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Love in a Time of Yellow Fever


By Gage McKinney

(Written for Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Grass Valley, March 2020)


        When Yellow Fever broke out in Memphis, Tennessee in August 1878, 30,000 people fled the city in panic, and by any means possible, trains, buggies, carriages and furniture vans, or anything that could float on the river.

     At the same time, moving against the tide, two Episcopal nuns entered the city. They went to serve the 20,000 men, women and children left behind.

        Sisters Constance and Thecla walked into a ghost town, a city of boarded up shops and shuttered houses.  They found three victims lying on High Street. In the coming days they would find fresh victims each morning on the streets and in city parks. An eerie silence hung over Memphis, broken only by the clop - clop of horse carts hauling caskets.

        No one then understood the disease. The first symptom was often a slight chill, followed within hours by headache, high temperatures and delirium, an erratic pulse, and a yellowish tinge to the skin and eyeballs. The last stage was black vomit, and within days or sometimes hours, death. All that doctors of the era knew was the Fever came in the summer and faded in the fall, and the only prevention was escape. The Memphis newspaper simply said: “We are doomed.”

        Though many had fled, others like the newspaper editor, remained at their posts. Doctors remained as did the Very Rev. George C. Harris, dean of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, and two priests, the Rev. Charles C. Parson and the Rev. Louis S. Schuyler. Three Episcopal doctors made their headquarters at the cathedral.  The returning sisters, Constance and Thecla, joined other nuns who staffed the cathedral school and orphanage. Two more nuns, volunteers sent by the mother house in New York, arrived later. Other Episcopalians and other Christians also remained to battle the outbreak.

        St. Mary’s Cathedral was located in Memphis’ most infected neighborhood. There, amid sweltering heat, Constance and the others attended the sick, comforted the dying and provided for a growing number of orphaned children. The death toll rose to 200 a day. Grave diggers resorted to digging mass graves.

        Father Parsons, a West Point graduate and Civil War veteran, described the scene as a “Destroying Angel loose upon a defenseless city.” Excerpts from letters the sisters wrote suggest the horror.

        Sister Ruth described the orphanage: “There are nearly 50 children here now; we have no clean clothes, and it is utterly impossible to get any washing done. There is no one to send for supplies, and no stores are open.” “There is plenty of money here now,” she added, “but it buys no head to plan, no hands to wash, nor the common necessaries of life.”

        Sister Constance wrote: “Yesterday I found two young girls, who had spent two days in a two-room cottage with the unburied bodies of the parents, their uncle in utmost suffering and delirium, and no one near them.” With the help of a police officer she got the bodies removed. Later Constance wrote: “I just crawled home and fairly dropped into bed, first time in three nights.”

        When the frost came in October, the pestilence ended. By then more than 5,000 had died. Six of the Episcopalian volunteers contracted the Fever and died – Sisters Constance, Thecla, Ruth and Frances, and the priests, Parsons and Schuyler. All are buried in a nearby cemetery. The two priests share a grave bearing the inscription, “Greater Love Hath No Man.” The high altar in St. Mary’s Cathedral memorializes the four sisters. They all are commemorated in the Episcopal Church on September 9 as “Constance and Her Companions” and remembered as “the Martyrs of Memphis.” More than 20 years later, Major Walter Reed, U. S. Army surgeon, proved mosquitoes carried Yellow Fever.


        During the current pandemic, healthcare workers have died in Missouri, Georgia, New York and other states. In California, more than 1,600 healthcare workers have been infected with Covid-19. “There is not one among us who is not frightened stepping through these hospital doors each day to simply continue doing our job,” a Seattle nurse told BuzzFeed.

        In the 142 years since the martyrs of Memphis, science has taught us how to protect ourselves and our communities from infectious disease. In their time, Constance and her companions affirmed life by sacrificing everything. In our time, let us affirm life by praying for the safety of doctors, nurses and medical workers. And let us support them by wearing masks, keeping our distance and washing our hands, and by volunteering to help as we can.


