Yellow jack. The saffron scourge. Call it what you will, but in a house on a 4,000-acre plantation outside Grenada, Mississippi, in the summer of 1878, yellow fever struck gold: an entire family -- the Angevine family of Memphis. They'd fled to the countryside, as had half the population of the city by August, to escape the sure and sudden signs of infection: a piercing headache and sensitivity to light, followed by a high fever, kidney failure, and internal hemorrhaging. Then the vomiting of black blood. Then the bleeding from eyes and nose. Then the skin turning bright yellow. All of this within hours of that first crippling headache.
When a former slave, now a servant for the Angevines, entered the house, a swarm of flies is what he saw. What he discovered was Mr. Angevine (a Memphis lawyer and widower), his children, his guests, and his servants all dead, save for one: 9-year-old daughter Lena. The girl was barely alive, but with the help of that unnamed servant, she survived. When conditions were safe, she returned to Memphis to attend St. Mary's school. She then trained as a nurse, and she married (rumor has it) well. But in 1898, Lena answered a newspaper ad calling for nurses in Cuba, site of the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War. The surgeon general of the United States was looking for nurses immune to yellow fever, because American troops still stationed in Cuba were dying of the disease. So Lena went to work under the direction of Major Walter Reed -- the doctor who spearheaded efforts, 20 years after yellow fever decimated Memphis, to locate the cause of the saffron scourge. In due time and with the help of his team of doctors and volunteer patients, he discovered that source. The story is told in Molly Caldwell Crosby's The American Plague (Berkley Books). And that's not all Crosby has to tell.
Picture Memphis in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The city may have been second in size in the South (behind New Orleans), and cotton may have been king, but corruption ruled its politics. Over a hundred saloonkeepers and 18 houses of prostitution lined its streets (along with two dozen churches). Public sanitation was deplorable. The city, with 50,000 inhabitants, had no waterworks. Citizens dumped raw sewage into the Gayoso Bayou, where the Wolf River met the Mississippi and where the bodies of horses floated. Mud and manure made up the main thoroughfares. Better-dressed women wore rubber Wellingtons to walk the rotting wooden sidewalks. Cholera, malaria, and two major outbreaks of yellow fever had beset the city. (The epidemic of 1873 killed 2,000.)
And yet, in March 1878, Memphis celebrated Mardi Gras on a grand scale. But by July, the city was facing a worst-case scenario. A mosquito ( Aedes aegypti ) -- carrier of the yellow-fever virus from monkey to mosquito to man, from West Africa to the Caribbean to New Orleans and up the Mississippi -- was the "vector." Out of the 19,000 Memphians who did not flee the city that unusually hot summer of 1878, over 5,000 died, a mortality rate higher than the combined loss of life suffered during the Chicago fire, the San Francisco earthquake, and the Johnstown flood. Memphis lost its charter by the end of 1878, but the city, dramatically altered, survived. As Crosby points out, gone permanently: a major share of the city's cosmopolitan, enterprising population of movers and shakers. Enter: a population that was poorer, largely rural, and fundamentalist Protestant. But thanks to an engineer named George Waring, the city, in the space of 15 weeks, got its first sewers.
"I'd heard abut the yellow-fever epidemics in Memphis," says Molly Caldwell Crosby, a Dallas native, a graduate of Rhodes College, the holder of a master's degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins, and today a Memphian herself, along with husband Andrew Crosby and their two children.
"The more I looked into the epidemic of 1878, the more I was fascinated. The most shocking element of the story was the sheer devastation. Sixty percent of the population of Memphis fled or died, leaving empty houses and vacant offices. It must have felt like a ghost town. I wanted to re-create the devastation, the city as it was. You can quote the statistics -- a tenth of Memphis' population dead of the disease -- but I also wanted to avoid the sensationalistic. Still, the narrative had to depict just how horrible it all was. Interesting . . . tragic to read, in letters and diaries, of wives and children sent away by husbands and fathers, never to be seen again. The doctors, nurses, and nuns who voluntarily gave up their lives. And as for the later story of Walter Reed: Most people know the name, but they don't know why they know it."
Readers will know why once they reach the second half of The American Plague , which is devoted to the brave work of Reed and others in Cuba to identify and isolate the virus and to the followup work of Max Theiler, the man whose search for a vaccine for yellow fever during the 1930s earned him a Nobel Prize in 1951.
But what of the chances for some future outbreak of yellow fever, if not in Memphis then somewhere in the world, despite the vaccine, despite improvements in sanitation generally and the eradication of mosquito breeding grounds?
"There is a vaccine," Crosby says. "But there's not enough of it in production. There are certainly the modes of transportation and poverty today to make an epidemic possible. And there's still the mosquito."
But which mosquito? Aedes aegypti , Crosby informs us in The American Plague , has a cousin known to carry dengue, encephalitis, and yes, yellow fever: Aedes albopictus , or the Asian tiger mosquito. It's a "more voracious feeder," Crosby writes. It's been known to crowd out aegypti . It's a perfect vector to spread the yellow-fever virus. It entered the United States in the mid-1980s, and it's been spotted in Memphis. The site was Elmwood Cemetery, final resting place for the many who died here in 1878. And for the 1,500 who died unidentified, there's still a treeless patch of ground at Elmwood. It's known as "No Man's Land."
Read about it in The American Plague . Barnes & Noble for November has chosen the title as part of its "Discover Great Writers" series. Borders Books for November is featuring Molly Caldwell Crosby as one of its "Original Voices."
No need to introduce the writer, native Memphian, and former Memphis magazine staff member Hampton Sides. He penned the best-seller Ghost Soldiers , along with Americana and Stomping Grounds . His feature articles have been twice nominated for National Magazine Awards. He's been with Outside magazine, with offices in Santa Fe, where he lives with his wife and children and which makes his latest book, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West (Doubleday), a fitting subject. When he says "epic," Sides means it.
The book, at 400-plus pages, is a multi-layered look at how the West was won and lost -- won, eventually, by the U.S.; lost by Spain, then Mexico. Caught in the middle of the battling parties: tribes of Native Americans and in particular the proud (and shamefully treated) Navajo. The central figure, though, in Sides' wide-ranging, rapid narrative is Kit Carson, a trapper turned scout turned soldier -- an adventurer devoted to his wife but a man quite capable of remorseless killing.
Sides makes every one of his pages (backed by notes and a mountainous bibliography) race with all the excitement of a "blood-and-thunder." That's the name given to the pulp novels that often featured a fictionalized Kit Carson. Nothing "pulp" or fictional, however, about Blood and Thunder . I'm thinking popular history at its most entertaining and enlightening. In a word: superb.