Tennessee State Library and Archives
Disasters in Tennessee
Panorama of East Nashville after the Great Fire, 1916, Library Photograph Collection
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Epidemic Scourges in Tennessee


"Prepare for the Invasion of the Dreaded Monster"

TVA malaria control project

A T-6 Texan spraying chemicals to kill mosquitos
as part of the TVA Malaria Control project.

  West Sandy area near Paris, Henry County, Tennessee, August 24, 1949  

RG 82, Department of Conservation Photograph Collection

Yellow Fever
Yellow fever is a virus transmitted by the bite of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito, and Memphis was devastated by it in the 1870s. Virulent fevers rocked the city, and thousands of fleeing citizens took the carrier mosquito with them to towns all over West Tennessee — staggering losses were experienced in Collierville, Paris, Brownsville, Milan, and Martin. During the epidemics of 1873 and 1878, more than 7,000 Memphians who stayed behind died horrifying deaths. Classic symptoms of yellow fever include fever, chills, hemorrhaging, severe pain, and jaundice. However, it is the victimís black vomit that distinguishes this disease from other fevers.

In the South, the plagues of 1873 and 1878 originated in New Orleans and travelled north up the Mississippi River. Their cause was not yet known, so hundreds of thousands were infected. The fever usually disappeared after the first frost, which killed the mosquitoes.

In this ghostly scene, a Howard Association physician makes his rounds in Memphis during the 1873 yellow fever epidemic. The benevolent society was founded in New Orleans during the 1873 outbreak and named for English reformer John Howard. The Howards provided for medical relief of the victims and burial of the dead.

Howard Physician
A Howard Physician on His Rounds
Memphis, Tennessee, 1873
Archives Manuscript Collection

An armed safety patrol arrests yellow fever refugees in the woods outside Memphis, 1873 or 1878.

Jumping the Quarantine
Jumping the Quarantine
Archives Manuscript Collection

The Catholic Sisters of Charity tended the sick and dying in Memphis during the fever outbreaks of the 1870s.

Catholic Sisters of Charity
Catholic Sisters of Charity
Archives Manuscript Collection

Mattie Stephenson came from Illinois to Memphis as a nurse during the yellow fever epidemic of 1873. The "Heroine of Memphis" died shortly after she began ministering to the sick and dying.

Mattie Stephenson
Martha "Mattie" Stephenson,
Memphis, Tennessee, ca. 1873
Library Photograph Collection

Remembered as the hero of the 1873 Memphis epidemic, Butler P. Anderson died after contracting yellow fever in Grenada, Mississippi, where he had gone to nurse the sick. His wife, pictured here, was herself felled by the fever shortly after returning from her husband's burial.

Mrs. Butler P. Anderson
Mrs. Butler P. Anderson
Nashville, Tennessee, ca. 1873
THS Collection


Cholera Notice

  Disinfection Notice, Trenton, Tennessee, 1892 

RG 1, Department of Public Health Records

During the nineteenth century, "King Cholera" was deadly. Tennessee suffered crippling cholera epidemics during the nineteenth century, most notably in 1834, 1849, 1873, and 1892. The disease claimed many thousands of lives throughout the 1800s. James K. Polk died of cholera in Nashville just after leaving the presidency in 1849.

The sickness is transmitted through unsanitary water contaminated with cholera bacteria, usually from human waste. A disease of the intestines, cholera produces symptoms that include profuse watery diarrhea, vomiting, excessive thirst, high fever and unbearable pain in the limbs. It is still a major problem in undeveloped countries.

The 1873 fever stalked West and Middle Tennessee and the New York Times of July 11, 1873, reported there was "Filth enough in Nashville and Memphis to give the scourge a strong foothold." It described scenes of horror in graveyards, where bones and decomposing bodies were being dug up to make way for more burials. The epidemic ravaged the towns of Gallatin, Murfreesboro, Clarksville, Shelbyville, Franklin, Pulaski and McMinnville. Memphis was doubly hard hit in 1873 — in addition to cholera, it suffered an outbreak of yellow fever.

Feb 11th 1849
Dear Aunt
...I should not say we will not be separated again, for we know not what hour or minuet [sic] death may visit us. We may be enjoying the society of each other mingling in the halls of mirth and gayety and perhaps the next day the same sound may follow us to the grave to pay the last duty to our remains. The Cholera is very bad in Nashville. You must stay with us until it has abaited. We have had some severe attacks of the cholera morbus and I think that the next will be the cholera. Ma and grand Ma have been very sick the baby is also sick give my love to Uncle James and Cousin Sallie receive the same for yourself.
Your affectionate niece,
Mary C.