I had help from Dr. Scott Kellermann. Doctors and

professors who helped the world overcome Yellow Fever

are enshrined at Scott’s alma mater,

Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans.

Dorothy Starr drove an ambulance in 1918 – 19.

Volunteers Battled the 1918-19 Pandemic

By Gage McKinney 


The Union, Nevada County, March 28, 2020

Reprinted with permission

        In 1918 – 19 the Spanish influenza, passing in waves, infected about 20% of the population, killed about 100 people and left dozens of orphans in Nevada County. If not for volunteers, it would have been worse.

        Medical resources were already stretched when local cases were reported in October 1918. Many doctors had enlisted for World War I.  Grass Valley’s Dr. Carl Jones, for example, was directing a naval hospital in South Carolina. As a consequence, Nevada County relied on nurses from the county hospital near Nevada City and the Jones hospital in Grass Valley. Red Cross nurses and medical students came from outside the county to help. They were soon overwhelmed.

        Facing an alarming situation, Grass Valley Mayor William J. Mitchell, a butcher, asked the County Board of Health to open a temporary facility to relieve the hospitals. The county opened an emergency hospital on Pleasant Street in a retreat center at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. The Grass Valley Ladies Relief Society funded it and Red Cross nurses and volunteers staffed it.

        As medical science knew nothing of viruses in 1918, a vaccine was inconceivable. The people who helped patients most were professional nurses, and on Pleasant Street a registered nurse supervised volunteers who brought relief to dozens of patients.

        When the towns and county required everyone to wear a mask, 60 women and girls took up their needles to sew them and then handed them out on street corners and at the railroad depot in Grass Valley. Another corps of women sewed masks in Nevada City.

        Volunteers came from every quarter. Women from the most prominent families in Nevada City soothed patients. In Grass Valley, Dorothy Starr, daughter of the Empire mine’s managing director, drove a Red Cross ambulance. When funeral homes were overwhelmed, volunteers drove hearses. For many people sheltered in their homes the U. S. Mail was a vital connection. When postal workers succumbed to flu, volunteers stepped into the ranks, including Nevada County teenager Mattie Luther, who served her rural route in storms and ice.

        One of the best-remembered volunteers was the man the Morning Union called “the sage of Chinatown,” Yuen Yen Sing. He preferred his nickname, “Ah Louie.” Born in China, he came to California when young and lived in Grass Valley for more than 50 years. The racial exclusion laws of the time left him ineligible for U. S. citizenship, but the newspaper called him “a foster son of Uncle Sam.” “Ah Louie would do anything humanly possible to help the community.”

        Ah Louie kept one of Grass Valley’s Chinese temples, sold fruit and vegetables from baskets on a pole, and cared for Memorial Park. He volunteered with the fire department, was often the first man on the scene and was adept at connecting hoses to hydrants.

        After flu broke out, Ah Louie volunteered as the Red Cross messenger. He knew every corner of Grass Valley and walked miles every day delivering instructions, medicine and supplies as directed by a nurse. He walked into infected houses showing no fear, delivered supplies and brought back reports in his broken English. Ah Louie lived to become the oldest member of the fire department and to wear his helmet and silver GVFD badge in Fourth of July parades. But he spoke with greatest pride of his role in the pandemic.

        During the flu pandemic of 1918 – 19 some American communities, especially in the east where the flu struck first, became immobilized by fear. In some places people turned inward and neglected their neighbors. This was especially true where local newspapers under reported the situation. In Nevada County the newspaper reported the pandemic fully and factually, enabling citizens to make informed choices. Many chose not to cower but to fight, and in volunteering they found courage.

        Across our county today one hears people calling from a distance, “Hang in there” or “Stay well.” In 1918 – 19 people here hung in and came through due to the resolve of professionals and the spirit of volunteers.

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