Thursday, February 14, 2013

Judge J.E.R. Ray & the 1879 Yellow Fever Epidemic

When compared to the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 the one occurring in 1879 was minor with just 2000 cases and 600 deaths reported in 1879.

The first victim fell on July 9th.  He was Frank Mulbrandon, an Irish shoemaker.

As Memphians began to panic, the trains leaving town filled to overflowing and the Board of Health issued a proclamation "recommending those who could to quietly remove their families to a place of safety."

The Board of Health Issue A
Sanitary Order.
Yellow Fever Scare.
New York, July 10---A Memphis special says:
The case of death from yellow fever reported.  
Last night the trains which left on the Louisville
railroad and the Memphis & Charleston road 
were crowded with flying citizens,
although the death was not generally known
at that time. 
--Lockport Daily Journal
July 10, 1879

J.E.R. Ray's Pardon
Newspaper reports about the Ray family differ somewhat from information gleaned from other sources such as Census and burial records.  The Iola Register, dated July 18 1879,  reports that the second victim, who died on July 10, was the infant child of Judge J.E.R.Ray but Elmwood Burial Records say that it was his 12 year old son Charles. After this second reported death other cities took quick action and New Orleans, Vicksburg, Norfolk and Holly Springs issued quarantines against Memphis by land and by water. Local businesses declared that action had been taken too soon in proclaiming quarantines since there had been no new cases in three days.  However, another death occurred the very next day, July 13th, with the death of Judge J.E.R. Ray.  Many people would fall in the coming days, among them would be 11 year old Harry Ray on July 22 and Mollie S. Ray on July 25.  Like so many other families the Ray's had been devastated within a few weeks.

But who was J.E.R. Ray?  His first name is John, born about 1826 in South Carolina according to Census Records.  He moved first to Henry County Tennessee but by 1850 we find him living in Weakley County Tennessee in the home of J.W. Hays.  He was 24 years old and working as an attorney.  Between 1850 and 1860 he moves to Memphis, finds a wife, has two sons and is working as an attorney in Memphis.  It's possible that his parents were John Ray, born about 1794 in South Carolina, and Nancy Ray.  John appears in the 1840 Henry County Census.  His is the only name listed but in the household but a male son between the ages of 20 and 29 is listed and that could be John E.R. Ray.   John's wife Nancy Ray appear in the 1850 Census for Henry County. 

Isham G. Harris, the only Confederate Governor of Tennessee, appointed Ray as his Secretary of State for the years 1859-1862.   The 1860 Census shows the Ray family living with another Memphis attorney and his family, George Dixon.  Ray listed his occupation as "lawyer former Secretary of State".  His wife Mollie and two sons are listed, Eddie age 3 and Willie age 2.  These are not the names of the children who died in 1879.  In 1865 Ray receives a pardon for his participation as "Reb Secretary of State of Tenn" during the Civil War.

In 1870 Shelby County established the first probate court in the state.   J.E.R. Ray was the first Judge to preside over this newly formed court. In addition he was the Judge for the Bartlett Circuit Court.    In 1878, Judge P.T. Scruggs was appointed as the Criminal Court judge but before he could take office he died of yellow fever.  Judge Ray was appointed to the position left vacant by the death of Scruggs.  The court reopened in the fall of 1879 with Judge Ray seated on the bench but he soon perished as had his predecessor to yellow fever.

Grand Catalogue of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity, 1922
J.E.R Ray, his wife Mollie and their children Charles, Harry, William, Maud and the unknown infant are interred at Elmwood Cemetery.

There was at least one other child, a son.  In the 1860 Census Eddie is three years old and appears with his brother William, age two.  I believe Eddie is the same J.E.R. Ray Jr that appears in Memphis City Directories and later moved to Washington D.C.  In 1879 John Jr was ill but survived the yellow fever epidemic that took most of his family. He attended Cumberland University and graduated with a law degree in 1877.  He appears in Memphis City Directories till about 1882 and then appears in Washington DC directories in 1896.  In 1903 he was the Acting Deputy Auditor at the Treasury Department.  In the DC Census for 1900 and 1910 he appears as single, born in Tennessee, a lawyer and then a clerk at the Treasury department.  In 1920 and 1930 he appears in the DC Census widowed, age 63 and 73 respectively born in Tennessee. His name also appears in the 1920 American Kennel Club Stud Book as a breeder of Collies.  He probably died between 1930 and 1940 as that's where the census trail disappears.

J.E.R. Ray Jr married Sallie E. Woodward  in Washington DC on August 6, 1910. Interestingly enough, Sallie was first married to Charles Henry Harris, a son of Governor Isham Green Harris the very man that appointed Ray Sr. Secretary of State!  The Alexandria Gazette, January 28 1897 reported that Sallie Harris divorced Charles H. Harris in January 1897 on a ground of desertion.  Mrs. Harris received custody of their son and the court ordered her ex-husband to pay $75 in alimony each month.  The following announcement appeared the the Washington Times about her wedding to J.E.R. Ray.  One of the attendees was Edwin K. Harris, Sallie's brother-in-law during her marriage to Charles Harris, and also a son of Governor Isham Harris.

