“…we are in the midst of a fearful epidemic, the end which no one can foresee. More than one hundred of our brethren including their families, have sickened and died. We need your sympathy, and God alone knows how soon your aid.” –Special Relief Committee, IOOF, Memphis, Tennessee
Between late July and October of 1878, the city of Memphis, Tennessee was consumed by a horrifically cruel epidemic of yellow fever. Out of a population of 50,000, at least 31,000 people evacuated to refugee camps in surrounding towns and the Tennessee countryside, where the contagion often continued its attacks. Of the 19,000 people who stayed in Memphis, 17,000 came down with “the yeller jack,” and between 5 and 6,000 died in less than three months time.
Among these were numerous Odd Fellows who volunteered their service to help other members and the community. Between 95 and 100 Memphis Odd fellows died during this time.
HOW IT STARTED/DESCRIPTION OF THE CITY
Yellow fever (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_fever) is carried by mosquitoes, and in the 19th century, there was no cure for the disease. It was known by other names as well: “black vomit” and “yeller jack” (For our international readers, in parts of the Southern United States, the word “yellow” is often pronounced “yeller”). In the Southern US, yellow fever season ran through the summer months until the first frost of autumn, and this epidemic was no different. During the first frost of October, most mosquitoes died and with them yellow fever–until late spring rains brought mosquitoes again.
In early July, word came to Memphis via steamboat from New Orleans, that yellow fever had struck the Crescent City. Memphis immediately began making preparations to deal with the fever should it strike there. There were attempts to stop all Mississippi River traffic from New Orleans. Unfortunately, the disease assailed the city in late July.
By August 13th, 1878, the all-pervading influence of the fever began to tightly choke the city. Descriptions of life in Memphis during this period rival those of the Black Death in 14th century Europe. There were not enough caskets, and the delirious ill stumbled about the city in living dead fashion, often dying in the streets. Houses were full of the bodies of family members who died together, and death wagons drove the streets, their drivers pulling bodies from homes where many victims died after being abandoned. Bonfires were built to “smoke out the pestilence,” engulfing the entire city in a haze of smoke. Many of the dead were buried in long burial trenches in Elmwood Cemetery, as there were not enough undertakers to handle the dead. Theft, shenanigans, and violence was rampant, and to restore order, the city will ultimately be occupied by African American units of militia from the surrounding areas.
This period of Memphis history marks the first time the majority of police patrolmen were African American.
ODD FELLOWS STEP UP
On August 13th, 1878, a special committee was formed from every lodge in the city of Memphis to organize a response to the yellow fever outbreak. Being able strategists, the committee agreed to appoint a Board of Special Relief. The committee itself agreed to meet every morning to better respond as the epidemic unfolded.
Below, I’ve simply provided what historians call a “primary source document” (Taken from The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, Memphis, Tennessee, https://archive.org/details/b21354017/page/n6) that was written to the Grand Lodge of Tennessee by a member of the Special Relief Committee. I think this event is something best read about using the original document.
The report is singular in it’s conveyance of drama, desperation, and helplessness during the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis. Before each page of the document, I’ve provided some context for what you are about to read, to make reading a bit easier.
Commentary on the page below: Begin reading with the title “Report of the Special Relief Committee, IOOF.” On August 5, 1878, Chickasaw Lodge #8 offered a motion which was voted upon to establish a city wide IOOF committee to deal with the epidemic. This small committee of 3 members, Brother Linkhauer, Brother Russell, and Brother Gage, agreed to appoint a larger committee which is referred to by two names in the report: The Board of Special Relief and the Special Relief Committee. Officers of the Special Relief Committee were Brother Linkhauer, Brother Gage, Brother Henry, Brother Hoffman, and Brother Russell.
Commentary on page 412 below: The committee met every morning, and was to provide for the sick, the dying, and the dead. Nurses were to be hired and the committee had the power to pay and open accounts. Apparently, deaths from yellow fever became so common, the committee decided to focus more upon burial issues. The report details the death of Brother Reverend R.C. Slater and his entire family. A major ethical situation arose when the committee expressed that it was impossible for them to care for the sick and dead in the city limits without allowing those in the countryside to suffer, giving rise to trying to decide who to attempt to save. The committee was unable to attend or provide for funerals for members of the Order who died, as too many were dying too quickly.
Commentary on page 413 below: The yellow fever continues to spread into the surrounding countryside. Donations were pouring in from lodges and Grand Lodges all over the United States, yet the money could do little good if there was no one available to oversee its use. All members of the committee but one, Brother John Linkhauer, had either died, or were too sick to serve. Brother Linkhauer sent a telegram asking for more donations and help. More than half of the cases of yellow fever under the care of Odd Fellows died, a testament to the overall lack of medicine, and lack of a cure for the disease, as well as a breakdown of city government. It might also be important to point out that the US government in those days rarely intervened in disasters experienced by citizens, thus leading to even more distress.
Commentary on page 414 below: This page is a breakdown of the spending and donations handled by the Order during the epidemic. Also, there was a smaller epidemic in Memphis during 1873, which is mentioned.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows expended a colossal amount of money to provide aid to those who were stricken. To get a fair idea of the massive scale of funds exhausted by the Order during this epidemic, I have provided a breakdown of average daily wages for workmen in 1880. A 60 hour workweek was common with Sundays off. This information is supplied by U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research (https://www.nber.org/chapters/c2500.pdf)
Blacksmith: $2.31 per day Carpenters: $2.15 per day
Engineers: $2.17 per day Machinists: $2.45 per day
Painters: $2.61 per day
There were dozens of organizations besides Odd Fellows that assisted in helping with the epidemic, among them the Howard Association, Hibernian Aid Society, and the Masons.
However, with unwavering allegiance to IOOF principles, many of our Brothers heroically died in the fight against the yellow fever in Memphis, and it is something of which we can be proud. Our brothers of the 19th century set a perfect example of what being an Odd Fellow means, and it’s an example we should follow.
Amicitia, Amor, et Veritas!
Scott Moye is an award-winning history educator and collector of Arkansas folklore. He grew up on a cotton farm and is currently a museum worker. Hobbies include: old house restoration, writing, amateur radio, Irish traditional music, archery, craft beer, old spooky movies, and street performance. He is a member of Marshall Lodge #1, in Marshall, Arkansas, and a founder of Heart In Hand Blog.
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