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Excerpt: 'The American Plague'

The American Plague book cover

Chapter 4: A City of Corpses

Even the lime could not cover the smell of death as Constance stepped off the train platform on August 20, 1878. The wind car­ried the odor for three miles outside of the city. Sister Constance and Sister Thecla returned from a vacation on the Hudson as soon as they heard the news of the fever; the sisters were the only ones traveling into Memphis.

As they made their way through the town, signs of plague were everywhere. Across the street from the marble fountain of Court Square stood a white, clapboard building flanked by two staircases. It was the headquarters for the Memphis Board of Health. In front of it, wagons filled with disinfectant held shovels protruding out of the flatbed like broken limbs. On a trip through the city the shovels would empty the chalky chemical as downy as falling snow; on the return trip, the shovels picked up badly de­composed bodies.

The carriage pulled away from the downtown train station, up Poplar Street past the empty courthouse on Main. It moved slowly through the streets, navigating the huge sinkholes and cor­roded paving. The smell of the Gayoso Bayou and all its decay was heavy in the air. A hot breeze lifted the treetops and, already, the leaves began to burn at the edges. In spite of temperatures that hovered around 100 degrees, residents had been advised to keep fires burning within their homes to cleanse the air, and windows were boarded shut against the pestilence.

As the sisters entered the infected district, yellow pieces of cardboard marked the doorways of the ill. On many porch fronts, black replaced the yellow cardboard with white chalk scrawled across it — Coffin Needed — and the dimensions for a man, woman or child.

It was a pitiful parting in a time of extravagant mourning. Un­der normal circumstances, the dying family member would have had the opportunity to say good-bye to all loved ones as they gath­ered bedside to hear the last words. The family would then have drawn the blinds, covered mirrors in black crepe and stopped all of the clocks. Strands of the deceased's hair might be cut and wo­ven into shapes like a cross to display in a glass case in the parlor. Even the children and babies would take part in the mourning, wearing a touch of black. The body would be packed in ice if it was summer and laid out in the parlor — a tradition that with time would dwindle, and the term parlor would be replaced by the living room. Finally, the women would stay behind in the home, while pallbearers in black gloves carried the coffin to its place of burial, where it would be draped with fresh flowers. Formal announcements of death would be mailed. And the widow would forgo any gold or silver jewelry wearing a dark veil during the following year and black garments for the next two and a half years.

During the epidemic, however, families prepared their own for burial, cleaning the bodies when there was time, placing the corpse in a pine box with a mixture of tar and acid before bolting the lid closed. They would listen. At some point during the day, in the suffocating silence, a team of six horses pulling a wagon would come up the block and announce, "Bring out your dead!"


A man met Constance in the street with a telegram. It was sur­prising to receive such an official note. Only days before, the newspaper had published a notice from the telegraph company re­questing people to pick up their own messages; all of the messen­gers had left the service of the agency.

The messenger handed Constance the telegram. Father and mother are lying dead in the house, brother is dying, send me some help, no money, signed Sallie U.

"Will you go to that poor girl?" he asked.

A number of nurses, doctors, ministers or nuns later wrote of the fear that accompanied them the first time they entered an in­fected home. They had nursed hundreds from the halls of sick wards, but it was something else all together to climb the steps of a porch and open a door with a yellow card swinging from a nail. The first thing to strike was the smell. It floated into the streets, a scent like rotting hay. The smell grew stronger and overpowering once the front door opened, where it mingled with soiled sheets, sweat and vomit. Inside, one never knew what to expect. Moans, cries, delirious screams, or worse, no sound at all. There was dark­ness, as windows were boarded shut, and there was the stagnant heat of imprisoned air. Then, as their eyes focused, they saw the bodies. At first it was hard to tell which ones were living and which were not. If deceased, one could never know how long they had been that way or in what condition they would be.

Constance arrived at a small but neat home. Serpentine wa­termelon vines grew wildly around the homes in the neighbor­hood, and abandoned cats and dogs howled for lost owners. A pretty young girl in mourning led her into the house. Dust floated, effulgent, in the shafts of afternoon light, and the air was heavy as steam. One corpse lay on the sofa, another one on the bed, their skin yellow and tongues black. A tall young man, nearly naked, was also in the bed, delirious, rocking back and forth. His eyes sank deep into his cheekbones ringed by bruised half moons. Outside the window, Constance heard a crowd gathering, presumably to loot the house once all were dead. Constance ran into the yard and shouted at them to leave, warned them of the plague. They scat­tered like insects in the sunlight.

The healthy were not permitted to touch the dead for fear of spreading the disease further, so Constance sent for an under­taker. But, it could take as long as two days to have the bodies re­moved. Mr. Walsh, the county undertaker, refused to pay extra wages to the colored men loading and unloading the bodies. Finally, he was arrested. From then on, the men were promised five dol­lars for an adult corpse, three dollars for a child. In the meantime, the Citizen's Relief Committee arranged burial patrols to locate bodies by report, smell or even the low flight of buzzards. At the hospitals, patients died so quickly that thirty new corpses might be piled in the dead house before the undertaker returned from the cemetery.

The grounds of Elmwood Cemetery were bloated with shal­low graves, some only sixteen inches beneath the surface. Deep, muddy scars cut into the grounds where coffins had been laid side by side in long rows in the earth. And on more than one occasion, a knock was heard before the lid was screwed tight or the coffin lowered into the ground, and a patient, thought to be dead, would call out from inside.

Elmwood was two and a half miles outside of the city between a railway line and North Walker Avenue. A streetcar ran from the city to the cemetery every ten minutes where visitors with admis­sion tickets could visit family plots. Weeping willows, seashell roads and flowers made the cemetery a peaceful place of recre­ation. Families purchased plots at Elmwood — an adult, white, first-class plot cost about fifteen dollars, while an adult, black, second-class plot cost around twelve dollars. Headstones could cost anywhere from two and a half to seventy dollars. Cemeteries had long ago moved away from church graveyards to larger land holdings outside of cities to prevent the spread of disease. Still, Elmwood strictly enforced its rule about internments — a body could only be moved during the months of December through March, considered the non-epidemic months, unless the body had been dead five years.

A young girl named Grace lived with her father, the superin­tendent, in a cottage at Elmwood. She tolled the bell each time a body was buried and kept the names in a large, red leather log­book. During the month of September, there was page after page of yellow fever victims. It was said that the bell at Elmwood tolled constantly that month.

Excerpted from The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby Copyright © 2006 by Molly Caldwell Crosby. Excerpted by permission of Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group USA, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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