Cholera Letter, 1849
Letter to Sarah Childress Polk, 1849
James K. Polk Papers
Page 2
Page 3

During the 1892 worldwide cholera epidemic, McMinn County health officer E. S. Shipley complains that his recommendations to the local sanitary commission had been met with "flippant indifference." He names cholera the "dreaded monster" and urges the town of Athens to brace itself.

Letter from E. S. Shipley, 1892
Letter from E. S. Shipley, September 7, 1892
RG 1, Department of Public Health Records

In an 1892 resolution, the Knoxville Board of Public Works provides two formulas for cholera disinfectants. This handbill encourages citizens to examine their properties weekly and apply a solution as needed. A $25.00 fine is ordered for offenders who violate city sanitary laws.

Knoxville Sanitation Notice, July 1892
Sanitation Notice, Knoxville, Tennessee,
July 25, 1892
RG 1, Department of Public Health Records

A special notice order to disinfect premises is issued by the Clinton, Anderson County, health officer. It offers a recipe for cholera disinfectant.

Clinton, TN Disinfection Notice, 1892
Special Notice, Clinton, Tennessee,
September 1, 1892
RG 1, Department of Public Health Records

Sulphur fumigation was used to disinfect and to prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, and tuberculosis.

Sulphur Fumigator, 1917
Sulphur Fumigator, 1917
RG 1, Department of Public Health Records


Pvt. Leander A. Bennett, 1918

Pvt. Leander A. Bennett, 1918

Pvt. Leander A. Bennett of Henry County
died in France in 1918 of pneumonia
brought on by influenza.
 He had been in the army a little over three months 
and in France only one day.

RG 53, Gold Star Questionnaires


I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And in-flu-enza.

A worldwide influenza pandemic broke out in 1918 just as U.S. troops were landing in Europe to fight in World War I. To prevent panic, Allied governments censored reports about the "Spanish Flu" and military death records often cited pneumonia as the cause of death.

The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 killed 25-40 million people on all seven continents and has been described as "the greatest medical holocaust in history." Among influenza's complications were hemorrhage from the nose, stomach, and intestine. Bleeding from the ears was also common.

In the 1920s the State Library & Archives sent questionnaires to the families of all Tennesseans known to have died during their World War I service. Two examples of the hundreds of responses are shown here. The questionnaires were called Gold Star Questionnaires because the mother of a soldier who died in wartime service was awarded a gold star to sew onto a small flag for display in the window. President Wilson called these women "Gold Star Mothers." A blue star indicated that a son or daughter was on active duty in the military.

Pvt. Cayce Fleming Brann, 1918

Pvt Cayce Fleming Brann, 1918
RG 53, Gold Star Questionnaires

Recently married, Pvt. Cayce Fleming Brann of Weakley County never made it to France. He succumbed to pneumonia in 1918 while awaiting orders in England. Pneumonia was often the secondary cause of death for influenza patients.

Brann Gold Star Questionnaire
RG 53, Gold Star Questionnaires

Lt. A.M. Kidd wrote this letter of consolation to Pvt. Cayce Brannís wife in McConnell, Tennessee. Published in an unidentified newspaper, it describes the young manís burial in England with full military honors.

Brann consolation letter
RG 53, Gold Star Questionnaires

More than 7,700 Tennesseans died of influenza-related sickness during the great pandemic of 1918-1919. Two waves of flu struck worldwide during 1918, the second being the more lethal. Nora Armstrong, 50, and 17-year-old Harry Featherstone, both of Memphis, died in September 1918 during that second attack.

Nora Armstrong death record

Harry Featherstone death record
Death Records of Nora Armstrong & Harry Featherstone, 1918
RG 228, State Death Records


Middle Tennessee Tuberculosis Hospital, Nashville, 1941

Bumpus Hall on the campus of the
 Middle Tennessee Tuberculosis Hospital, Nashville, 1941 

GP 44, Governor Prentice Cooper Papers

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease and was greatly feared well into the 20th century. Frequently called "consumption," TB was often fatal. By 1943 it was the No. 3 cause of death in Tennessee. The "White Plague," so named because of its strikingly pale victims, carried a social stigma similar to that of AIDS in recent years. Inglewood residents fought the location of a TB hospital in their neighborhood, claiming that property values would plummet.

Tuberculosis is a contagious lung disease (though it can attack other parts of the body) spread through the air. It is highly controlled today with early detection and antibiotics. Around 1900, the average hospital stay for a TB patient was three years.

Tennessee poet Emma Bell Miles and former President Andrew Jackson died of tuberculosis.



Section researched and written by Susan L. Gordon, Archivist