M991X.5.795 | Memphis
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1878, 19th century
27.3 x 25.4 cm
© McCord Museum
Keywords: disaster (71) , Drawing (18637) , drawing (18379) , History (944)
Keys to History
In the 19th century, illustrators often dwelt on the hidden, dismal side of cities. The popular imagination was fuelled by representations of Death, vigilant and cruel, ready to carry off the poor, the sick and the most vulnerable members of society. With industrialization and urbanization, the city became even more dangerous. In Montreal, contagious diseases spread quickly and the deterioration of the environment also contributed to a strong increase in the death rate. Infant mortality was one of the great scourges of the late 19th century and Montreal led the way in these grim statistics with the highest infant mortality rate of any North American city. Everywhere, cow's milk, used as a substitute for mother's milk, was seen as one of the main causes of so many children's deaths.
This drawing by John Henry Walker (1831-1899) depicts both a universal theme -- death carrying off children -- and a specific historical event.
Memphis is in the state of Tennessee. Owing to its location on the Mississippi River, the city was particularly susceptible to yellow fever, a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes.
Walker wrote "Memphis, 1878" in the right-hand corner. That year, the city of Memphis was hit by an epidemic of yellow fever that killed over 6,000 inhabitants.
In 19th-century cities, the poor were the most numerous victims of epidemics.