Plague Among the Magnolias: The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Mississippi

Plague Among the Magnolias: The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Mississippi

by Deanne Stephens Nuwer

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Deanne Stephens Nuwer explores the social, political, racial, and economic consequences of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Mississippi. A mild winter, a long spring, and a torrid summer produced conditions favoring the Aedes aegypti and spread of fever. In late July New Orleans newspapers reported the epidemic and upriver officials established checkpoints,


Deanne Stephens Nuwer explores the social, political, racial, and economic consequences of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Mississippi. A mild winter, a long spring, and a torrid summer produced conditions favoring the Aedes aegypti and spread of fever. In late July New Orleans newspapers reported the epidemic and upriver officials established checkpoints, but efforts at quarantine came too late. Yellow fever was developing by late July, and in August deaths were reported. With a fresh memory of an 1873 epidemic, thousands fled, some carrying the disease with them. The fever raged until mid-October, killing many: in Mississippi 28 percent of yellow fever victims died. Thought to be immune to the disease, blacks also contracted the fever in large numbers, although only 7 percent died. There is no consensus explaining the disparity, although it is possible that exposure to yellow fever in Africa provided blacks with inherited resistance.


Those fleeing the plague encountered quarantines throughout the South. Some were successful in keeping the disease from spreading, but most efforts failed. These hit hardest were towns along the railroads leading from the river, many of which experienced staggering losses.


Yellow fever’s impact, however, was not all negative. Many communities began sanitation reforms, and yellow fever did not again strike in epidemic proportions. Sewer systems and better water supply did wonders for public health in preventing cholera, dysentery, and other water-borne diseases. Mississippi also undertook an infrastructure leading to acceptance of national health care efforts: not an easy step for a militantly states' rights and racially reactionary society.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Plague is a human story, as well as a socio-political and economic story that tells how Mississippi took a difficult step forward to better care for its citizens. I highly recommend this very well documented and highly readable work for high school, public, and academic libraries, and those special collections that focus on Mississippi history."
Mississippi Library Association Book Reviews

"...Nuwer brings to the story a detailed, thick description of events in one state, solidly based in archival sources and local newspaper accounts. The ways in which life was completely disrupted become clear in the revelations of letters and diaries. It was not only sickness and death that wrecked the commonplace, but a lack of normal commodities such as food and clothing as trading stopped, the pervasive fear of neighbor and stranger as potential carriers of disease, and the conflicting desires to serve others and save oneself. Few books have depicted this disruption and panic as clearly as Nuwer’s account."
Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“Nuwer's study provides important insight into the interrelatedness of political history and public health care and further reminds us that this connection did not begin in the twentieth, or twenty-first, century.”
Journal of Mississippi History

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University of Alabama Press
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Edition description:
1st Edition
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6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Plague Among the Magnolias

The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Mississippi

By Deanne Stephens Nuwer

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2009 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8244-5


Mississippi in the 1870s

A period of sifting and reckoning

— Avery Odelle Craven, Reconstruction: The Ending of the Civil War

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Mississippians wrestled with political, economic, and social dislocation. The Civil War had destroyed the state's antebellum political and economic infrastructure, maintained previously by a carefully constructed patriarchal social order that valued self-reliance and independence. However, patriarchal social norms were not obliterated; they merely lay dormant, waiting for a chance to reemerge in the political sphere.

Mississippi was economically and politically devastated by the war. After Confederate forces surrendered east of the Mississippi on May 6, 1865, Mississippians inventoried the extent of destruction to town properties, railroads, and local governments. Vicksburg, especially, after enduring bombardment and a forty-seven-day siege in 1863, was economically wrecked. Other towns in the interior and along the Mississippi River also lay in ruin. Labor strife added further strain to the already broken economy. Roughly seventy-eight thousand Mississippians had fought in the war, nearly a third of them dying either of wounds or disease. The loss of white manpower combined with the emancipation of 437,303 African Americans in the state created an agricultural crisis, compounded by the fact that returning ex-Confederates arrived home too late for the 1865 planting season. Droves of freed African Americans migrated to the Delta in search of a livelihood, as others moved to more urban locales like Jackson seeking a new life. Mississippi faced a period of transition with no blueprint for guidance.

