The boat was to tarry at Memphis till ten the next morning. It is a beautiful city, nobly situated on a commanding bluff overlooking the river. The streets are straight and spacious, though not paved in a way to incite distempered admiration. No, the admiration must be reserved for the town's sewerage system, which is called perfect; a recent reform, however, for it was just the other way, up to a few years ago--a reform resulting from the lesson taught by a desolating visitation of the yellow-fever. In those awful days the people were swept off by hundreds, by thousands; and so great was the reduction caused by flight and by death together, that the population was diminished three-fourths, and so remained for a time. Business stood nearly still, and the streets bore an empty Sunday aspect.
Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)
In Part I, yellow fever made one of its regular assaults on the United States in 1878 with an epidemic that spread, as it frequently did, up the Mississippi corridor, where it struck Memphis with an unprecedented ferocity, sending its residents into panicked flight and decimating those unable or unwilling to escape, sickening eighty percent of those who remained and killing over 4,000 white residents and nearly one thousand African-Americans. A particularly virulent strain of the fever, it affected even those who had survived previous bouts and were believed to have acquired immunity to the disease.
In addition to the over-five-thousand residents who died in Memphis, hundreds of others who fled the city also perished. All told, the 1878 epidemic claimed some 20,000 lives in the Mississippi valley. But in the United States, the days of yellow fever as an epidemic killer were coming to a close.
Three years after the Memphis epidemic, a Cuban doctor, Carlos Findlay, first proposed the possibility that yellow fever might be carried by a mosquito, and although his theory was met with universal ridicule, he persevered and in subsequent years identified Aedes aegypti as that carrier. The investigations Findlay undertook over the next decade were studied and applied by a U.S. Army doctor, Walter Reed, after the invasion and occupation of Cuba in the Spanish-American war. Reed helped demonstrate the veracity of Findlay's theory of the cause of the fever that had claimed the lives of thirteen times more military men than fatalities due to combat in the war, and set the stage for the wholesale application of the those findings during the building of the Panama Canal in the next decade.
As these findings were disseminated by the government and mosquito control began to be applied throughout the susceptible regions of the country, the incidents of yellow fever began to decline. A 1905 outbreak in New Orleans was the last major epidemic of yellow fever in the United States.
The population of Memphis was slow recover after the epidemic. Many of the residents who fled opted not to come back, people who had ridden out the disaster in Memphis now chose to move away from the swampy locale, and the city, which had attracted a large immigrant population before the outbreak, now saw the Germans, Italians, Poles, and others who flooded into the country in the latter part of the nineteenth century bypass Memphis and set down their roots elsewhere. By the 1880 census, the city's population had declined to barely 33,000. It was, according to Memphis lawyer L. D. Bejach, "the final blow which dispatched a victim already mortally wounded."
The Memphis Daily Appeal wrote, "This visitation is the straw on the camel's back. We can endure no more. We must have relief from ignorance and incompetence in government, the cormorant greed of city and foreign creditors, and the visitations of a disease from which we ought to be, and with proper sanitary regulations be, exempt. We must make a change, some change." (Quoted in Wrenn, Crisis and Commission Government in Memphis.) Something clearly needed to be done, but the record of the city toward such ends was not encouraging.
The city's political landscape was a free-for-all of pandering and opportunism on both public and personal levels. One foreign observer wrote that "party loyalties held little sway" in Memphis politics as politicians switched affiliations frequently and haphazardly as circumstances dictated. Factions aligned and splintered regularly. For decades, this fluid and unreliable environment had impeded resolution of the significant problems facing Memphis. Now, in the aftermath of the devastation left by the epidemic of 1878, there was agreement, particularly among the city's business community, on the necessity of substantial improvements in public works if the city was to recover, let alone fulfill its perceived promise as a major commercial hub. Memphis' ill-conceived plank streets needed to be replaced with proper paving. A safe, reliable source of drinking water needed to be developed. And a sewer system was fundamental to the task of protecting the city from future epidemics. Although the mechanism by which it was spread wouldn't be understood for two more decades, other cities -- Galveston, New York, and Philadelphia among them -- had eradicated yellow fever by building sewers. But the problem was how to pay for them.
