Yellow Fever Cemetery of Martin, Tennessee
located at the corner of Hwy
45E and Lee Street
what was it, how
did you get it - how did it get to Martin
During the 1800’s epidemic diseases took the lives of many of our
ancestors. Outbreaks of cholera, smallpox and dysentry were common. But
for West Tennessee, Yellow Fever posed the greatest threat, especially
in the urban towns like Memphis. During epidemic outbreaks, people of
Memphis would flee the city, taking trains headed east, south or
north. The towns along the rail lines were hardest hit - Milan,
Paris and Martin among them. During the 1878 epidemic, nearly
25,000 people fled Memphis within two weeks - and this is how Yellow
Fever arrived at Martin in 1878, unpaying passengers aboard the trains
were the female Aedes aegypti mosquitos - the carriers of the disease.
Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873 claimed 2,000 lives in Memphis - the most
ever of an inland city
Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 claimed 5, 150 lives in Memphis with
Yellow Fever was still a concern by 1905 from this Dresden Enterprise
Friday, August 18, 1905
We are doomed to an epidemic that may reach West Tennessee, although it
may not spread beyond the borders of Louisiana, still it would be a
good idea to clean out your premises and keep them cleaned out, use
lime and other disinfectants freely, burn old rubbish, drain out all
old ponds which become stagnated in the dry season.
If you are going somewhere on the train, you must have a health
certificate bearing a county or municipal seal.
Below abstracted from Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture
Yellow Fever caused fevers, chills, hemorrhaging, severe pains, and
sometimes a jaundicing of the skin, which gave yellow fever its name.
The trademark of the disease, however, was the victim's black vomit,
composed of blood and stomach acids.
Although its cause was unknown until 1900, yellow fever was transmitted
from person to person by the female Aedes aegypti mosquito. Sailors on
ships from the Caribbean or West Africa, from which the disease most
likely originated, docked in New Orleans, where mosquitoes spread the
disease from the infected person to the local population. River traffic
carried yellow fever up the Mississippi Valley as long as mosquitoes
were available to transmit the disease from human to human. Reprieve
came only with the first frost.
The following newsaper articles submitted by Rebecca Holder
According to the Weakley County Press, December 12, 1937, A. A.
Atkinson was the second man to fall victim to the fever
, and was
first man to be buried, being buried
in an old cotton patch west of the
Illinois Central Railroad.
At first it was the intention
who had the burial of Mr. Atkinson to bury him where the Methodist
Church now stands, but they decided to take him out on the west side
and then buried him in a cottom patch.
Weakley County Press - Friday, August 6, 1954
Devastating Yellow Fever Epidemic 76 Years Past
By Eleanor Jeter
Ever hear of the yellow fever epidemic? Sure you have. And
you know that the relatively small plot of land on Elm Street is known
as the yellow fever cemetery. But how many of you younger
generation have ever heard your grandparents or "greats" tell about the
time it actually happened?
Martin was by no means what it is today. As a matter of fact,
about the only resemblance might be the running of the same railroad
track which was such a key item in this happening.
Well, here's the finished product of a story that legend, fact,
and the passing of the years have combined to make. The time was in
1878 on an August day, doubtless rivaling in heat our current
scortchers, when an old Irishman named Pat, employed by hotel owner
William Martin, helped to clean out a boxcar that Mr. Martin had
ordered from New Orleans in which to ship some corn (other phases of
the story state that it was wheat) to a distant city.
Now as fate (and the sake of this story) would have it, the very same
week, a huge ball characteristic of this era was held, and Mr. Martin,
a "gay young blade" of the day was dancing with one of the Holland
girls when he was stricken. Both of them were victims of the
Also helping to clean the boxcar were Tom Harvey, Jim Fields,
Pleas Clements, and John Hawks, who was the only man not to catch the
fever. Clements took the disease and recovered. Harvey and
Jim Fields, who both died of it, were the first.
Legend has brought this story through the years with two
different ways of yellow fever's being brought here. It is told
that there were mosquitos in the empty car, causing the epidemic, while
another accounts that it began from the dead body of a tramp found in
the car. We are left to guess and base fact on the belief that
the epidemic did strike Martin, taking a toll of some forty-two lives.
Specially trained nurses from New Orleans were immediately sent
for by the doctors attending to the epidemic, Dr. G. W. Dibrell and Dr.
Charles Sebastain, who were said to have disagreed at first as to
whether the cause of the various illnesses was cholera or yellow fever.
With the death of A. A. Atkinson arose the first question as to
burial. Thus he was the first victim to be 'buried in' the
present day yellow fever cemetery which at that time was sporting a
fine cotton crop!
