The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic at Hickman, Kentucky

The Progression of Yellow Fever 
Observations sur la fièvre jaune, faites à Cadix, en 1819 / par MM. Pariset et Mazet.
Images from Wellcome CollectionCC BY. Development of yellow fever.

What is Yellow Fever?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, yellow fever is a disease caused by a virus that is spread through mosquito bites. Symptoms take 3–6 days to develop and include fever, chills, headache, backache, and muscle aches. About 15% of people who get yellow fever develop serious illness that can lead to bleeding, shock, organ failure, and sometimes death.

Yellow Fever Morbus

  • Sudden onset of fever
  • Chills
  • Severe headache
  • Back pain
  • General body aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue (feeling tired)
  • Weakness
  • Most people with the initial symptoms improve within one week.
  • For some people who recover, weakness and fatigue (feeling tired) might last several months.
  • A few people will develop a more severe form of the disease.
  • For 1 out of 7 people who have the initial symptoms, there will be a brief remission (a time you feel better) that may last only a few hours or for a day, followed by a more severe form of the disease.
  • Severe symptoms include:
  • High fever
  • Yellow skin (jaundice)
  • Bleeding
  • Shock
  • Organ failure
  • Among those who develop severe disease, 30-60% die.

Hickman, Kentucky, 1878

In 1878 Mr. John R. Procter was tasked with examining the Yellow Fever epidemic at Hickman, Kentucky. Hickman, located in Fulton County, had approximately 1,500 inhabitants in 1878. Hickman was divided into three parts; West Hickman (everything west of Obion Street), East Hickman (everything east of Allegheny Street), and Hickman proper, comprised of the business portion of the town, including many residences. Procter would go on to say, “No place within my knowledge has better natural drainage or is more cleanly and salubrious, than Hickman on the hills.” When yellow fever began to spread northward, Hickman authorities established a quarantine but the enforcement of the quarantine had been largely neglected. As such, steamboats from the infected district were permitted to land. On August 3rd, the Golden Crown (steamer) landed at the public wharf. The Golden Rule (steamer) landed at the public wharf on August 16th. It was believed that yellow fever developed on the Golden Rule as early as, if not earlier, than August 18th. A total of six people from the Golden Rule were admitted to the Cincinnati Hospital where two of them would go on to die.

On August 12th, Charlie Hendricks and his sister Louisa were the first reported cases of yellow fever in Hickman. There was a very short stay before additional cases were reported. Between August 24th and August 31st a total of 42 new cases of yellow fever were reported. Procter noted that a small group of men formed a brass band and performed in a room at the old City Hotel property. Many children were known to gather around the house to listen to music. Out of the six members of the band, a total of five were diagnosed with yellow fever.

The statistics in which Procter gathered were primarily focused on white residents. He noted that African American residents, fewer in numbers than whites, the number of deaths would equate to around 7 percent whereas approximately 50 percent of the whites would perish. Getting accurate numbers of deaths for both African Americans and whites proved difficult, as there was no single source of data that recorded the number of deaths. Additionally, all of the resident physicians, save for Dr. A. A. Faris died; Dr. Faris did develop yellow fever, however. The approximate number of cases for white individuals in Hickman, Kentucky were 262 with African Americans having approximately 200 cases. There were 131 confirmed deaths of whites and 18 confirmed deaths of African Americans. This meant that 32.2% of the population of Hickman would go on to die from yellow fever.

Statistical Analysis of Reported Cases and Deaths at Hickman

Total number of cases among whites262
Total deaths among whites131
Percentage of deaths50%*
Deaths in August5
Deaths in September87
Deaths in October36
Deaths in November3
Total males attacked147
Total females attacked115
Total deaths among males89
Total deaths among females42
Percentage of deaths to males attacked60%
Percentage of deaths to females attacked36.5%

*The death rate at Hickman, though large, was not as great as at some other places. At Memphis it was 66.6% among whites; at Stoneville, Mississippi, it was 72%, including African Americans.

[Out of 94 adult males attacked, 70 died, equal to 74.4%]

Residents who were struck with yellow fever in West Hickman and prior to September 27th had been east of Obion Street previous to the attack. Sanitary issues came into question as well. Conditions under the bluff were bad but sanitary conditions at, for example, the Hendricks house were not worse. The only family in Lower Hickman that escaped yellow fever, the Brendes family, the sanitary conditions of the house were exceptionally bad. Carroll Street was noted as being clean and well-drained; out of the fifteen people, eleven of them died. Those who lived on the bluff largely escaped yellow fever. This could be noted as a result of residents fleeing the area when the epidemic hit; additionally, the residences were spaced farther apart and the overall population was more scattered than in Hickman proper. Today we know that yellow fever is transmitted via the bite of mosquitoes. Fulton County’s close proximity to the Mississippi River could have potentially made things worse. Reported cases of yellow fever epidemics have been reported in the Mississippi River Valley as early as 1669. Steamboats in this area were thought to have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in this area.

Statement of Yellow Fever Cases at Hickman, Kentucky

Contributed by Shawn Logan |

⁘ Works Cited ⁘

  1. The Lexington Leader, 9 December 1949
  2. The Lexington Leader, 12 December 1952
  1. Procter, John R. Notes on the Yellow Fever Epidemic at Hickman, KY., During the Summer and Autumn of 1878. E. H. Porter, Public Printer: Frankfort, Kentucky, 1878.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID), Division of Vector-Borne Diseases (DVBD).

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