Decades of governmental mismanagement, misjudgments, incompetence, corruption, and just plain bad luck had taken a toll on the city's finances. The Panic of 1873 and the deep recession that ensued drained the city of tax revenues in a time that seemed to demand massive investment. Creditors deluged the city with writs of mandamus ordering payment of debts now totaling $847,000. By Tennessee law at the time, a debt over $850,000 would trigger the placing of the city into receivership, and the city's available revenue diverted, not to building sewers and roads, but to paying off creditors. The city's attempts to negotiate settlements of fifty cents on the dollar with its creditors failed.
A decade before the great epidemic that struck Memphis in 1878, a group of wealthy property owners, many of them absentee, alarmed at assessments that were to be made on their holdings as the result of a bond issue passed by the city's administration, petitioned the state of Tennessee to have the heavily-indebted city declared a ward of the state. That resolution had failed owing to opposition by the city and county's legislative delegation. Now, with the city in deep crisis, a variation on that plan was resurrected.
In the minds of the wealthy elite of Memphis, the best of all bad options available to avoid catastrophe seemed to be to surrender the city's charter and dissolve the local government, throwing up a firewall between the city and its accumulated debt, and convert to a state-administered taxing district governed by appointed commissions composed, as was traditionally the practice, of local citizens. Such a solution, though drastic. was not unprecedented.
Commissions were created as early as the colonial period to take over specific municipal functions when local governments had difficulty providing services. Ideally, appointive boards and commissions brought bipartisan or nonpartisan professional experience, continuity of service, and coordinated efforts to bear on such areas of municipal concern as health, education, public works, parks, libraries, civil service, and police and fire departments. Those engaged in business often would serve on such commissions with little expectation of material reward
Lynette Boney Wrenn, Crisis and Commission Government in Memphis: Elite Rule in a Gilded Age City
The option of surrendering the city's self-rule to an appointed commission was not popular with the city's elected officials, but had significant support from other quarters.
The Avalanche [newspaper] thought it ironic that "Democrats, as they call themselves," should support an undemocratic form of government that would destroy home rule and remove the people even farther from the source of political power. Actually, Democrats and Republicans alike appear to have split along class and interest lines. Politicians of both parties were either opposed to adopting, or very reluctant to adopt, commission government. Middle- and upper-class professionals and those with business interests were in favor of the new governmental structure, which they believed would enable them to have a greater voice in the determination of public policy.
With the state's biennial legislative session drawing to a close, there was no time to debate or fine-tune solutions. The city might not be able to avoid receivership long enough to get the necessary legislation passed, let alone argue about it for two more years until the legislature met again. With the unanimous support of the legislators representing the city and county, bills to revoke the city's charter were introduced in the legislature.
Bills repealing the city's charter and instituting commission government passed the legislature at the end of January 1879. With an officer posted at the door to signal if a federal marshal tried to serve mandamuses, the newly elected General Council met. Mayor Flippin and councilmen who attended the 30 January session resigned. The joint council then adjourned sine die, in order to make a complete break between the old government and its debt and the new government which would come into existence when the governor gave his approval.
The purpose of the act was to create a complete legal break with the old, heavily indebted City of Memphis and to protect the government that replaced it by making that government the agency of the state. Since the Tennessee constitution permitted only general laws, the act repealing the charter did not name Memphis. It applied to all cities of 35,000 or more people, Memphis being the only Tennessee city in that category.
Lynette Boney Wrenn, Crisis and Commission Government in Memphis: Elite Rule in a Gilded Age City
After a rocky start, the Taxing District of Shelby County, with its ultimate power concentrated in the hands of a three-member commission comprised of wealthy businessmen -- in accordance with a belief widespread at the time that only tax-paying property owners should be permitted to make decisions on the spending of tax money -- presided over commissions administering specific city functions in an oligarchical administration that invested in ways they regarded as vital to the city's future, while at the same time slashing the city's services and workforce and cutting the salaries of the workers who remained, and at the same time systematically working to retire the city's debt. Strict sanitation laws were passed outlawing open privies. Regular trash collection was instituted, in addition to clearing away the garbage that had accumulated since the 1878 epidemic due to lack of funds to remove it, making streets in some places impassible. The decaying wooden paving blocks were torn up and macadamized gravel and limestone roads laid. Almost a decade after the 1878 epidemic, an artesian aquifer would be discovered under Memphis, which would provide the city with an abundant supply of clean and safe water.
