"THE YELLOW FEVER EPIDEMIC OF 1878"
By Dr. H. A. Gant, M. D.
This terrible plague struck the mid-south area in the late summer of
1878. The city of Memphis was the most severely stricken community in the
south suffering over 5,000 casualties in the period from August to November.
Grenada and Holly Springs were both devastated by the fever with over 300
deaths in each town and many hundreds contracting the disease. In Grenada
the attack was so deadly that 250 died before the first patient recovered
from the malady. Many theories were advanced but no one knew what caused
the disease or how it was transmitted. This lack of knowledge about the
fever or how to properly treat it produced terror when it was announced
that a case had been diagnosed in a community. Experience with the disease
in cities like New Orleans, Mobile and Galveston, where epidemics occurred
every few years, showed that some measure of safety could be found by fleeing
to rural areas or moving quickly to more northern states.
The first case in Yalobusha County was in Water Valley where a railroad
engineer named Kenny Lees was taken with a severe fever. Dr. Stone of New
Orleans was rushed to the case and confirmed the fear of the local doctors
that it was Yellow Fever. This occurred n the early part of August 1878.
Great excitement and panic seized the town and the county generally.
From Water Valley people began evacuating at once, leaving town in greatest
terror and confusion. Many left town by train as soon as possible for they
knew a quarantine would be immediately enforced by all nearby towns. All
the trains on the Illinois Central from the south were discontinued, except
through passenger trains carrying U.S. mail, and these were required to
stop a mile south of town, at the Sel Long crossing, to discharge and take
on passengers. With almost every town enforcing a quarantine it was soon
necessary that any travelers have proper authenticated health certificates
before they could travel.
The doors of the coaches of the trains were locked, windows shut down
and the train was required to speed through Water Valley at forty miles
per hour. All roads were strictly guarded and every man protected his home
from refugees. All business in Water Valley was interrupted, stores closed
and the town of three thousand inhabitants became a deserted village. Streets
and unsanitary places were freely sprinkled with lime, and carbolic acid
was strongly in evidence. All along Main Street bonfires were built of
pine knot and tar to drive away the miasma or infection or whatever it
Most of the doctors moved out of town; some for only a short distance,
and until the disease became prevalent, one or two of the doctors would
return during the daytime to look after the sick. The general opinion was
that the fever could not be contracted during the middle of the day, especially
on bright sunshine days.
The beginning of my professional career was coincident with the epidemic.
In those days doctors carried their drugs in saddle bags, rode horseback
and suffered many hardships. They judged the condition of the patient by
a careful study of the symptoms and history of the case. There were no
trained nurses to assist them, no modern methods of medicine with which
to combat the disease. Every contagious or infectious disease was thought
to be conveyed by some invisible, intangible substance called formites.
Just what this was on one knew, but it was supposed to cling to anything
in the way of clothing, furniture, letters and other objects and to travel
thru the air, especially at night.
The sanitary condition of the country was not good. The water supply
was generally from wells, springs and cisterns and no piped water. Drainage
was insufficient with many lagoons and swamps breeding mosquitoes. There
were no screened houses and few if any sanitary toilets. Closets were mostly
above ground, on the surface, but in some places the vault system was in
use. Such was the condition of Yalobusha County when this the most extensive,
malignant and fatal epidemic in the history of Yellow Fever in the United
There were 300 cases of the fever in Water Valley and surrounding area
of whom 75 or more died. Some who died of the fever were - J. E. Becton,
J. H. Fly, Thomas Reasons, R. A. Long, Mark E. Pate,
Kenny Lees, L. M. Pennington, Peter Williams, Walter
Reems, John Mattson, W. L. Bartless, N. U. Gartner,
Mrs. Tom Trainer, Robert Prophet, Mollie Smith, Mrs.
E. F. Smith, P. W. Penel, Tom Walker, A. B. Murphy,
A. C. Thomas, A. W. Simmons, James Hall, W. H. Johns,
Mrs. Edstrom, Mrs. Reed, H. W. Freeman, Lige Miller,
Miss Jane Miller, Ed Block, Jeff Miller, G. W. Strong,
Jack Howard, Mrs. A. G. Buford, William White, B.
W. Brewer, C. E. Summers, Gus Holmes, Robert Townsend,
William Goodwin, Clay McMillan, J. O. Hendricks, J.