Of course, losing the war did not mean that Mississippians' attitudes had suddenly been transformed. Slave labor had dominated the agricultural system, so whites tried to replicate that situation as closely as possible through sharecropping and crop-lien laws. Since newly freed people had no money or means to earn cash, they worked for shares of a total harvest, with cotton being the acceptable crop. However, in years like 1866 and 1867, when cotton production fell below expectations, sharecroppers and landowners felt the pinch. Sharecroppers, especially, discovered themselves in a system of agricultural gridlock because they could rely only on plantation stores and other mercantiles for staples. They were captive consumers, victims of any price fluctuations. With little consumer savvy, they became mired in debt. Both of these tactics, by 1867, secured the landowners' position at the pinnacle of the Mississippi socioeconomic pyramid and eventually relegated "croppers," both white and black, to the bottom.

Traditional patriarchal structures that militated against both African Americans and poor whites had to compete against imposed political realities, though. Partly as a result of frustrating economic situations but more certainly as a consequence of the first Reconstruction measures, passed in March 1867, a new political coalition emerged in Mississippi. African-American voters, already a majority, outnumbered whites even more after the new measures disenfranchised approximately 10 percent of ex-Confederates. Joining with the new black voters were poor whites, many of whom had been Unionists, and some wealthy former Whigs, who believed they could control the African-American voters. Northerners — Union soldiers who settled in the South and others who came later as teachers and church leaders — also allied with the African Americans. They all participated in the new Mississippi government. African-American preachers, lawyers, and teachers from the North and Canada developed Loyal Leagues to help newly freed people become more politically educated and to provide them with social activities.

In the national elections of 1868, however, most Mississippi Democrats rejected the Republican coalition and campaigned violently against its political efforts. The Democratic Party stressed traditionalism, paternalism, and self-determinism, embodying the core of antebellum values. However, terrorist tactics did not prevent a Republican majority in the Mississippi legislature and the election of Ulysses S. Grant as president. Mississippi Democrats did not accept the new political order. Their aggressive actions in the late 1860s presaged events of the 1870s. After all, the average southerner was likely to be offended by the Reconstruction agenda. Enfranchising former slaves and living under Republican rule were slaps in the face of societal traditions. Thus the sidelined Democrats of Mississippi fought for their threatened worldview. In the early 1870s they initiated a multi-pronged attack on African Americans to break the Republican control of state government by using intimidation, economic pressure, political recruitment, and acts of violence against black Mississippians.

In other words, white Mississippians had embraced the idea of political and social organization to achieve goals they considered desirable. But paradoxically, increased activism weakened the open, public actions of government. While many politicians were engaged in the war against Reconstruction, the government itself had to maintain a facade of legality.

Nothing illustrates this situation better than the state government's unequal treatment of racial incidents in the 1870s. The Meridian race riot in 1871 opened the volley of assaults. Several African-American men returned to Meridian on March 4 after attending a Republican political meeting in Jackson the previous day. While they gave a report on the rally to Meridian's African-American community, shouts warned the listening crowd about a fire at the home of William Sturgis, Meridian's Republican mayor. In the chaos that ensued, whites seized the opportunity to clamp down on the participants. Because white citizens perceived any political meeting held by African Americans as incendiary, they persuaded officials to arrest three black leaders and charge them with inciting a riot. The arrests had nothing to do with the fire or their affiliation with the Republican Party; they hinged upon the racial strife already existing in the state and the public manner in which the three men had expressed their political views. At the trial approximately one week later, violence broke out in the courthouse, ending with the murder of the presiding Republican judge. Thereafter, order disintegrated and armed whites killed approximately thirty black Meridians. Mayor Sturgis received orders from the controlling whites to leave Mississippi within twenty-four hours. Democrats essentially ousted Republicans from control in Meridian with these violent events. But, it is important to note two points: first, the Democrats involved were not acting through any government channel; and second, a political party was creating chaos rather than trying to prevent it.

