history at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, will talk about the Memphis yellow-fever epidemic and sign her book "Fever Season" at The Booksellers at Laurelwood at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Booksellers is located at 387 Perkins Ext. For information, call 901-683-9801
With its unflinching descriptions of black vomit, fly-covered corpses and a city lost in unutterable despair, the latest chronicle of the 1878 yellow-fever epidemic in Memphis can leave a reader feeling a little ill, as well.
To be sure, "Fever Season," by Jeanette Keith, is no easy read. But it's a highly rewarding and essential telling of a story that captivated late-19th century America and did much to reshape Memphis history.
In her solidly researched, unsentimental narrative, Keith drops the reader into the hell that was Memphis 134 summers ago, when the yellow-fever virus moved inexorably up the Mississippi River, leapfrogging the feckless and oft-debated quarantine measures, and began killing residents at rates that reached 200 per day.
Even the least scientific-minded of readers will recognize the tragicomic ignorance of an era that blamed the epidemic on "miasma," or bad air, and poor sanitation rather than the cause that now seems so obvious: virus-laden mosquitoes. At the very time they were taking note of the unusually robust population of insects hovering around their cisterns (which made for perfect mosquito-spawning grounds), Memphians of the day turned to solutions that included gunpowder explosions to clear the air, and dousing streets in carbolic acid.
If the subject seems unduly familiar, it's because Keith's book comes six years after the release of "The American Plague," a story of the epidemic by Memphian Molly Caldwell Crosby.
While not mentioning Crosby or her work, Keith early on draws clear distinctions between the two books. "American Plague" employed a similarly strong description of the epidemic, but it lost momentum at the midway point when it skipped ahead two decades and disjointedly changed locations to Cuba to chronicle the work of Walter Reed in solving the yellow-fever mystery.
Keith, on the other, warns the reader up front that there is no happy ending to the story she tells.
"This is a much darker narrative, serving as a reminder that centuries of heroism, courage, hard work, research and education may not suffice to build us a shelter against the indifferent assaults of the natural world," she writes in the introduction.
Good for her, because this story is so important and riveting that it needs no tidy, triumphant, Hollywood-style conclusion.
There are tales of courage, compassion and dedication aplenty — including the well known story of Episcopal Sisters Constance and Thecla, who died of the fever while caring for victims, along with lesser-known others. Their stories are presented alongside pathetic examples of cowardice and selfishness — the many prominent clergy members who abandoned their congregations as they fled to safety and comfort, and the husbands and fathers who left their wives and children to die, in some cases not even bothering to return for their burials.
As thousands fled Memphis, they often were kept at gunpoint from entering other towns, languishing on idle trains without adequate food and water. Back in the city, thieves plundered vacant homes, sometimes contracting the fever and dying in the process
Keith is unsparing in describing the grim scenes and conditions, writing of a baby found trying to nurse from the cold breast of a dead mother, and noting the aid workers who often found themselves "walking into a room splattered floor to ceiling in black vomit, discovering corpses in unexpected locations or finding dying parents lying in the same room as their child's maggot-ridden body." She tells of corpses piled in the street and the stench of bodies hidden in homes.
She weaves several central characters into her narrative, enhancing the book's cohesiveness and continuity. One of the most important is John McLeod Keating, managing editor of the Memphis Daily Appeal, one of the predecessor publications to The Commercial Appeal, and one of the two papers Keith relies on most in her research. A former Irish rebel and Confederate general's aide, Keating remained in the city and reported diligently on the epidemic even as the fever ravaged his staff.
The epidemic was far from over when he wrote, "If the awful sights and experiences of the past two weeks are to be repeated, we may make up our minds to die, every one of us."
The book's special strength is setting the context for the epidemic. Memphis in the late 1870s simmered with racial and sectarian grievances, its citizens still bitter about the South's defeat in the Civil War and on edge over the nascent ascendancy of African-Americans. In 1866, the city had been the scene of one of the worst race riots in the nation's history.
But the epidemic, for all its tragedy, helped heal those divisions. Massive aid poured in from the North, prompting one Southerner to say he never wanted to hear the disparaging word "Yankee" again. And African-Americans, for all intents and purposes, saved the city by staying and performing such duties as helping with relief efforts and serving as police officers and soldiers guarding the "urban village" that had been established at Court Square to feed and care for residents.
The gratitude many white residents held for the work by African-Americans was reflected in a front-page piece written by Keating in response to a false report in The Washington Post about black nurses raping white fever victims.
"Looking back across the gloomy vista of the past five weeks, and recalling all that we have passed through, how near to anarchy we have been several times, we are thankful that the negroes, forming as they do just now the great bulk of our population, have manifested a patience worthy of praise," he wrote.
Before cooler fall temperatures brought it to an end, the epidemic killed more than 5,000 of the 20,000 people who stayed in Memphis. The shattered city that was left could not repay its debts, prompting the state Legislature, at the behest of the local delegation, to rescind its charter. The Memphis that has emerged is cleaner, safer and perhaps less corrupt, but it would do well to never forget the pestilence and suffering of 134 years ago.