Sometimes when you hear enough speeches about being a city that cares, it can become just another phrase or another goal to throw up on the Power Point.
Every September as the summer heat begins to fade and the air becomes lighter, there is a reminder of what that phrase means in Memphis and how it has been tested in our history.
“Arrived. Streets white with lime; wagon loads of coffins. A sad homecoming,” wrote a woman whose arrival in the city was a return to a city she had seen suffer five years earlier.
Louise Caroline Darling was an Episcopal nun from New York state who arrived in Memphis on Aug. 20, 1878. Sister Constance, as she was known, arrived by train with Sister Thecla at a train station that days earlier had been filled with passengers going the other way – leaving town.
Her handwritten notes remain along with letters to her superiors and an unpublished account of the Yellow Fever epidemic written a year later, in 1879, by a survivor are preserved in a web archive, Project Canterbury (http://anglicanhistory.org). Volunteers have reproduced out of print texts that tell the first hand story of Memphis in one of its worst and finest hours.
“At night burning bedding everywhere, leaving black piles in front of the houses,” Sister Constance wrote nine days after her arrival. “One cares so much for the lovely weather, the evening light; one sees such exquisite pictures everywhere. It seems almost heartless to care for them.”
Thousands had tried to board trains out of Memphis in the days before the nuns arrived. One of those who tried to board the train wrote:
“We were nearly crushed in obtaining our places. At last, the overcrowded train moved off amid the loud and heart rending cries of those left behind. I was told that a child and an old person were trampled to death near us on the platform.”
Days later, Rev. Morgan Dix recalled what followed the rush away from Memphis.
“The city was still and death-like. There was something wonderfully moving to the soul in this contrast – this change from wild and terrible confusion to the calm stillness of the deserted streets, the closed stores and houses, the rapid passing of hearses and wagons with the dead.”
The nuns were offered housing outside of the area around the church which was a hot zone for the fever. They refused it and chose to live at the church as well as tend to the sick who came there and who were too sick to leave the homes in the area.
The group at the church included Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons, who like Constance was sending reports to church superiors outside the city.
“Go and turn the destroying angel loose upon a defenseless city,” he wrote on the first of September. “Let him smite whom he will, young and old, rich and poor, the feeble and the strong, and as he will, silent, unseen and unfelt, until his deadly blow is struck. Give him for his dreadful harvest all the days and nights from the burning midsummer sun until the latest heavy frosts, and then you can form some idea of what Memphis and all this Valley is, and what they are going on to be for the next eight weeks.”
Many died in their homes. Sometimes everyone in the house, sometimes with a random cruelty.
“Found small neat house, pretty young girl in mourning, one corpse on sofa, one on bed, tall young man in bed, delirious, rocking himself back and forth, scarcely clothed at all,” Constance wrote.
The girl was one of a growing number of orphans that filled the city’s orphan asylums. One asylum received 26 orphans in a day and had double that number in four days.
When the asylum for white children was filled, the nuns integrated Canfield Orphan Asylum which was for black orphans. They had to confront a barricade of armed men intent on keeping the fever out of their part of town or even the chance of the fever.
Sister Constance broke the barricade, according to the Dix account by saying, “Is it possible that you would have us refuse to these children the very protection you have obtained for your own?”
The present St. Mary’s Cathedral stands were the original church was all those years ago. To the east and west of it are state of the art hospitals. Around the cathedral are homes that have seen better days. Some are lived in. Others look lived in but aren’t supposed to be. It’s a different condition with a different kind of desperation that today begs the same question Constance asked in a different time.
When she became ill, no one was sure if it was the fever. She claimed it was exhaustion.
Parsons died from the fever six days after penning his hellish description of a dying city. By then, Constance was dying. She died three days later. Her final words were “Hosanna” – said several times, each time the word growing fainter. She died three hours after the bell at St. Mary’s tolled.
Sister Thecla died four days later. It had been 25 days since the two nuns came to Memphis.
Sister Ruth and Sister Frances followed and all four were buried in Elmwood Cemetery, their coffins arranged in a cross formation with a single four-sided headstone that remains.
There is still hope and there is still despair and they still travel together.
There would be no cure for Yellow Fever for another 20 years or so after the 1878 Memphis epidemic. Sister Constance, the three women she was buried with and others like them are called martyrs because they must have known that if they got the fever there was no certain cure. It was a race to the first frost when the fever left as quickly as it came.
Our city has been saved just as surely as it has been ravaged. Compassion has always won in our city’s history. And it has made strangers to our city Memphians in the truest sense of the word. Memphis endures because it is not a place. It is a story still being written by anyone who sees themselves in others. Compassion is not an old passage.