But the centerpiece of Memphis' sanitary reforms was to be a revolutionary sewer system, designed by George Waring, Jr., who had made his reputation as drainage engineer for New York City's Central Park project. Using an unprecedented design which separated the sanitary sewer system from the storm sewers, Waring's creation, by enabling the use of much smaller pipes, enabled the cash-strapped city to afford the project on its limited funds. It was a design that made Memphis the object of Twain's adulation, and was to revolutionize the design of sewer systems across the nation.
But the sewer system, like most of the other improvements that came about as a result of the commission government's reforms, initially benefited only the business district and the wealthier neighborhoods of the city; it would be years before these innovations came to the neighborhoods of African-Americans, immigrants, and poor whites. Their improvements could wait until the city's debt was retired. After all, many of the debts owed by the old City of Memphis were owed to the wealthy elites who now, for all practical purposes, ruled Memphis. Some delay in repayment could be tolerated, but total default was not an option.
Map of Memphis sewer system
(image: United States Census Office)
Over the coming years the improved conditions that came about as a result of the reforms instituted in Memphis, and the resulting revitalization of the city, despite their benefit to a limited segment of the population, were noted and emulated by other municipalities across the nation. The highly-detailed data the Howard Association doctors gleaned from the Memphis epidemic added to a body of knowledge about yellow fever that helped point the way to the ultimate culprit in its transmission. City and state health boards acquired greater authority to deal with, not just epidemics in progress, but the measures necessary to prevent epidemics from occurring in the first place. But perhaps the biggest impact of the Memphis yellow fever epidemic came about at the national level.
Ever since a devastating yellow fever epidemic struck Philadelphia in 1793, an idea for federal-level agency with the power to manage the government's response to health crises had been germinating. The Quarantine Act of 1878 was a piecemeal legislative approach to the kind of broad regulatory authorities the proponents of such an agency envisioned. The human devastation in Memphis and the broader impact of the 1878 epidemic throughout the Mississippi Valley proved to be the impetus that pushed the idea over the top. In March of 1879 Congress created the National Board of Health. Although the bureaucratic architecture of the Board did not outlive its limited initial funding appropriation, its authorities were not discarded, but instead distributed among existing agencies, predominantly the Marine Health Service, carrying with them the precedents of federal involvement in the betterment of living conditions and eradication of disease that evolved into today's expansive health agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services, and helped establish the authority of the federal government to act in the interest of public health.
George Waring, Jr.
(image: Florida Center
for Instructional Technology)
It was, in fact, the National Board of Health during its short tenure that sent George Waring, Jr. to Memphis to develop and oversee the construction of the city's revolutionary sewer system. As Waring's creation revolutionized sewer design throughout the country, his reputation led the City of New York to name him head of its Department of Sanitation, which he proceeded to build into what was boasted to be the most efficient in the nation. In the bitterest of ironies, Waring died in November, 1898 after returning from Cuba where he had been enlisted to modernize Havana's sewer system. The cause of his death was yellow fever.
The African-American residents of Memphis, who stepped into the breach when the fever decimated the white population earned a lingering respect even as the withdrawal of federal troops from southern cities at the end of Reconstruction was enabling Jim Crow laws to force their brothers and sisters to the margins of society in the rest of the South. African-Americans continued to hold positions in police, fire, and other city departments long after blacks were barred from such employment elsewhere. Unfortunately, Memphis did not maintain that pattern indefinitely; by the end of the century, Memphis had joined other southern cities in denying city employment to the people who had helped carry the city through the dark days of its devastating epidemic.
The scores who sacrificed themselves in the care of the sick and dying of Memphis are honored to this day. Martyrs Park along the Mississippi Riverwalk in Memphis commemorates the physicians, nurses, clergy, nuns, and other caregivers who lost their lives fighting the Great Fever.
And that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from -- not from bored bureaucrats sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people (even government officials) who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for personal gain or supporters' profits. They bring suffering on those who trust them, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again. We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along. That's how regulation came to be.
Previous installments of How Regulation came to be:
|Hat tip to marykk, who not only suggested the Memphis yellow fever epidemic in the diary on the Scofield mine explosion, but also provided valuable links and suggestions that aided in the writing of this installment. Thanks, Mary. Much appreciated.