Remembering ancestors who also lived through a pandemic

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By Andrew Pouncey
Today, we live in a pandemic environment titled Coronavirus or COVID-19. Our ancestors lived through the Influenza epidemic of 1918.
Their ancestors lived through the Yellow Fever epidemic of the 1870s.
The experience of Sallie Eola Reneau, a nurse and journalist, published accounts and reports of this deadly disease in Germantown.
n Germantown During
the Yellow Fever
Sallie Eola Reneau’s Articles from The Appeal
Fall of 1878
• Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee) Wed. Sep 18, 1878
Germantown
From an Appeal Correspondent
Germantown – Sept. 16
Our town is in unusual distress – eight deaths within ten days past, and there are now twelve to fifteen cases of sickness of the same kind.
I do not pretend to give a name to the disease which has proved so fatal, but I think fear and excitement, and the consequent lack of sufficient nursing have had much to do with the deaths, insomuch as the general health of the town and vicinity is far better than at this season of last year, when chills and malarial fever were almost epidemic, scarcely a family in which there was not sickness, and in some families every member was sick, but there were no deaths in town and few in the country, because there was no excitement and no declared epidemic in Memphis, as now.
On the fifth instant Professor R.B. Simmons of the public school, died of congestive chill, or yellow fever – reports conflict.
On the twelfth, Willie A. Hunt, an excellent young man, barely grown, a son of Mr. B. F. Hunt, and formerly my pupil, died of congestion of the stomach, as reported, and as is reasonable to be believed, since he had been several years under medical treatment for dyspepsia.
On the thirteenth darling little Mattie Lou Simmons, a two-year old daughter of the late Professor Simmons, died of something fatal!
On the fourteenth Miss Mary O’Neil, Mr. James Harvey Rodgers, and Mr. John Walston, a Memphis refugee, died of something fatal! On the fifteenth Mrs. Moore, a Memphis refugee, and brother of Mr. W. H. Moore, secretary of Bluff City insurance company, died of yellow-fever, as reported.
It matters not about the name of the disease, since the fatality, unprecedented in this usually healthful place, has become alarming to all who are not sustained by strong powers and unwavering faith.
On the thirteenth “the storm” of excitement began to blow, and on the fifteenth, it burst in all the force of a general stampede of refugees and many citizens.
Our railroad and express agent, who was also our telegraph operator, left us in haste.
Our indefatigable postmaster and druggist, and principal merchant, Mr. Wm. E. Miller, Sr., remains faithful to his many duties and keeps his young son Willie at work with him; nothing but death or severe sickness will drive him from his post.
He keeps his entire family at home, believing that they are as safe here as they would be elsewhere, since the fatality is spreading through the country. I board in his house, and I feel that I am as safe as his family.
Besides, the God on whom my faith is fixed rules in Germantown just the same as in any other place, and in no place can I hide from him – nowhere escape the life or death that he has appointed for me.
Among those who have thus far been faithful to the humane and christian work of administering to the sick and burying the dead, Rev. R.R. Evans (Presbyterian minister), our principal physician, Dr. R.H. M’Kay, and his son James, Mr. Ralph Hicks, Mr. Jacob Roberts, Mr. A.J. Wright, Mr. A.R. Jacob Roberts, Mr. A.J. Wright, Mr. A.R. Hurt, the Messrs. Weir, Mr. J.G. Meacham and family, and Mr. Joseph Clark and family are prominent.
There are also several colored men, whose timely help in buying the dead is worthy of remembrance.
All who are brave and faithful during an epidemic and panic deserve special mention, for the temptation to fly or hide from danger and duty is surely great, and still greater and more demoralizing is the example of the many whose animal instinct of self-preservation is more than heathenish – quite brutish!
An epidemic, like war, develops the latent strength or weakness, good or evil, of human nature, while it proves, by many sad evidences, that a coward cannot be a christian or a soldier, and it revives, with humiliating force, the much-abused text: “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”
Germantown has at no time taken part in the wicked farce of quarantine; all refugees and citizens have been, and are yet, free to come and go at will.
All things, considered, our town has done remarkably well, and will continue to do the best she can; no town has done, or will do, better. I hope the worst is over with us, as with all other communities.
My school reopened favorably on the second instant, and worked smoothly until Friday last, when “the storm” of excitement broke into it; I shall have no school, of consequence, this week.
• Germantown, Tenn.
From an Appeal Correspondent
Germantown – Sept. 18
In my communication of the 16th, it should read seven instead of eight deaths within ten days, but as I gave the names, it is easy for the reader to make the correction.