There were few colored people to die, but most of the negroes had left
town and those who remained and had fever were not very sick. The disease
was so mild among the colored people that many of the doctors claimed immunity
for the race, which, of course, was not a correct assumption. It is known
however that they do have a natural resistance built up by centuries of
exposure to the disease on the African continent.
One of the outstanding characters of this epidemic was an old negro
man, Bob Reed, of Water Valley. Bob was immune for he had had the disease
in Natchez many years previous. He was the only Simon Pure Democrat negro
in the community and made himself most useful in arousing interest in all
Democratic club meetings by going up and down the streets with a red flag
ringing a bell. He was the factotum among the young men of town, waiting
on their rooms, looking after their clothes, nursing them when sick and
taking general supervision over them. When the fever came he remained in
the town and made himself most useful in his assistance to both white and
colored patients. He was looked to and called upon to secure food and help
bury the dead. I shall never forget old Bob Reed.
It seems to me that all the patients I saw in 1878 were much sicker
than any I saw in 1897-98 and 1899. Extreme dread, panic and terror were,
in my judgment, the cause of death in many instances. The doctors, with
few exceptions, knew nothing about treatment of the disease. Many of them
gave calomel, to begin with, just as if they were treating malaria, had
the patients covered with blankets and profusely sweated. All kinds of
liquors, ale, beer and champagne were used feely in the treatment of the
disease, increasing the death rate. The practice of oversweating and over-dosing
must have been the cause of death in many cases.
My attack: On September 13, I was attackd at night on returning from
a visit to a friend, Josh Fly, who was dying. I had not been ill but I
remember distinctly while walking up the hill to my room feeling a chilly
sensation and aching of my head and back. Within an hour I began to feel
so miserable that I decided to take a dose of calomel and go to bed. Five
other young men and I had secured rooms in the residence of my good friend
Mrs. M. J. Mayes, three fourths of a mile from the business part of town.
On going into the house my friends remarked that I looked very flushed
and asked if I was sick. I said, "Yes, I do not feel at all well, and suspect
Yellow Fever." My temperature was 102 1/2 and the next day, after spending
a restless night, I registered 104. In the afternoon my friend Dr. McFarland
came in from the country to see me for a few minues and said, "It is no
use trying to deceive you, for you know what you have." I said, "Yes, I
have Yellow Fever but there is no use dying with it." I immediately turned
on my side with a feeling of perfect indifference as to the results. I
have noticed in patients with Yellow Fever, this feeling of indifference
quite frequently, after the first stage or onset of the disease has passed.
My recovery was complete and I was up in the house by the fourth of October
when my firend Lew Pennington died across the hall from my room. After
his death I gradually began seeing patients, until the last of November.
In fact some few cases were on hand as late as the first days of December.
At the close of the epidemic I was presented by the citizens of Water
Valley $350.00 and a handsome gold watch. The citizens took a great interest
in me; in fact I was lionized and my practice was materially increased.
There were only three or four deaths in Coffeeville resulting from Yellow
Fever during the epidemic of 1878.
(Dr. Gant removed from Water Valley to a practice in Jackson and was
later State Medcial Officer.)
Alphabetical listing of the victims named in the article above,
with a couple of additional names and annotations where it could be found
on the individuals and verified.
W. L. Bartlett marriedN. L. Higgenbotham 26 Oct 1876
John Edward Becton, II age 39, married Mary R. Hervey 21 Oct 1874
Edward Block married Minnie Decell, d. Oct. 10, 1878
B. W. Brewer
Mrs. Albert Galiton Buford, married June 19, 1856 (formerly Mrs. E.
James M. Crops
Edstrom (child of Mrs. Edstrom)
J. H. Fly
H. W. Freeman
N. V. Gartner
Mrs. Gartine (formerly widow of R. N. Carey)
M. A. Gross
James O. Hendricks, married Susan A. Early Mar 24, 1861
W. H. Johns
R. A. Long
Clay McMillan, younger brother of Daniel Webster McMillan
Miss Jane Miller
A. B. Murphy
Mark E. Pate, son of John F. Pate, Sr.
P. W. Penell
L. M. Pennington
Reese, child of H.O. Reese
A. V. Simmons, married Emily Mandeville
Mrs. E. F. Smith
G. W. Strong
Charles E. Summers, married Fannie M. Hughes Oct. 9, 1866
J. B. Taylor
A. C. Thomas
Robert S Townsend, married Mary H. Durrett May 9, 1866
Mrs. Tom Trainer
Mrs. Tom Walker, nee Eleanor Bryan, m. Apr. 1, 1868