The list of those who lost their lives in the epidemic, which may
relate the victims to various now living Martinites, is as follows:
W. H. MARTIN
T. P. ESTEP
Mrs. Marshal MARTIN
W. Z. LOONEY
Mr. and Mrs. Abner ATKINSON
Miss Mollie HOLLAND
Miss Minnie HOLLAND
T. J. MURPHY
Miss Forest DIBRELL
Mrs. Henry DRAUGAN
L. A. BLAKE
Mrs. L. A. BLAKE
Mrs. James CARTER
Mr. JONES the artist
Mrs.JONES, the artist's wife
Joe FELPS’ little child
a child of Mr. and Mrs JONES
R. J. McCOMB
W. V. BRAWLEY
(These names were taken from a list published in a 1915 issue of
the Martin Mail.)
Well, all this happened in Martin in 1878. The following year New
Orleans and many other points in Louisiana and Mississippi were hit by
yellow fever. And here, the citizens of Martin with their own
recent epidemic still fresh in their minds, contributed what probably
should go down in Martin's history as being one of it's most noble, yet
When trainload after trainload of refugees began to come through Martin
to points north, they were not allowed to stop in the corporate limits
of any town in the South. Nevertheless, upon arriving outside the
city limits of Martin, they would find water and food placed there for
So goes the tale of the great yellow fever epidemic in Martin--
an account of the heroic way in which near disaster was combated.
The only part of this that has been told for the sake of colorful
legend was the leading to belief that from old Pat to Billy Martin to
Minnie Holland to the other persons was the disease carried. In
medical actuality, yellow fever can only be transmitted by a specie of
mosquito known as the egypti aedaes.
Nevertheless, the plot of land on Elm Street is living (or rather it
should be said, dead) proof of the disastrous 1878 yellow fever
epidemic in Martin.
The History of a “Happytown”
From the Centennial Edition of the Weakley County Press, June 28, 1973
Research and Composition by Ronald C. Thomas
Note** The following is just the Yellow Fever part of the article.
It is not known exactly how yellow fever invaded Martin except that a
boxcar ordered from Memphis by William H. MARTIN to ship corn to St.
Louis apparently carried the mosquitoes to the city. It is
believed the mosquitoes came from Central America through the port of
New Orleans northward through Memphis and on to Martin. There
were 400 cases of the disease with 51 deaths. The first victim
was William MARTIN, son of Mr. Billy, and Abner ATKINSON was the
second. Mr. ATKINSON became the first person to be buried in what
is now called the Yellow Fever Cemetery. The cemetery is located
at the corner of Elm and Lee Streets and is a constant reminder of the
suffering the town endured.
There are many stories about family struggles and heroic deeds during
the epidemic. Two items concern individuals performing tasks in a
way that helped lessen the danger for those involved.
Only two doctors served the city in 1878, Dr. DIBRELL and Dr. C. M.
SEBASTIAN. Dr. DIBRELL, who was older and not well, soon left the
town. He had lost members of his family and buried them near
where the American Legion home now stands, thus leaving 28 year old
Dr. SEBASTIAN as the only physician in the city and the
surrounding area. He immediately erected posters warning the
people to leave the city, but “his diagnosis was ridiculed and he was
called a young upstart.” Dr. SEBASTIAN put his wife and three
small daughters on a train for Middle Tennessee to stay with her
father. En route they were refused a hotel room when the clerk
learned they were from Martin and were forced to spend “the night in a
With the number of yellow fever cases rising rapidly, Dr. SEBASTIAN
knew he would be unable to help all those that were stricken. He
dispatched an urgent telegram to Dr. PIERCE of Union City stating, “For
God’s Sake and the Sake of Humanity, Give Me A Hand.” Dr. PIERCE
came and was a great help to Dr. SEBASTIAN, especially when Dr.
SEBASTIAN became ill with a light case.
Dr. SEBASTIAN also evolved a theory about the transmission of yellow
fever from one person to another. At the time, it was not known
that the mosquito was the carrying insect. He observed that one
person would be stricken with the dreaded disease, but instead of an
individual near becoming ill next, someone in another location would be
afflicted. He believed that the disease was probably not
contagious, but carried from person to person by an insect. “He
called it a gnat—and that this gnat was chained to a given location by
the laws of nature per se, and was blown by the winds and carried in
some way to another location.” He first related his theory to a
meeting of the Illinois State Medical Convention and later to various
other groups. “For years he was derided locally for his theory
and any swarm of flying insects were hilariously hailed as ‘Dr.
Sebastian’s damned gnats.’”
The second individual who contributed toward lessening the suffering
, a Negro crossing watchman for the Mississippi
Central Railroad. Put in charge of the company’s property during
the epidemic, he refused to leave when Dr. SEBASTIAN ordered everyone
to vacate the city. His job prior to the epidemic was to walk the
tracks each morning inspecting them to see if they were in proper
condition for the passage of the trains. If he found anything
wrong, he would report it to the section foreman, so that repairs could
be made before the first train was due. On his return to the
section house one morning after an inspection tour, he discovered that
the entire crew had left the city because of Dr. SEBASTIAN’S
order. Many had already died from the disease.
