The streets were nearly empty. Banks, schools, stores and even some churches were shuttered. Physicians were running out of supplies. Warehouses and storehouses of stockpiled goods were being depleted. People were dying, usually the elderly or those whose health was compromised.
They say that history often repeats itself.
No, this is not a description of the present corona virus epidemic that is sweeping the nation and much of the world but an account of life in the Mid-South in late summer and early autumn of 1878.
A mysterious fever that caused patients to turn a shade of jaundiced yellow and produced black spit-up, most often followed by severe illness or death, was striking families of Mid-Southerners right and left.
As author John Babb of Horn Lake chronicled in his book, “Voices of the Dead: Battling the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, “during four terror-filled months in 1878, a yellow fever epidemic in the Lower Mississippi Valley struck 154 towns and cities, killed over 20,000 people and wiped entire families and businesses from the face of the earth.”
Horn Lake, Hernando, Holly Springs and towns like Grenada and Water Valley where the Time Traveler’s family lived during that period in history were devastated by the epidemic.
Big cities like Memphis and New Orleans became ghost towns.
From the New Orleans Picayune: “Grenada is no longer a city. It is a morgue.”
From Jackson, Mississippi: “Panic is prevalent in Jackson. At least half our population of 6,000 has fled. The city is completely quarantined.”
Hernando was not spared from the epidemic by any means, but the town stood on relatively higher ground than towns and cities in the river bottoms and lowlands, with its elevation making it less susceptible to the mosquito. Who knew the pesky mosquito was the cause for spreading the dreaded fever?
A yellow fever hospital was quickly opened in the newly established First Presbyterian Church, now one of three buildings on the campus of the DeSoto County Museum.
A Yellow Fever Journal was kept by relief workers and survivors of the epidemic. “The Records of The Citizens Relief Committee of the Town of Hernando” is a part of the new archives collection open to the public at the DeSoto County Museum.
The journal is a saga of heartbreak. The committee reached out to assist the Johnson family which had been stricken by the fever. At first, they helped to relocate the family, according to the yellowed, tattered pages of the journal. Later entries showed funds were secured for proper burial clothes and burial. The act of neighbors helping neighbors was quickly revealed. Local resident T.C. Dockery gave a gift of a lamb, chickens and eggs and the offer of further supplies, if needed.
Van Manning, a relative of Bonnie Reid of Hernando and a Civil War hero, offered to travel to Washington to procure supplies.
The relief committee found homes for yellow fever orphans, buried the dead, attended to the sick and some members ultimately paid for their benevolent efforts with their very own lives, people like Dr. Edward E. Bullington, chairman of the relief committee.
Born in Virginia in 1813, he arrived in Hernando before 1850. He studied dentistry in New Orleans and returned to the DeSoto County seat to set up his practice. Bullington was elected mayor in 1876, the nation’s bicentennial year, and stayed in that office until his death from yellow fever.
It was Bullington who formed the Citizens Relief Committee, which met every day at 10 a.m. to review conditions and provide assistance and relief. By the time the epidemic ended with the first frost on October 29, 1878, only one member of the original committee was still living. The rest had died of yellow fever, including Dr. Bullington.
Bullington and his wife Frances now rest in the Hernando Baptist Cemetery, which adjoins Hernando Memorial Park. Their son Richard would go on to become a well-known Memphis dentist and would later open an inn at the newly rechristened Mineral Wells near Olive Branch.
The acts of heroism on behalf of the Citizens Relief Committee no doubt saved a great many lives.
In one case, they paid $20 to relocate the Anderson family to Germantown, across the state border. They paid grave diggers. They paid a telegraph operator to man his post at all times in order to relay critical information.
In this hour of our national crisis, it is the hope of the Time Traveler that we, too, rise to the occasion of helping our neighbors, even if it is to rescue them from feelings of isolation and loneliness. To buy a loaf of bread or a carton of milk for a stranger.
In short, as the Good Book says, we are indeed, all our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.
This column is dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Robert A. Long, 1819-1878, a yellow fever victim who died on Sept. 30, 1878 in Water Valley, among thousands who died in one of the greatest epidemics of our time. He is buried in Oak Hill cemetery in an unmarked grave — a grave which was once marked with a heart-pine tombstone. He was a cabinetmaker by trade who once said heart-pine would outlast stone. Only a small rotten circle of heart-pine exists at his grave there in the large family plot. But still exists it does.
May God bless his soul and all those who died during those fateful months in Indian summer of 1878.