The federal government tried to intervene, but the sheer fact of federal involvement merely compounded outrage. Mississippians — or at least those Mississippians who mattered politically — loathed the federal government. In an effort to thwart outbreaks such as the Meridian riot, the federal Enforcement Act of 1871 proscribed Ku Klux Klan activities, since many Republicans, including Governor James L. Alcorn, believed the Klan had instigated the events in Meridian. Certainly, though, the Klan was not the only organization terrorizing African Americans and Republicans. Other groups, such as the Knights of the White Camelia, the Sons of Midnight, and the White League, also interfered in the African Americans' civil and political rights. The Klan was simply the most notorious. However, federal intervention did little to halt the violence in Mississippi; rather, it caused further disdain for the interfering government. Clashes between the races continued. Clara C. Young of Monroe County remembered that "De Yankees tried to git some of de men to vote, too, but not many did 'cause dey was scared of de Ku Kluxers. Dey would come at night all dressed up lak ghosts an' scare us all." Terrorist tactics continued nonstop. In December 1874, local white militiamen killed approximately thirty-five African Americans in Vicksburg after a "tax-payers convention" of whites demanded the resignations of some city officials, including the sheriff, chancery clerk, and coroner.

Confrontations such as those in Monroe County, Meridian, and Vicksburg proved effective in setting the stage for the Democrats' plan in 1875. The Vicksburg agenda of violence became the model for white conservatives across the state. In his study of Reconstruction, Vernon Lane Wharton quotes the Vicksburg Monitor, which proclaimed: "The same tactics that saved Vicksburg will surely save the State, and no other will." Disorder reigned in Mississippi as Democrats channeled traditional beliefs to end Republican rule.

The story of the fights to abolish Reconstruction in Mississippi and other southern states has been told elsewhere. Less considered, though, have been the lessons these efforts can teach us about ideas of government. Admittedly, federal law blocked those seeking to return to the "good ol' days" from simple, straightforward political action. However, many of the Democratic politicians who emerged after 1876 had been trained in a system that actively opposed national government. They encouraged "self-help" societies like the Klan and also encouraged individualism — at least among individuals of the "right" color and social class.

But by the election of 1876, no concealment was needed. Across the state, Claiborne, Kemper, Amite, Copiah, and Clay counties all reported public disturbances during the election. Exercising violent tactics, Democrats used any and all means to ensure a win. In Aberdeen they trained a cannon on the polling place while a group of mounted Alabamians who supported the Mississippi Democrats' efforts patrolled on horses in front of the building to make certain that only like-minded men voted. In Columbus at least six fires blazed on election night as a warning that only Democrats would be allowed to participate in the next day's voting.

The Democrats' efforts succeeded. With a thirty-thousand-majority vote across the state, Mississippi Democrats reported that "political emancipation" had occurred with the election of local officers and the majority of the legislature. Sixty-two out of seventy-four counties saw the election of Democratic officials. Democrats then began sweeping out the state capital. Governor Adelbert Ames, forced to yield to Democratic pressure in the form of twenty-one articles of impeachment, resigned on March 29, 1876. The lieutenant governor and the superintendent of education, both African American, were also forced to leave.

At the Democratic convention in August 1877, John Marshall Stone of Iuka received the nomination for governor and was later duly elected, beginning his term on January 10, 1878. Stone had served as interim governor after Ames's resignation. He also appeared to be an ideal 1878 Democrat — an ex-Confederate who believed that Reconstruction had been just plain wrong.

