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Plague Among the MagnoliasPlague Among the Magnolias

The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Mississippi

Deanne Stephens Nuwer

Narrated by Cynthia Hemminger

Available from Audible

Book published by The University of Alabama Press

Deanne Stephens Nuwer explores the social, political, racial, and economic consequences of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Mississippi. A mild winter, a long spring, and a torrid summer produced conditions favoring the Aedes aegypti and spread of fever. In late July New Orleans newspapers reported the epidemic and upriver officials established checkpoints, but efforts at quarantine came too late. Yellow fever was developing by late July, and in August deaths were reported. With a fresh memory of an 1873 epidemic, thousands fled, some carrying the disease with them. The fever raged until mid-October, killing many: in Mississippi 28 percent of yellow fever victims died. Thought to be immune to the disease, blacks also contracted the fever in large numbers, although only 7 percent died. There is no consensus explaining the disparity, although it is possible that exposure to yellow fever in Africa provided blacks with inherited resistance.

Those fleeing the plague encountered quarantines throughout the South. Some were successful in keeping the disease from spreading, but most efforts failed. These hit hardest were towns along the railroads leading from the river, many of which experienced staggering losses.

Yellow fever’s impact, however, was not all negative. Many communities began sanitation reforms, and yellow fever did not again strike in epidemic proportions. Sewer systems and better water supply did wonders for public health in preventing cholera, dysentery, and other water-borne diseases. Mississippi also undertook an infrastructure leading to acceptance of national health care efforts: not an easy step for a militantly states' rights and racially reactionary society.

Deanne Stephens Nuwer is on the faculty in the Department of History at the University of Southern Mississippi.


“Plague is a human story, as well as a socio-political and economic story that tells how Mississippi took a difficult step forward to better care for its citizens. I highly recommend this very well documented and highly readable work for high school, public, and academic libraries, and those special collections that focus on Mississippi history.”

Mississippi Library Association Book Reviews

“Nuwer brings to the story a detailed, thick description of events in one state, solidly based in archival sources and local newspaper accounts. The ways in which life was completely disrupted become clear in the revelations of letters and diaries. It was not only sickness and death that wrecked the commonplace, but a lack of normal commodities such as food and clothing as trading stopped, the pervasive fear of neighbor and stranger as potential carriers of disease, and the conflicting desires to serve others and save oneself. Few books have depicted this disruption and panic as clearly as Nuwer’s account.”

Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“Nuwer's study provides important insight into the interrelatedness of political history and public health care and further reminds us that this connection did not begin in the twentieth, or twenty-first, century.”

Journal of Mississippi History

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