Thursday, May 24, 2012
Yellow fever mania
By SUE WATSON
Assistant librarian Robert Patterson has locked onto a project that he can’t seem to let go of. He is trying to find the grave of every 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic victim in Holly Springs.
So far, his search on his lunch hour and after work and weekends has led him not only to photograph about 60 of the 105 or so marked graves at Hill Crest Cemetery, but he has also expanded the Yellow Fever Epidemic exhibit at the Marshall County Historical Museum. The county library now has several books about the epidemic in Mississippi.
When Patterson first began looking for graves in Hill Crest, he was looking for unmarked mass graves, which he said deserved a marker. His passion is that people who lived through these times should be remembered and their lives honored, he said.
“I wanted to do something informative and respectful to glorify the memory of their lives,” he said.
In the following Q.&A. interview, Patterson reports some of his findings.
Q. How did you become interested in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 in Holly Springs?
A. I heard my parents and grandmother talk about a great yellow fever epidemic in Memphis. They also talked about mass graves of the yellow fever victims in Elmwood Cemetery. When I began working at the Marshall County Library, I was surprised to learn there were fever victims buried here. I was curious of who those people were. Browsing through census records online, I found out the victims were citizens from all walks of life. I was able to piece together a few stories.
Q. Who were some of the heroes of the epidemic?
A. Ben Cayce was born in Kentucky, the oldest of four children. He came to Holly Springs to work as a telegraph operator during the epidemic – the only way to communicate rapidly with the outside world. A brief item in The Commercial Appeal states that Ben Cayce died at his post, a victim of the yellow fever. He was just 20 years old.
Just a few yards in front of his gravestone in Hill Crest are three graves of the Malsi family – Jake Malsi and two teen-aged daughters. Jake worked as a butcher in town. I learned that one daughter was killed by lightning during a thunderstorm in early August 1878, a month before the epidemic hit Holly Springs. Two months later her father and sister died of the yellow fever and were buried beside her.
Just a few paces from their graves, across the drive, is the grave of Guy Allen and his wife. Gordon Allen was a victim of the yellow fever epidemic and lost four sisters to yellow fever.
Col. William Holland, the true hero of the epidemic, organized the first relief efforts by opening his home – The Yellow Fever House – to the sick and dying. He telegraphed to the outside world and reported the progress of the disease to newspapers as it progressed. Tragically, he was one of the last victims of the disease, dying of the fever just days before the first frost that killed the mosquitoes, ending the epidemic.
The exhibit at the museum features a copy of his funeral notice and a brief biography.
Q. You tried to locate as many grave sites of those who died in Holly Springs – over 300, I believe – in a span of a month and a half. Is that correct?
A. The first victims of the epidemic were refugees from Grenada who had come to Holly Springs in late August to escape the epidemic there. They, unknowingly, brought the epidemic with them.
Col. Holland, the editor of the Holly Springs Reporter, opened his house as a refuge for those sick and dying. Father Antonio Oberti and the Sisters of Mercy from the Bethlehem Academy volunteered to care for the sick.
There was a mass exodus of people from Holly Springs trying to escape the epidemic. As the number of sick and dying increased with no one able to care for them, the courthouse was converted into a hospital. It was said there were so many deaths, the lawn was covered with coffins. Horse-drawn wagons carried the dead to the cemetery night and day. There were no funerals.
Many victims were buried in family plots, but when the number of dead was too great and there was not time to dig graves, the dead were buried in mass graves.
After the epidemic, many of the markers were lost – there were no family members left to mark the graves with permanent markers or stones. The names written on wooden slats faded and the wood rotted.
Of the 1,440 cases of fever reported, about 304 died. Of those about 100 have marked graves at Hill Crest. The rest are buried in unmarked graves or are buried elsewhere.
The fever officially ended in late October with the first frost, with a few already infected and dying in the weeks afterward. The official count – 304 – probably does not include those who died in far-off countryside areas over Marshall County.
Q. You took pictures of this project and enlarged some for the exhibits at the museum and placed one in the library window. And you used some of the published stories. This exhibit is draped by a large yellow ribbon and is about triple the size of the original exhibit. Is that correct?
A. As I learned more and read accounts and memoirs of people who experienced the epidemic, I became interested in re-doing the exhibit to effectively relay to the viewer the horror and magnitude of the epidemic.
I researched several months for the exhibit that I felt would be respectful for the people who experienced it. I want people to walk away from the exhibit with a better understanding of how horrible it was for those people - how utterly helpless they must have felt.
The exhibit is about four times the size of the previous one.
Q. Describe the enthusiasm and support for this exhibit from museum curator Lois Shipp.
A. I had worked on an exhibit called “The Funeral Room” prior to this one. I photographed about a dozen graves of children buried at Hill Crest, looked up their obituaries and created a photographic exhibit which details the high mortality rate of infants and children prior to modern medicine, vaccines and antibiotics.
Ms. Lois was pleased with what I put together, and I asked her if I could do something similar for the yellow fever exhibit. She pretty much gave me free rein to do what I wanted and lots of wall space.
First I wanted to post photos of 100 graves and a brief biography of each person, but finding out about each person became too time-consuming. Instead, I decided to focus on the epidemic itself, how the fever came from New Orleans to Vicksburg and Memphis, and then to Grenada and Holly Springs.
I included a montage of various telegraph messages sent from Holly Springs to the outside world.
Sherwood Bonner wrote a graphic account of the epidemic just four months after the epidemic ended, and I included that also. I also included copies of illustrations that appeared in publications during the epidemic.
The highlight of the exhibit is a five-foot photo of the Martyrs’ Memorial at Hill Crest. Another highlight is a poem I found, reputedly written about a little girl who died in the epidemic. When Ms. Lois viewed the finished exhibit for the first time, she told me, “You had a vision and you brought it to life.”
Q. You mentioned some books about the epidemic in Mississippi at the library telling how the epidemic spread from New Orleans to Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky by people trying to outrun the disease.
A. Several library patrons asked what resources we have on the epidemic. We have two books which specifically address the 1878 epidemic – “The American Plague,” by Molly Caldwell Crosby, and “Plague Among the Magnolias,” by Deanne Stephens Newer which focuses on the Mississippi epidemic.
Other sources I have found are librarians at the Memphis Public Library. They graciously let me scan most of their yellow fever collection. Many of the photos I used in the exhibit came from their collections.
The Newer book suggests that people who died in areas outside populated towns and cities were buried in family cemeteries on privately-owned lands or in small church graveyards.
Often they were buried in hastily dug graves by family members who were sick with the fever themselves.
In the hot summer days of August and September, there were instances where the bodies were buried beside the front porch in shallow graves to get the corpses out of the house and quickly buried.
I wonder, how many of these graves, as well as houses, have been lost over the past 134 years?
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