SHEPHERD had no place to go nor any way to leave the city as no train
was due. He could not go home as his wife had already left so he
returned to the section house to await development, “for it was outside
of the city, where danger from the fever was less.” SHEPHERD
remained at the section house until the next train arrived which
carried the railroad’s roadmaster. SHEPHERD informed him of the
city’s condition and told him he was the only remaining employee.
He was instructed to stay in Martin as someone was needed who could
continue to check the tracks in order that possible wrecks might be
SHEPHERD stayed and continued to report on the condition of the
tracks. His excellent work enabled the trains to pass through
Martin at top speed before stopping at the section house on the edge of
town. This kept passengers from being stricken while passing
through the city and helped keep the epidemic confined. Each day
he would carry the mail to the waiting trains so the people of Martin
could communicate with relatives and friends. Also, he would
inform passengers and crews of the progress being made in combating the
disease and noted, “Trains often lingered as long as twenty minutes.”
He continued this schedule for five weeks and “Although he was alone,
time did not hang heavily on Shepherd’s hands, for he was a very busy
man. He helped at the station and tended the switches in the
yard, together with his other duties.” Finally, in November after
the first frost, the danger lessened and along with other residents,
SHEPHERD’S wife returned.
The suffering caused, the lives interrupted, and the fear the disease
brought is difficult to imagine. The best example of how the
people of Martin felt is through a poem written by W. P. CALDWELL and
called “one of the most beautiful poems written in years by a
Tennessean.” Although the title is uncertain, it is believed to
be the “Yellow Demon of Death.”
the deep placid shade of its whispering trees
Reposed the young city that hot summer noon
the Angle of Death spread his wings on the breeze-
‘Twas the darkness of night on the brightness of noon.
days that were fair and skies that were blue
Green black as a pall in the shade of the wing;
call’d and there answered the loved and the true-
doom’d for the courts of the merciless king.
Bright hopes were blighted that can’t be relighted;
Tender ties perished—no more to be nourished,
hearts were parted—to be reunited
the throne of the Father, whose they had cherished.
courage and manhood, and kindness and love
heroic faith gleaming and bright in the van;
Stood forth in that hour of trial to prove
“That life is best spent that is given for man.”
We’ve seen the Dark One by the battle’s red glare
call’d for the strong and his strength fell away
anguish and writhing beneath their hot chain
reason, unseated and writhing beneath their hot chain.
the demons of madness that tortured the brain.
breath’d on the youth, ‘till he bent a high head,
Tamed a proud spirit and dim’d a bright eye;
his elders he rests in the halls of the dead
‘Till the good angels summon him home to the sky.
the matron he turned and at his hot breath
springs of her blood and her life dried away;
Resigned her want from to the Keeping of earth,
freed her brave soul from its union of clay.
signed the maid and her step lost its Spring,
lips its red hue—her cheek its rose;
voice that gladden’d and cheer’d with its ring
still’d and hush’d in eternal repose.
While here from the parents the children were borne
they left alone to their grief and their weeping—
There from the parents the children were torn
‘neath the same mold are tranquilly sleeping.
There neighbor and friend and husband and wife
smitten and fell by that poisonous breath—
ties that are nearest and dearest in life
loos’d in the grasp of that terrible death.
goodness nor strength, nor beauty, nor love,
Could shield or exempt from the horrors he wrought,
God in His mercy look down from above
pity the sorrows the Plague Angel brought.
After the epidemic, population growth virtually stopped, but by
1883 the town could boast of a population of 1,200 and in 1893 had
increased to a total of 2,000….
*Note above a photo of cemetery:
Some of those victims of the 1878 epidemic of “Yellow Fever,” spoken of
in the ‘History of a Happy Town’ rest here in the Yellow Fever Cemetery
located on South-bound Highway 45E. Some of the names on the
tombs include those Mrs. Sarah E., wife of W. H.DRAKE, Born Nov. 10,
1846, Died Oct. 27, 1878; Emanuel HOLLAND, Jan. 7, 1823-October
9, 1878; Mollie Lue, Sept. 15, 1859-Sept. 24, 1878; Minnie
A. (Mollie and Minnie were daughters of B.C. and M.P. HOLLAND) October
4, 1861-Sept. 24, 1878; Mary L.WHITE, wife of M.C. DRAUGAN, Feb.
14, 1843-Oct. 6, 1878; A. ATKINSON, Oct. 14, 1830-Sept. 9,
1878; L. A.BLAKE (an early mayor of Martin) Nov. 25, 1843-Sept.