Your printer converted by nerves into powers, dyspepsia into dispepsia, and in several other instances perverted my “peculiar chirography;” but, knowing the many disadvantages under which he works, I can readily excuse him.
The 14th, instead of the 17th, as you had it, was the day of the panic – the 14 of September 1878, a day long to be remembered by the few who were left here to bury the dead, while the panic-stricken many were flying for personal safety, as if there is safety save in God, and as if God cannot save us here as elsewhere.
I was present at three burials during the day, the greatest number of interments I ever witnessed in a single day.
Someone remarked, during the interim between burying the first corpse and the second: “This is the anniversary of the declaration of epidemic yellow-fever in Memphis in 1873.”
At noon of the seventeenth, Miss Bettie Kelly died of bilious fever, as reported, at Mr. Bilbut’s, near Ridgeway station, two miles from Germantown and was brought here for internment after sunset.
She had resided here with a widowed mother and young sister until last May, when the mother died, and the sisters found separate homes. Bettie was a good girl, distinguished in this community for neatness, industry and devotion to an invalid mother through four years of weary watching and daily nursing.
So few are the well ones left here to nurse the sick and bury the dead that there is no one to give notice, and no bells are tolled, when one is to be buried.
When we see a light wagon and two or three persons passing slowly through the street, we instinctively recognize the wagon as the hearse, and the few attendants as the funeral procession.
If we desire to join that small procession we can do so, as it passes the house. Mr. Bibut and a young man with the wagon, preceded by Rev. Mr. Evans and Mr. L.A. Rhodes, with the colored grave diggers, already at the grave, constituted the force to bury Bettie Kelley.
She and her little sister had been my pupils, and I felt that I owed her especial consideration; besides, I could not bear to think that a good girl, or any other woman, should go the grave unattended by a woman.
I had never thought of seeing such a sight in Germantown, where until recently funerals have been few and attendants many; I gathered up my hat and ran after her, overtaking her at the grave, where, in the peaceful evening twilight, Mr. Evans offered a most feeling prayer, and we left the orphan girl with the ever-watchful stars to guard her grave, near the grave of her mother.
The village church yard, in the rear of the Methodist Church, is very near my place of abode and adjoining the beautiful three-acre grove in which my schoolhouse is situated; and it has not the awfully gloomy appearance of the average country graveyard.
At nine o’clock this evening, 17th instant, Mr. Thompson Clark died of chronic diarrhea, much aggravated by fear and excitement incident to “the epidemic.” His being a decided case – decidedly not yellow-fever – he had a large funeral attendance, consisting of fifteen persons.
In his sickness he had the devoted attentions of his brother, Mr. Joseph Clark, and the two families. Blessed Mr. Clark! It is a privilege “these times” to die of something else, anything else than “yellow-fever,” “that fever,” “the prevailing,” “the horrible scourge,” “the awful plague,” or the uncertain “it” – all of which names are odious and murderous, having murdered more persons during this season than disease has claimed for years.
• Germantown
From an Appeal Correspondent
Germantown – Sept. 24
I noticed that a correspondent writes from our little town about some of our best citizens, which was not necessary. He had no room to cut up. The reason he does not like the piece of which Miss Sallie E. Reneau wrote to the Appeal, was because there was not anything said about him.
Yes, there ought to have been something said about him. He did so much, and this is what he did; he went after one coffin and carried it to the graveyard.
Could not get him to go into the room where the sick person was, and the only thing he had to say about our friend A.J. Wright was, that he would credit him for a French harp.
Now if he has got any room to get mad, I don’t see it. He also said something about our friend W.E. Miller, our only druggist, about staying so close, he had to stay close; he had no time to go and see the sick; he had to stay there to sell medicine for the sick. Mr. Miller is a perfect gentleman.
Oh! I am about to leave out our good old beef man, Hon. Joseph G. Meacham, who left on account of his family.
Mr. Meacham comes back every day to see us beef. I would like for you to see your writer of the twenty-third instant; he loves too much “John Barleycorn;” your town knows something about him, or the chain gang does; I could tell you more about him but will not at present – he’s all bluff.
Mr. Miller is one of the best merchants in this place.
I will give you the new cases that are in this little town: Mrs. E.U. Gorman, whose husband just go out of bed a day or two ago; Mrs. Simmons, her husband and daughter departed this life not long since; they went to a better land.