When yellow fever broke out, Stone was thus governor of a state that had just undergone a massive political upheaval. John M. Stone had moved to Mississippi from Tennessee when he was twenty-five years old. Settling in Iuka, Tishomingo County, he first worked as a store clerk and later became a depot agent for the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. When the Civil War broke out he was among the first from his county to enlist. Distinguishing himself at both Battles of Manassas and at Antietam, he was elected colonel of the Second Mississippi Regiment. Stone also saw action at Gettysburg, where he was wounded. After a medical furlough, he returned to combat and participated in the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864. In the last year of the war, Union forces captured him. Released after the war, he returned home a hero, and citizens of Iuka elected him mayor in 1866. After serving as mayor of Iuka and treasurer of Tishomingo County, he was elected to the Mississippi Senate in 1869 and again in 1873 before becoming governor.

When yellow fever appeared in Mississippi in July 1878, the Democratic "redemption" process was well under way. However, pockets of Republican officeholders, both white and African American, remained in communities across the state, particularly in grassroots-level positions. The result was far-reaching distrust among the various levels of government and a great deal of confusion, both of which had the potential to hamper an effective response to the epidemic.


Yellow Fever's Causes, Symptoms,and Treatments

From slimy swamps and fathomless morasses

— James A. Martling, "The Yellow Fever — 1878"

Two years after the Democrats had gained control of the Mississippi capital, one of the most severe yellow fever epidemics to hit the South occurred. The pestilence crossed all social and economic boundaries, adding to the chaos of the post–Civil War era to disrupt nineteenth- century life beyond imagination. Many Mississippians who lived through the 1878 epidemic left behind descriptions of their tribulations. Some who died during the epidemic are therefore remembered through the recollections of family members, friends, or neighbors and through their own words as revealed in personal letters and diaries. While terrible conditions also prevailed in many other states during the 1878 epidemic, the epidemic provides historians a window through which to view nineteenth-century Mississippians as they wrestled with economic hardship, racial tensions, sketchy medical knowledge, and ineffectual state relief efforts.

To comprehend the impact of the 1878 epidemic and the failure of efforts to control it, one must first understand the nature and symptoms of yellow fever, its various nineteenth-century medical treatments, and the modes of yellow fever transmission as understood by nineteenth-century Mississippians. Yellow fever, a tropical and subtropical disease caused by a virus, is also known as the saffron scourge, Yellow Jack, Bronze John, and the "yellow Tyrant of the tropics." In severe cases, renal failure and hematemesis, or "black vomit," are characteristic. Hematemesis occurs when bleeding takes place in the upper gastrointestinal tract and gastric acid alters the blood into the characteristic coffee-ground vomitus. Jaundice is typical, the effect of which gives the disease its name. Yellow fever is transmitted from person to person through the female Aedes aegypti mosquito.

The exact origin of yellow fever is debated. Some historians earlier suggested that the disease originated in the Western Hemisphere, but in more modern times the accepted theory is that Europeans introduced yellow fever from Africa into the New World via commercial shipping along the African transatlantic trade routes. When Hernando de Soto explored the Mississippi region in the 1540s, yellow fever was unknown in North America. More than likely, the holds of Spanish slave-trading ships transported the disease to commercial markets in Mexico, the Caribbean, and then North America. Once yellow fever arrived in Mexico and the West Indies, it spread quickly, reaching Cuba by 1648.

After yellow fever developed in the Gulf of Mexico region, it spread throughout North America along maritime and overland trade routes. The virus spread easily, carried onto ships by the ever-present A. aegypti mosquitoes and by viremic individuals or those already infected with the disease. This species of mosquito readily adapted to environments created by Europeans, since it breeds well in stagnant or slow-moving water such as that found in water casks, holds of ships, and cisterns. The mosquito could remain on board a ship for months, feeding on and reinfecting crews and travelers.


Excerpted from Plague Among the Magnolias by Deanne Stephens Nuwer. Copyright © 2009 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Meet the Author

Deanne Stephens Nuwer is on the faculty in the Department of History at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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