We must be at our post

Daily Reading for September 9 • Constance, Nun, and Her Companions, 1878

Even the lime could not cover the smell of death as Constance stepped off the train platform on August 20, 1878. The wind carried the odor for three miles outside of the city. Sister Constance and Sister Thecla returned from a vacation on the Hudson as soon as they heard the news of the fever; the sisters were the only ones traveling into Memphis. As they made their way through the town, signs of plague were everywhere. . . . “What we’ve decided to do is have you sleep in the country, out of the infected atmosphere,” explained one of the sisters from St. Mary’s. “You can work in town during the day.” Constance and Thecla refused. “We cannot listen to such a plan; it would never do; we are going to nurse day and night; we must be at our post.” . . .

The messenger handed Constance the telegram. Father and mother are lying dead in the house, brother is dying, send me some help, no money, signed Sallie U. “Will you go to that poor girl?” he asked. . . .

Constance arrived at a small but neat home. . . . A pretty young girl in mourning led her into the house. Dust floated, effulgent, in the shafts of afternoon light, and the air was heavy as steam. One corpse lay on the sofa, another one on the bed, their skin yellow and tongues black. A tall young man, nearly naked, was also in the bed, delirious, rocking back and forth. His eyes sank deep into his cheekbones ringed by bruised half moons. Outside the window, Constance heard a crowd gathering, presumably to loot the house once all were dead. Constance ran into the yard and shouted at them to leave, warned them of the plague. They scattered like insects in the sunlight.

The healthy were not permitted to touch the dead for fear of spreading the disease further, so Constance sent for an undertaker. But, it could take as long as two days to have the bodies removed. Mr. Walsh, the county undertaker, refused to pay extra wages to the colored men loading and unloading the bodies. Finally, he was arrested. From then on, the men were promised five dollars for an adult corpse, three dollars for a child. In the meantime, the Citizen’s Relief Committee arranged burial patrols to locate bodies by report, smell or even the low flight of buzzards. . . .

Constance left the small house sick from the stench. The air, suffused with moisture, closed the odor of death around the town and its people. She went in search of more nurses and beef tea for the ill. As she did so, she noticed a spectacular sun, a blood orange setting over the Mississippi. How strange, she thought, that one could still find anything beautiful at all.

From The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2006).

Past Posts