Mr. Simmons was a Methodist minister. Mr. Billy O’Neal has also got the fever; Mrs. and Mrs. O’Neal had just got up; his sister died with the fever.
Mrs. T.C. Clark and Mr. Clark died last week. Mrs. B.F. Hurt lost her son on the seventh of September, Willie A. Hurt, who was barely grown. All else doing well.
Please do not throw this in the waste basket, for I want to show the people how wrongfully your writer talked about our friends; it was uncalled for.
• Germantown
From an Appeal Correspondent.]
Germantown, September 25. –
As a matter of interest, I sent you a list of the officers of the committee and contributors to the Germantown relief fund, as follows:
Officers
L.A. Rhodes, chairman; A. J. Wright, treasurer; R.R. Evans, secretary.
Subscriptions
L.A. Rhodes, A.J. Wright, S.C. Garner, W.E. Miller, A.N. Plunkett, W.F. Sain, F.M. Howard, G.W. Thomas, L.P. Feathersten, N.F. Harrison, S.R. Maclin, M. Neely, W.D. Holder, J.M. Brett, G. R. Tuggle, Mrs. Eliza Callis, Mrs. Lucy Cogbill, Miss S.E. Reneau, Wm. Carter, J.A. Thompson, J. Brooks, R.A. Adkins, W.J. Robbins, J.W. Wells, W.H. Myrick, R.R. Evans, E.W. Gorman, C.M. Callis, M.M. Alexander I. Stout, J.H. Alsup, N.M. Alsup, H.T. Jones, J. N. Snowden, Hill, Fontaine & Co, H. Dow, J.P. Hoffman
Of the white population of Germantown and vicinity there is but one dependent family, and that family has required very little material assistance; hence, the relief committee is in receipt of funds sufficient for present purposes.
The citizens are prepared to contribute whatever amount may be required, unless visited by affliction far greater than the community has yet suffered.
The committee has not asked nor received assistance outside of the community. Two nurses were sent, as they said, by the benevolent Howard Association to Memphis, but as their services were not required, and the committee had not called for them, they were immediately dismissed.
• Death List
September 5 – Prof. R.S. Simmons, citizen.
September 12 – Willie A. Hurt, citizen.
September 13 – Mattie Lou Simmons, child of the late Prof. R.S. Simmons.
September 14 – Miss Mary O’Neil, citizen; Mr. Jas. Harvey Rogers, citizen; Mr. John Watson, of Memphis
September 15 – Mr. Henry J. Moore, of Memphis
September 17 – Miss Bettie Kelley, former citizen, died at Ridgeway, Mr. Thompson Clark, citizen.
September 18 – Miss Jennie Johnson, citizen.
September 19 – Miss Sallie Bet Shepherd, citizen.
September 21 – Mr. J.C. Buster, citizen.
Of the sick, Mrs. Thompson Clark and Mrs. Simmons, widow of the late Prof. R.S. Simmons, are in a critical condition, but there is hope of their recovery. All the other cases “doing well.”
• Germantown
From an Appeal Correspondent.]
Germantown, September 28. –
Hope, taking advantage of the four days absence of Death, reigned in our community with levity until the night of the twenty-fifth instant, when
Death returned to reassert his rule and to number among his victims Mrs. B. F. Hurt, the beloved wife of Mr. B.F. Hurt and the honored mother of eight living children.
Besides her many excellent virtues as wife and mother, Mrs. Hurt was remarkable for personal beauty, refined taste, and love and culture of flowers.
The language of flowers to her was the expression of the conviction of her mind that her physical form, for many years diseased, was as frail as her beautiful flowers, and like them, must pass away.
It is not amiss for me to say that no school patron has ever given me more encouragement than Mrs. Hurt, in her quiet, sincere way.
In her last sickness she received every care and attention from her physician, Dr. J.A. Thompson, her husband, four of her sons (two being absent), her son-in-law and her daughter – Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter of Collierville – her other daughter, Mrs. J.H. Clark, of Collierville, being unable to attend her.
Mr. Hurt, Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter, their little daughter Katie and the colored cook were left home sick when the four sons and a sufficient number of friends follower her to the grave and laid her down to rest with the son whom she followed to the grave only thirteen days previous.
My bright and beautiful pupil, little Nellie Gorman, six-year-old daughter of Mr. E. W. Gorman, died and was buried on the twenty-sixth instant. Nellie was an unusually intelligent and sprightly child in school and out; and she was a little sunbeam in her family household.
