Skip to content

Martin’s ‘Yellow Fever Cemetery’ needs upkeep

Martin’s ‘Yellow Fever Cemetery’ needs upkeep
Special to the Press
MARTIN –  In an old cemetery on Elm Street in downtown Martin, a tottering array of tombstones, many barely decipherable, mark the graves of some of Martin’s first citizens and long forgotten heroes of the fall yellow fever epidemic of 1878.
Though the grass and grounds are regularly maintained, the city cemetery, known as the Yellow Fever Cemetery, is suffering from a plague of its own. Creeping lichen is covering the names on many of these tombstones like a green rash. Some lettering is simply worn by the winds and rains of time. In a place where no records were kept of the early graves, this is all the more tragic, because a piece of Martin history might be disappearing.
Though a monument company under contract for the city set many of the tombstones upright four years ago, the green and brown growth on the stones will be taken care of later, “when the grass dies back,” says Mike Brundige, the city cemetery director who supervises five city cemeteries. Though he says he is not quite certain what will be done, he says that a clean-up of the stones will be attempted “eventually.”
When a wave of Yellow Fever epidemics swept through bigger cities like New Orleans and Memphis in 1878, the plague also hit the fledgling railroad town of Martin that had only been founded five years earlier. The town had been founded in 1873 where the Illinois Central and Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis railroads intersected.
According to retired UT Martin history professor Lonnie Maness in his definitive account of the epidemic in 1976, there were only 710 people living in the town at that time with a few churches, a public school and a sawmill dotting the downtown landscape. Over half of the citizens caught the disease with 42 dying. “The town created out of the wilderness, was showing great promise. Then the dread yellow fever struck Martin in August 1878 and the town’s development suffered a severe setback,” said Maness in the Journal of the Jackson Purchase Historical Society.
Town lore periodically repeated in local newspaper accounts in the Martin Mail and Weakley County Press through the ensuing 134 years, said the townspeople tied the disease to the arrival of a “contaminated” railroad car from Memphis. The first man to die of the disease, William Martin was the man who ordered it cleaned out for a shipment of corn. Because three of the four men who cleaned the car also died, residents linked the car to the disease, not the mosquito that was later deemed to be its origin.
More victims fell to the disease soon after and landed in what was then a cotton patch, later a cemetery on the corner of Elm and Lee streets, though it is not known exactly how many. “There are no records for the cemetery,” says Brundige who estimates that it has been 15-20 years since anyone was buried there. “It was supposed to be only for yellow fever victims and the families of people who were buried there.”
Local news accounts mentioned at least three heroes of the fever which lasted from August to late October with the first frost. One was the young doctor, Charles Sebastian who at 28 almost single-handedly administered to the victims until he got relief from a Union City doctor named Pierce. Sebastian was said to be “ridiculed locally” for his theory that the disease was caused by flying insects, reported Harvey Gardner who wrote a story on the doctor for the local paper in 1968 after interviewing one of his two surviving children at the time, Mrs. Clyde Green. To cut down on the number of cases in town, a high of 400 at one point, he was said to have put up posters urging people to leave. “The posters were torn down faster than the young doctor could put them up,” said Gardner in his account. Later in the 1890s, Sebastian built the large Victorian house that stands today on McCombs street, Ivandale, name after his first son.
Another hero prominently featured in the old news accounts was an African-American named Andrew Shepherd, who remained on railroad duty when others left and checked the tracks every day for five weeks to make sure they were safe for the trains speeding north through town from the south to escape the plague. Still another Martin resident, Robert McComb, for whom the street was named later, rounded up a carload of what Maness referred to as “ passing tramps and lawless persons.” After catching the looters in the empty hotel, he drove them to the jail in Nashville. McComb later died from the disease.
The frost in October 1878 gave residents a break from the disease that they later learned was spread by a mosquito. The tombstones are a testament to those trying times that almost ended the small town of Martin.
Little stones with carved lambs, birds and angels signal that children were among the many victims. One tall marker bears the names of what must be two sisters, Mollie Sue and Minnie Holland who died as teenagers. Other stones are more difficult to decipher but they too undoubtedly have inscriptions that could be recorded in the annals of Martin history.
Published in The WCP 11.15.12