In the summer and fall of 1873, yellow fever ravaged the Mississippi River city of Memphis, Tenn. Of the 2,000 or so that died during that horrific outbreak, no one person was more grieved over than Mattie Stephenson, a teenager from the McLean County community of Towanda.
Stephenson had suddenly and unexpectedly left Central Illinois for Memphis in late September or early October of that year without informing her parents — or apparently anyone else — of her intentions. Just why she made the decision to “serve the sick and suffering” of this “sorely stricken city” has been lost to time.
We do know that Stephenson, who was 18 or 19 years old at the time, was subsequently hailed across the nation as a “martyr to the cause of humanity.” And after her death a mournful monument was erected in Memphis to commemorate her sacrifice.
“She came here a stranger,” noted the Memphis Appeal newspaper, “but by her heroic courage in thus giving up her life for the benefit of suffering humanity, has gained immortality, and her deeds will go down to posterity as equaling those of Florence Nightingale.”
Before Stephenson left for Memphis she was in the employ of prominent local attorney O.T. Reeves. One account floated later holds that she fled these parts because she was jilted at the altar by a “false fiancé,” though contemporary accounts make no mention of such a story.
Mattie Stephenson came from a large English family. By 1870, parents Robert and Susan Haworth had eight children. In February of that year the Stephensons left for America, and by June the family had made its way to Towanda, the small (then and now) village north of Normal.
Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes, though the “vector” (the carrier of the infective agent) was unknown in the 1870s. Those infected would develop flu-like symptoms that, in the advanced stage, included yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice); vomiting of blood and stomach acid; bleeding from the mouth, nose and eyes; failure of the liver and kidneys; and delirium.
The 1873 epidemic was the second-deadliest of six yellow fever outbreaks that tore through Memphis between 1828 and 1879. When the 1873 outbreak began in mid-August, an estimated 25,000 residents fled the city. For white folk who stayed in Memphis, the mortality rate was an astounding 70 percent. The African-American mortality rate was much lower, less than 10 percent. Although not entirely understood, it’s believed repeated exposure to yellow fever over generations in West Africa afforded blacks a much higher resistance to the disease.
Stephenson worked under the direction of the Howard Association, a network of benevolent doctors and others dating to an 1855 yellow fever epidemic in Norfolk, Va. “She acted the part of an angel of mercy in many a grief-stricken household,” noted the Knoxville (Tenn.) Weekly Chronicle, “laboring with her own hands for the relief of the sick, and whispering consolation into the ears of the dying.”
She also cared for a pregnant woman who, in the throes of fever, gave birth to a stillborn child before succumbing herself. Despite the “double horror of her patient’s condition,” it was said, “she alone was brave enough, among all the women there, to face the situation.”
As with all too many hastily drafted caregivers (who were needed to replace dead and dying doctors and nurses), Stephenson too was felled by the yellow fever “monster,” the end for her coming on Saturday, Oct. 18. She was buried the following day at Elmwood Cemetery, located a short distance southeast of downtown Memphis.
The funeral procession down Main Street featured eight pall bearers and included Paul Cicalla, the city’s acting mayor. On the day of her burial the Howard Association proposed the erection of a “suitable monument” in order to commemorate the “sublime and beautiful story of her life.”
Gripping accounts of her death were published “in every city of the land,” stated The Pantagraph. Though an exaggeration, Stephenson’s story received widespread coverage throughout the U.S. “Hers was a martyrdom that the world cannot afford to forget,” declared the Chicago Tribune.
In early November 1873, two young women from Memphis, Lou Wilkinson and Jennie Carsman, traveled to Towanda to visit Stephenson’s parents.
“They spent the Sabbath with the family of Miss Stephenson, who thanked them again and again for their visit of sympathy and condolence, and listened with tearful eyes to the story of Mattie’s death,” noted The Pantagraph. “They brought with them a lock of Mattie’s hair, and some letters written by her just before her sickness.”
The Mattie Stephenson monument at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis consists of a massive two-tiered base of rusticated limestone, ornamented with ivy vines. On one side of the base is a marble scroll inscribed “The Martyr” and “She Died for Us.” Surmounting the limestone is an angel of white marble, the right hand pointing upward indicating heavenly ascent.
The question, of course, is why Mattie Stephenson? Why was she elevated to martyrdom? Perhaps such a shattered people needed heroes and heroines to assign meaning and hope to the meaningless and hopelessness of yellow fever and its unmitigated horrors.
“The only compensation great calamities bring is new evidence of human love and charity,” remarked the Chicago Tribune of Oct. 24, 1873. Yet such sentiments hold precious little sway over cruel, uncaring nature. “One would say that the glorious martyrdom of a single Mattie Stephenson would drive ‘him’ (meaning yellow fever) off with hanging head,” concluded the Tribune. “And yet he goes not.”