There are few ties, stronger and tenderer than that which binds a fond father to his only daughter, and it was peculiarly touching to see the bereaved father, just up from an attack of the fever, though accompanied by a sufficient number of friends and the ever -faithful minister, following his little girl to the grave, while he left sick in his house his wife, his little son June, his wife’s sisters, Miss Ellen Edmonson and Mrs. Rogers (whose husband died at Mr. Gorman’s, on the fourteenth) and their niece, Miss Willie Allen.
This family has received kind attention from Mr. Joe Weir and Mr. Lee Rainey. Dr. R.H. M’Kay and several of his children have been quite sick for several days.
Mrs. John Walston, of Memphis, is also sick in the doctor’s house. The community is anxiously hoping to see the good doctor well and out again. There was cause for discouragement and gloom when it was announced that Dr. M’Kay was down, and Dr. Thompson was left alone to contend with the disease, which was spreading to such an extent that it became necessary to call for help.
The Howard Association of Memphis sent Dr. Bryant, of Texas, and four colored nurses, all of whom arrived by the afternoon train of the twenty-sixth instant. The nurses were distributed to Mr. Hurt’s, Mr. Gorman’s, Dr. M’Kay’s, and Mr. J.C. Clark’s. Mr. Clark’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Thompson Clark, has been quite sic, in his house, for a week.
She has been faithfully nursed by the family, and it is hoped she will recover. Mrs. Simmons, with the excellent nursing of her mother, Mrs. Booth, who is said to be “as good as a doctor” and the additional care of her brother-in-law, Dr. Malone, of Capleville, has a prospect of recovery, though still reported in a critical condition.
Mr. Lee Rainey, who has been quiet active in his services to the sick, is now at the mercy of the disease, but as he has the invaluable nursing of Mr. Joe Weir, and his (Mr. Rainey’s) mother to encourage him, it is hoped that he will soon recover.
With due deference to all other human help, there is nothing like the tender, watchful care of a good mother.
When an experienced nurse was offered to Mrs. Both, by the secretary of the Relief Association, she declined the offer, preferring to give her own attention to her daughter. Mrs. Weir, another good mother, by unremitting care, has brought her daughter through a sever attack.
Mrs. Lettie Bridges, with the assistance of her brother, Mr. Robert Scruggs, has nursed her little ones, Nannie and Henry, into health.
• Germantown
Special to the Appeal
Germantown, Oct. 3
The following is the complete deathroll of Germantown to date. All of the persons named were citizens of the village:
Prof. R. S. Simmons, Mattie Lou Simmons, James Harvey Rogers, Thompson Clark, Miss Sallie B. Shepherd, Mrs. B.F. Hunt, Dr. Robert H. M’Kay, B.F. Hunt, Sidney Carpenter, Tommie Hurt, Lee Rainey, June M. Gorman, John Walston, Memphis, Willie A. Hunt, Miss Mary O’Neil, Miss Bettie Kelley, Miss Jennie Johnson, J.C. Buster, Nellie Gorman, Mrs. Thompson Clark, Miss Ellen Edmonson, William E. O’Neil. Miss Willie Allen, Mrs. Sallie Walker, Robert Lee Hurt, H. J. Moore, Memphis. Total, 26, All white.
In proportion to population, no community has suffered more severely than Germantown, and no town in the fever district could have less local cause of disease.
For five years prior to the beginning of the present epidemic season, the deaths in this healthful place have not averaged two per annum.
There was hope and a prayerful desire that Mr. Lee Rainey’s life would be spared to the community, to which he had become so useful and necessary in this season of severe trial.
His condition was so hopeful for several days that it was with surprise and grief we received the report of his changed condition, then of his death. He leaves a bereaved mother, wife and child, and a large circle of sorrowing friends and relatives. Mrs. Walker’s death was unexpected. She had borne her trials – the death of their granddaughter, and the sickness of her son and grandson – so well, relying on God for strength to bear whatever burden.
He might put upon her, that it was hoped that by the remarkable vigor of her mind, and her unusual physical strength for one of her age, and her christian faith and fortitude, she would be upheld and supported.
But, under the pressure of this unprecedented season of distress, the silver cord of life was loosed, and a mother in Israel was removed from the remnant of her race.
No woman can fill Mrs. Walker’s place; nor person will be more missed than she, who was friend to white and black, to everyone who would be befriended.
June Gorman, my excellent little pupil, is the fifth member of his family to cross the threshold of death in the short period of eighteen days.
He leaves a sick aunt, Mrs. Rogers, and his mother in a critical condition God knows – man can never know – the sorrow of that afflicted mother.