Sallie's obituary appeared in the March 21 1918 Washington Post:  The funeral of Mrs. Sallie E. Ray, wife of John E. R. Ray, chief clerk in the office of the auditor for the Interior Department, will take place from Lee's undertaking establishment Friday afternoon at 2 o'clock.  Mrs. Ray died at Casualty Hospital early yesterday morning from burns.  Her clothing caught from leaves she was burning Tuesday at her home, 3103 Monroe street, Woodridge.  She was a native of Memphis, Tenn, and was Mrs. Charles H. Harris prior to her marriage to Mr. Ray eight years ago.  There are no children."  Sallie was the daughter of Oliver C. Woodward and Sallie A. Woodward.  The Woodward family, including young Sallie, fell victim to yellow fever during the Memphis epidemic of 1873 while J.E.R. Ray's family fell victim to epidemic of 1879.  It's interesting to note that the couple shared a connection via the Harris family and the tragedies of the Yellow Fever Epidemics.

But back to Judge J.E.R. Ray.  The following obit comes from the Public Ledger July 14 1879.
Death of Judge Ray
All that was mortal of Judge J.E.R. Ray was consigned to earth at Elmwood last night, by the Masonic brotherhood, of which he was a worthy member, having been associated with the DeSoto Lodge, the Cyrene Commandery, and the Knights Templar of the city.  Judge Ray died at seven minutes after nine o'clock in the evening, on the seventh day of his illness.  Judge Ray was attacked while occupying the bench in the Criminal court room of the Shelby county courthouse, on Monday last, and adjourning the court, he went home to take to his bed, never to rise again in life.  His sickness from the start baffled the skill of our best physicians, and in spite of the most careful and watchful nursing on the part of numerous friends, the death monster forced him to succumb.  It was on the third morning of Judge Ray's illness that his medical adviser discovered the case had developed into yellow fever, his son Charles, a boy of 12 years, dying on that day of the same malady.  As soon as it was known that yellow fever was really his ailment, every possible exertion was made to carry him through successfully, but without avail.  Skilled nurses were engaged by the Masonic fraternity to attend his sick-room; the wife of the Rev. Dr. Landrum, whose sad experience has rendered her a most accomplished and tender nurse, participated in administering to the stricken and distressed family; Miss Mary Boddie  took part and shared in the bedside vigils, while General G.W. Gordon and numerous other friends, including his fraternal brethren, gave unremitting attention to the demands of the occasion.  Nothing was left undone, even to calling in consulting physicians.  Death had marked Judge Ray as his victim, and for more than forty-eight hours previous to his demise the case was regarded as hopeless.  His life went out calmly and peacefully in the presence of his sorrowing family and others.  A committee of the Masonic fraternity at once took charge of the remains and during the night conveyed them to their final resting place in Elmwood.  Prudential reasons caused the master of his lodge to omit calling the fraternity to the funeral, but at the proper time Masonic honors will be paid to his distinguished memory.

Judge Ray was a native of Henry county, Tennessee, and at the time of his death was fifty seven years of age.  He resided for a period at Dresden, and represented Weakley county in the State legislature for several terms.  He came to this city in 1855, twenty-four years ago, and began the practice of law in company with the late Judge W.L. Harris.  Under the first gubernatorial term of Isham G. Harris, Judge Ray was secretary of State, and in this capacity he acquitted himself of the delicate duties involved with marked ability, winning encomiums from all classes of citizens throughout the State.  During the war he served in the Confederate army, and at its close he resumed the practice of law in this city in company with the late --- Smith.  In 1870 he became identified with the Bartlett polotical movement, and was chosen as a candidate for the position of judge of the Probate Court of Shelby county, to which position he was elected by a decided majority.  This position added largely to Judge Ray's distinction.  The judge was known to the community as one of the most conscientious and upright judges that ever wore the ermine.  A man of mild temper, generous disposition and extreme tenderness of heart, at the same time firm and able in his opinions, he won an enviable reputation in all circles.  General regret was openly expressed last fall when Judge Ray was defeated by a combination of the opposing elements of the Democratic party, of which he was always a consistent and honored member.  In the race referred to Judge Ray ran far ahead of his ticket, but the ground swell was too formidable for even his great personal popularity to overcome.  Judge Ray was subsequently appointed to the Criminal Court bench by the then Governor James D. Porter, in place of Judge P.T. Scruggs, who died of yellow fever in October last, a position for which he was not an applicant.  It is believed by some that the judge owes his death to the foul odors arising with-in the walls of the Criminal court, added to the stench without.  The evil was often mentioned by Judge Ray and was a source of constant annoyance to him, as well as others who are obliged to frequent the hall of justice, over which he presided with so much dignity, honor and probity.  Throughout all of the relation so life, public, private and social, Judge Ray was a man in the true sense of the word; honest, kind and intelligent, a good husband, a tender father and a wise judge.  to his bereaved and sorrowing family, the tenderest sympathies of legions of admirers are extended.  May he rest in peace.

Ray Family Plot at Elmwood Cemetery


  1. Mary: Great article! I'm researching Judge Ray. Would you mind sharing your sources? Thanks, so much. Carolyn

    1. Hi Carolyn,

      I added an obituary today that I found in the Memphis Public Ledger, it's sourced above. My research comes from census data and records I found on Fold3. Some of the information comes from period newspapers located online at Chronicling America by the Library of Congress. My first resource was my husband who has a Ph.D in History specializing in, but not limited to, Tennessee and Civil War studies. He's the one who told me that Judge Ray was interred at Elmwood. My husband is also from Dresden and knew that Ray had spent time there. He's always a great resource for me and gets me started on many topics.


  2. Thanks! By any chance do you know what the R stands for in John Edward R Ray? I've looked high and low and found nothing.

  3. The R is a mystery to me as well!

  4. Believe it or not, I found it! Rather, the archivist at Cumberland Law School found it. When I saw that the son (JER Jr) graduated from there in 1877, I sent an email, asking if their records indicated what the R stands for. It is RUTHVEN!