The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Grenada, Mississippi, in 1878
A monster attacked Grenada, Mississippi, in the summer 1878, provoking half the town’s population to flee and killing one third of those who stayed. Yellow fever, caused by a prototype member of the genus Flavivirus which originated in Africa, was brought to the New World in the slave trade. It causes a hemorrhagic fever and is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito as it feeds on infected people and then continues to feed and infect others. Molecular epidemiologic data suggest there are seven genotypes of the yellow fever virus and the type that hit Grenada was particularly virulent causing intense headache combined with high fever, internal bleeding, and liver, kidney and heart failure. In some cases, victims ran into the streets, in the disease's last stages, with blood coming from their eyes, ears, nose and mouth.
Grenada’s population in 1878 -- evenly split between black and white citizens and numbering 2,500 residents -- was quickly overcome by the virus. African Americans, who had a greater chance of prior exposure and thus greater resistance to the virus, suffered less during the epidemic. White citizens had little resistance and suffered exponentially greater fatalities. Reports in late August of 1878 cited a high number of victims that were uncared for and of dead left unburied in their homes or in the streets. Of those citizens of Grenda that stayed in the town during the epidemic, 1,040 were infected and 350 died (the dead included 260 whites and 90 blacks). By the time the epidemic had burned itself out in October 1878, only four white residents had not contracted the disease.
Dr. H.J. Ray, president of the Grenada County Board of Health, described the outbreak in the following chronology: July 24th – two women at a residence on Depot Street came down with chills -- one of them, a Mrs. Fields died on July 31st; August 4th - experts from New Orleans arrive in Grenada and determined the fever that had killed Mrs. Fields was "yellow fever of the most aggravated type;” August 5th - clerk at variety store and a mulatto women died of the virus with many more sick; August 16th - Dispatches from Grenada describe a desperate situation. The Times Picayune reported: "... the volcanic suddenness with which yellow fever had overtaken the community." While the St. Louis Globe Democrat wrote: " ... the most fearful war could not have produced a greater desolation." Nearby Water Valley, in a panic, instituted a private "shot gun" quarantine. August 23rd - "not over 20 active men in the town -- dead left in the street."; August 26th - Secretary of War orders the U.S. Army Quartermaster in Louisville, Kentucky to dispatch volunteers with tents and 15,000 rations of pork, beans, sugar and coffee to Grenada.
A general quarantine was put in effect and trains would not stop but instead sped through Grenada at high speed. All contact with the outside world was lost. Food ran short, no one was in the streets, looting began occurring, and there was great suffering throughout the community. A reporter for the St. Louis Globe Democrat wrote: "Grenada, passed in the night, contained a single light illuminating the yellow face of a corpse lying on the railway platform." Yellow fever victims bring to mind an image of a real-life horror movie except this was reality and Grenada, Mississippi was, on a per capita basis, one of the hardest hit areas in 1878.
There were heroes: black and white. Three pastors were killed by yellow fever as they stayed or returned to Grenada to be with their congregations. The story of Rev. Hiram Haddick, the 33-year-old pastor at First Baptist Church in Grenada, was one of those who died. He was away from Grenada when the epidemic started but chose to return at its height. He literally walked into a living hell to be with his flock. The epitaph on his tombstone in Odd Fellows cemetery reads “He being dead yet speaketh” and refers to the message he conveyed in being faithful to his parishioners regardless of the danger.
Bob Reed of Water Valley had immunity to the fever from a previous infection and was able to help care for the sick. In Holly Springs, a black house maid, Minerva (former slave) stayed with two white children and cared for them after their parents died. In one passage, J.H. Campbell of the Grenada City Council mentioned the formation of a "Grenada African-American Guard" to do night patrols to protect the town from looting. The story of Grenada in the summer of 1878 was in many ways a horror story but also one of heroism, courage and resilience.
The plague that decimated Grenada, killed 20,000 people in the Mississippi Valley, and cost over $200 million in lost income, decreased productivity, and the expense of containing the virus and treating its victims. This was nearly equivalent to the entire federal budget of 1877 which was $238 million. The cost to the state of Mississippi was estimated at $40 million.
Mississippi’s state health agency could not effectively deal with the epidemic. Compounding this situation was the failure of Mississippi's governor, John Marshall Stone, to provide support to the affected communities. The result was economic and human losses that were significant and, according to some historians, challenged core values of the antebellum period -- traditionalism and self-determination – in which communities were expected to take care of themselves.
As conditions worsened, assistance was provided in large part by private citizens and philanthropic entities across the United States. More than $520,000 was donated by private sources to help Mississippians in 1878 and the federal government provided an additional $150,000. This tragedy was cited as bringing the Union together and caused former enemies to comment on the "strong bond of sympathy and fraternity" that was demonstrated. After the epidemic, former Confederate President Jeff Davis issued a statement thanking Northern cities that sent aid to the South (Davis lost his last surviving son in the epidemic).
A major lesson coming out of this disaster was the need for government to take control in disaster situations and act to protect local communities. In addition to local impact, yellow fever interrupted inter-state trade and provoked the federal government to address health issues. These actions led to national health initiatives which, one may argue, eventually resulted in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("Obama Care").
From my own perspective, I discovered that the yellow fever vaccine was developed only 14 years before I was born and I still remember the yellow fever vaccine that was administered to me at the Grenada County Health Clinic prior to my departure to Brazil as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I still have the shot card, proof of the protection the vaccine provided me as I set off on an adventure to a part of the world where yellow fever was still endemic.
Note: For a fascinating read, see the webpage containing the names of the victims of Yellow Fever epidemic in Grenada – https://sites.rootsweb.com/~msgrenad/grenyfvr.htm. Thanks to June Sultan for this link. You can also find more of my writing on yellow fever and other topics at my blog – Sleepless in Baghdad – https://sleepless-in-baghdad.blogspot.com/2011/10/lessons-learned-1878-yellow-fever.html?q=yellow+fever.