Bobbie Hurt, who was my kind and pleasant pupil for several years, is the sixth member of his family borne to the grave within twenty days.
He leaves a brother and sister lingering on the verge of the grave.
Was ever a family in Grenada or Memphis more afflicted?
Mr. Albert Hurt is the only member of the family able to be up. His little niece, Kate Carpenter, has recovered.
The good father, from Memphis, a refugee at Mason, Tennessee, who wrote me on the twenty-sixth instant, inquiring the whereabouts of his son, need offer no apology for so doing.
It gives me pleasure to convey intelligence when the intelligence conveys happiness to the inquirer.
I have answered his anxious letter by postal card; but lest it should be delayed by irregularity in mails, I may say here that his son’s mail is, by the son’s order, forwarded from this office to Monticello, Hardin County, Tennessee.
I doubt not that his son has written, and his letters have failed to reach the father.
• Germantown
Special to The Appeal
Germantown, Oct. 6
Howard – Visitor Rogers telegraphed the Howards from Germantown, yesterday, that the last resident physician was down sick, and that the physician (name not stated) who went there yesterday had been stricken with the fever. Another physician and three nurses are badly needed.
• Germantown
From an Appeal Correspondent
Germantown, Oct. 14
There has been sixty-five cases of the yellow-fever and twenty-nine deaths since the first of September. The last three being Mrs. L.A. Rhodes, who died October 11th. She was a good, pious woman, charitable, and one of the best of mothers. Mrs. W. E. Miller died October 12th; a christian mother and a kind wife. Mr. L. A. Rhodes died October 13th; a noble-hearted man, a good father, a kind husband and a worthy citizen in every respect.
There are still ten convalescents. No new cases. I hear of Miss Sallie Reneau’s death, a most intelligent lady.
• Germantown
From an Appeal Correspondent
Germantown, Oct. 20
The death on Wednesday last, of Miss Sallie E. Reneau, daughter of General Reneau, was acknowledged the greatest calamity that has befallen the little town of Germantown, where she proved herself among the most capable of nurses, the truest and staunchest of friends, and an angel of mercy to the fever-stricken poor during the epidemic.
A lady of cultures and refinement, she enjoyed the love and respect of her neighbors, who mourn her death as a loss personal to each one of them.
Her letters to the Appeal were among the most readable and reliable of our extensive correspondence and were always welcomed by our readers. Her father and family have our sincere condolence upon a loss which the community shares with them.
Sarah Eola Reneau, known as Sallie, was born on August 1, 1836, in Somerville, Tennessee. Sallie’s brother, Captain William Edward Reneau of the Confederacy Army, was killed in the Civil War.
Her father was General Nathaniel Smith Reneau, born July 10, 1814, who served in the Mexican War from Tennessee and was mustered out at Vera Cruz on “surgeon’s certificate.” He was well-known in Washington in connection with Mexican affairs.
He had large international interests there and for some months had enjoyed close relations with the President and the Mexican Minister in regard to diplomatic relations with that country. General Reneau spent much time in Washington, D.C., although he made his home in Batesville, Mississippi.
The General has been notable for efforts for the relief of the unfortunate people of the South, but more especially for those of Mississippi.
Every few days Gen. Reneau would exhibit a letter from his daughter and would use her eloquent and touching descriptions of the trouble that was around her, as his excuse for more urgent appeals for help.
Sallie was a crusader for state-supported higher education for women in the South. Sallie Reneau of Panola County, Annie Coleman Peyton of Hazelhurst, and Olivia Valentine Hastings of Port Gibson campaigned for several decades before and after the American Civil War (1861-1865) to persuade Mississippi politicians to support a college for women equal to The University of Mississippi (1848) and Mississippi State University (1878), both established for the education of white men.
Sallie was founder and President of Reneau Female Academy, which later, with the assistance of Annie and Olivia, became The Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls, then later the Mississippi State College for Women, and now Mississippi University for Women at Columbus, Mississippi, at Columbus, Mississippi. Reneau Hall, at this college, is named in her honor. “She had devoted her life to the education of her sex, rich and poor, having been a distinguished scholar and educator.”
Sallie was a remarkable woman and, when the yellow fever epidemic broke out in West Tennessee, she went and volunteered her services as a nurse and historian of the ravages of the disease, as her published accounts and reports now before us testify.
She was a leading spirit in the organization and management of all relief and charitable movements of the place where she had voluntarily determined to do her best for those who suffered around her.